Hundreds gathered this month at Culpeper Baptist Church for a time of respectful reflection in remembrance of the lynching 100 years ago of Charles “Allie” Thompson.
The two-hour event, both solemn and joyful, ended outside the nearby local jail, from where the young man was taken before his brutal death. A century later, attendees stood outside the same building to join hands in a show of unity.
“I am deeply honored to stand here on behalf of my family. Allie Thompson was my great-great uncle,” said Kamille Gardner from the church pulpit. “Allie lived a very brief life tragically cut short in a crime that occurred not far from here.”
Early on the morning of Nov. 25, 1918, 18-year-old Thompson, an Amissville-area resident charged with assault on a white woman, was forcibly removed by a mob from the Culpeper jail and hanged from a tree.
“Allie’s life was cut short, but he continues to live on in honest community reflection,” Gardner said.
She referenced a family photo copied for the front of the program flier showing Allie, his mother and siblings in about 1905. Gardner remembered always seeing the photo displayed on a bureau in her grandmother’s living room and wondering about the people in it. Did they crack up laughing as soon as it was taken? What brought them joy? What was Allie like before his life was taken? she said.
It means a lot that Culpeper would remember him, Gardner said.
Gardner ended by reciting a poem by Maya Angelou, in part: “I say, the night has been long, The wound has been deep, The pit has been dark, And the walls have been steep. But today, voices of old spirits sound Speak to us in words profound, Across the years, across the centuries, Across the oceans, and across the seas. They say, draw near to one another.”
Organized by investigative historian Zann Nelson with an organizing committee representing various faith and community groups, the Remembrance and Reflection event included music by a trio of artists, prayers and a Bible reading by Thompson descendant Delores Jordan.
“Today is Allie’s day,” Nelson said, noting his parents, Ada and Wade, would be very proud to see so much family come together on behalf of their son.
In the weeks and months since organizing the commemoration, Nelson has been thinking a lot about the advice she’s been hearing frequently as of late to move on, to keep things quiet, don’t rock the boat.
“The boat is big enough to sustain a little rocking and perhaps we will get a bit steadier on our feet,” she said. Denying or covering up the ugly parts of history does not produce fruitful results.
“It is never too late to say what happened. It was wrong and I am deeply sorry for the injustice. It is always the right time to offer an act of love and compassion with a great power to heal.”
“The program also recognized two other black men lynched in Culpeper: William Grayson in 1850 and William Thompson (no known relation to Allie) in 1877.
The Rev. Adrian Sledge, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, joined the commemoration as head of the historic African-American church next door and a member of the event planning committee.
“As we remember our history, we cannot be afraid to deal with it face to face,” he said.
The Rev. Dan Carlton, pastor at Culpeper Baptist, was also a committee member.
“God has given us a ministry of reconciliation to each other,” he said.
Another partner, the Rev. Ludwell Brown, said it was an honor to see so many in attendance.
“Lest we forget, it is mindful that we remember our history,” he said.
Committee member Sandra Reaves Yates, president of the Culpeper Branch NAACP, spoke to the descendants in saying she was honored to be a witness to the day of remembrance and reflection as well as to the courage and strength of the families.
“Our history is our history, it cannot be changed or forgotten, but we don’t let the injustice define who we are today,” Yates said. “Our community is strong enough to have uncomfortable conversations while being respectful to each other. We have more in common than not and are stronger together.”
Margaret Russell, professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, was a featured speaker, sharing about her great-grandfather being from Culpeper and her association with the University’s Center for Social Justice & Public Service.
“As African Americans, we have such difficult times digging into our history,” she said.
In the case of Allie Thompson, knowing the history causes for the family a mixture of traumatic pain and respect for one’s elders, Russell said.
What can be done in terms of restorative justice for the thousands of people lynched in America, she asked. Gathering the records of the murders is a way in addition to events like the one in Culpeper, Russell said, mentioning the ongoing work of the Equal Justice Initiative and its newly opened National Memorial for Peace & Justice in Birmingham, Ala., for those who were lynched.
“No one should ever forget this is the fabric of our country. The more we discover and remember the greater hope there is we can be a concretely different country,” she said.
Committee member Morgan Pierce , director of the Museum of Culpeper History, supported the event as a local manifestation of the work of the Peace & Justice memorial.
“The Culpeper museum does not shy away from these difficult stories,” he said.
“This month, the museum will feature a special exhibit about the three men lynched in Culpeper, Pierce said. There will also be special-education trips offered next year and a community day, he said.
Nelson, at the conclusion of the program in the church, talked directly to the family of Allie Thompson, who filled at least two rows in the sanctuary.
“Please do not give up on us. Don’t give up on our humanity, we will get there. Allie is in our hearts. We will not forget,” she said.
Low in the blue sky, the sun shone brightly in the courtyard between the courthouse and the jail as program attendees made their way up a hill to gather in the place where the horrific event unfolded.
People embraced and shed tears, while more prayers were recited. The program ended with voices joined together to sing, Lean On Me: “Sometimes in our lives we all have pain We all have sorrow But if we are wise We know that there’s always tomorrow Lean on me, when you’re not strong And I’ll be your friend I’ll help you carry on For it won’t be long `Til I’m gonna need Somebody to lean on.”