It began the way so many other lynchings began. A white woman said a Black man assaulted her. Police arrested a suspect – whether the right one or not hardly mattered. An angry mob formed. Not content with the justice meted out by the judicial system, the mob demanded the suspect be murdered on the spot. And that’s exactly what they did, reveling in the public spectacle of the man’s gruesome death.
The Equal Justice Initiative, the Alabama-based nonprofit behind what some call “the lynching museum” but what is more formally called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, has documented more than 4,400 lynchings in the United States between the end of the Civil War and just after the end of World War II.
One of those was in Roanoke early in the morning of Sept. 21, 1893. What made that one different then were the convulsions that followed – seven, eight, maybe nine white residents of Roanoke were killed (accounts vary) and 34 more wounded, including the city’s mayor. It was one of the few lynchings where white authorities forcibly tried to stop the mob, and where more whites than Blacks wound up dying. It was also one of the few lynchings where whites were later convicted of taking part in the lynching, although their punishments are light in relationship to the dreadful deed. What makes this lynching different now is that today a historical marker will go up in Roanoke to mark the location where Thomas Smith was hanged, the first of two markers planned to memorialize the lynchings that took place in the city.
Some speak of the danger of “erasing history.” Here is a history that has never been properly told in the first place. Over the past decade or so, there have been sporadic efforts across the country to memorialize those who died during nearly a century of racial violence. Even those words seem too bland to capture the full horror of what transpired. In the more graphic words of that Montgomery, Alabama, museum: “More than 4,400 African American men, women and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.” In Virginia, at least five state-sponsored historical markers have been erected at the sites of lynchings, all in the past three years – in Charlottesville, Charles County, Essex County, Harrisonburg and Wise County. However, Encyclopedia Virginia says the total number of lynchings in the state was 86. The Equal Justice Initiative puts the number at 88; the Capital News Service says 90. Other sources – most notably Tuskegee University in Alabama – says the number is really 100.
As horrific as those numbers are, the numbers deeper in the South are even more so: 491 people killed in Arkansas, 559 in Louisiana, 595 in Georgia, 614 in Mississippi. Here’s how widespread the practice was in Virginia. Historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage, author of “Lynching in the New South,” documented such murders in 50 localities in Virginia. The localities with the most: Alleghany County, four; Danville, five; Tazewell County, 10.
If Virginia wants to make peace with its past, it has a long way to go to recognize some ugly parts of its history. The lynching that Roanoke will memorialize today is one of the more noteworthy ones.
The events began on the morning of Sept. 20, 1893, when Sallie Bishop – described in contemporary accounts by The Roanoke Times as “aged and respectable” – set up shop on Roanoke’s farmers market to sell produce from her family’s Botetourt County farm. A man approached her to buy some grapes on behalf of his employer. When Bishop followed him into an alley to collect the money, he pulled out a razor, grabbed her purse and attempted to slit her throat. Bishop fought off her attacker, who used an iron implement to “strike a fiendish blow on the head,” following up with a brick and a stone before he fled. Bishop came to about a half-hour later. She crawled back to the market and described her attacker. Roanoke’s small police force, augmented by railroad detectives and anyone else who wanted to join, set off to find the assailant – some on foot, some on horseback, some in buggies. William G. Baldwin, head of the railroad police (and later founder of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency that runs through Appalachian history), came upon Thomas Smith, described at the time as an “idle vagrant.” Whether Smith really was the culprit, no one today knows. Bishop – “blinded with blood, the sight of one eye temporarily destroyed” – wasn’t entirely sure he was the one but said she recognized his hat. Curiously, none of the contemporary accounts say whether Smith was found in possession of Smith’s purse or money. If he was, that seems an unusual omission, which leads one to think today that perhaps he wasn’t. A defense attorney would never get to bring up this point.
Baldwin put Smith on his horse and took him to the city jail. An “excited crowd” now turned into “an angry mob” that pelted even the feared Baldwin with rocks. Baldwin – a man of some significance in the community – reminded the mob that Bishop hadn’t positively identified Smith. That detail did not seem to matter. Within minutes, the jail was surrounded “by over a thousand men clamoring for revenge and blood.”
In 1993, on the centennial of what became known as the Riot of 1893, I wrote an account for The Roanoke Times. I quoted University of Georgia sociologist Woody Beck, a national authority on lynchings, as saying there were three conditions that often gave rise to such mob violence. “In Roanoke, there were all three,” he told me. “First, an ideology of racism that dehumanized Blacks. Second, a weak government body. In Roanoke, the police were perceived as ineffectual. Third, a competition for jobs.” There was also a fourth: Roanoke in 1893 was still a new city, where a newly industrialized boomtown had risen out of the countryside. “This was not a stable community,” Beck said then. “You had a new, mobile population, at the same time as economic difficulties. This was a social situation just ripe for this type of mob violence.”
It’s perhaps no accident then that some of the worst outbursts of violence in Virginia took place in communities with similar backgrounds. In 1891, four Black men in Clifton Forge – another railroad boom town – were lynched simply for what seems to be rowdy behavior on a Saturday night. Likewise, all those lynchings in Tazewell came in a county where coal was transforming the community and bringing in an influx of newcomers – some of them Black miners in a county that had previously been overwhelmingly white.
Roanoke saw its first lynching in 1892, when William Lavender was accused of accosting a white girl. When Mayor William G. Evans tried to talk the mob out of killing Lavender, the mob threatened him. The Roanoke Times later condoned the violence: “Lynching has its place.”
Here’s what I wrote for the paper in 1993: “That was not, however, the view of Roanoke’s image-conscious business establishment, which saw lynching as, well, bad for business. In the aftermath of the Lavender lynching, Mayor Evans appointed a new police chief, John F. Terry. And when Henry Trout – a prominent banker and former Confederate officer who had survived Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg – became mayor later in 1892, his first act was to assemble the police force and lecture the dozen or so officers on the need for law and order. He vowed that never again would a prisoner in Roanoke be taken by a mob.”
Now the mob that Trout feared was gathered around the jail, demanding blood. A police officer tried to reason with the crowd, assuring a speedy trial. So did the commonwealth’s attorney. So did the mayor. Trout did the same. None of that worked. “All day the excitement became more intense and the crowds on the street became larger and an air of subdued excitement pervaded the city,” The Roanoke Times reported at the time. The rival Roanoke Daily Record agreed: “It was apparent to the most casual observer that the people were only awaiting nightfall to make an attack on the jail.”
Roanoke officials debated what to do. The police chief wanted to sneak Smith out of the jail (as if that were possible) and put him on a train out of town. Judge Walter Turner objected, insisting that the city should be able to protect its own prisoners. A fine ideal, but not one that seemed practical at the moment. The mayor resolved on something unusual for the time: force. “If necessary, we must fire on the mob,” he supposedly told the police chief. He also decided to call out the militia. Historian Ann Alexander writes that the militia in those days wasn’t much of a military organization, it was more focused on pomp and ceremony. Still, 30 members of the Roanoke Light Infantry Blues assembled and took up positions around the jail. By now, the mob was estimated to be 5,000 strong – about one-third the population of the city.
The mayor continued to threaten the mob with force, but few believed him. White authorities simply didn’t order white men to be shot to protect a Black prisoner.
The historian Brundage told me in 1993: “Virginia was quite different from other Southern states. The local political elite, both in Roanoke and the state as a whole, viewed lynching as an unfortunate and even dangerous threat to the social order.” Lynching, in other words, was a lower-class phenomenon that the local aristrocracy looked down upon.
About sunset, about 50 to 100 men on horseback rode up Campbell Avenue, trailed by even more men on foot. Bishop’s family had gone home to Botetourt County and rounded up a posse. “Rally men, Botetourt is here!” the men shouted. “Come on, boys, they won’t shoot!”
The Botetourt men demanded Smith be turned over to them. Trout again refused. “Mayor Trout proposed to address the mob,” The Roanoke Times reported at the time, “but the tumult was such that it would have been quite impossible. Just as this critical moment, some one or several persons began battering on the western door of the jail and immediately a rock crashed through the window. Then it was that someone cried `get back! get back!’ and shots were fired …”
Nobody knows who fired the first shot. Maybe it doesn’t matter now.
What followed the newspaper called “the harvest of blood.” Some 150 shots in all were fired, according to news reports at the time. Whether seven, eight or nine, some people lay dead in “large pools of blood and brains.” Many others were wounded – including the mayor, who was shot in the foot. He was hustled away to the nearby Ponce De Leon Hotel (which today is a downtown living space with the same name). Part of the mob stormed into the hotel but didn’t find the mayor – he was hiding in the servants’ quarters. Several hundred others went to the mayor’s house and searched that but didn’t find him there, either. The police chief now chased after the mob and told them they could have the prisoner – but jailers had already sneaked Smith away to what they thought was safety. “The excited mass of people … lost all reason,” The Roanoke Times reported. The mob looted hardware stores for weapons and ransacked saloons for alcohol.
About 3 a.m., the jailers protecting Smith decided it was best to return him to his cell. This proved a fatal error. “Near the corner of [Second] Street and Franklin Road, some twelve or fifteen men sprang suddenly from the weeds in the vacant lot and with cocked guns and revolvers, demanded the surrender of the prisoner,” The Roanoke Times reported.
They hauled Smith a few blocks away, to the corner of Franklin Road and Mountain Avenue. They tied a noose around his neck and hanged him from a hickory tree. Then they riddled the body with bullets. Not content with that, they pinned a sign that read “Mayor Trout’s friend” on the bloody corpse.
Smith’s body swung from the tree until dawn. By then, an “immense crowd” assembled to view the awful spectacle – and strip the victim for souvenirs. The mob “eagerly struggled for small pieces of the rope, or stripped fragments from the coat of the dead man until the upper portion of the body was almost devoid of clothing.”
When authorities demanded the mob surrender the body, the mob became enraged all over again. “The leaders swore they would drag the remains to the residence of Mayor Trout and hang them in the yard and then bury them in the front of the residence,” The Roanoke Times reported. Some – presumably the posse from Botetourt County – threatened to burn the whole city. This threat would seem consistent with the analysis that the Riot of 1893 was fueled not simply by racial animus but also rural resentment to the strange new city that has sprung up out of the marshlands of Big Lick. “Strong men caught hold of the rope” and started pulling the mutilated body in the direction of the mayor’s home, The Roanoke Times reported.
The Rev. William C. Campbell, the minister of First Presbyterian Church, now appeared and appealed for calm. This, at least, halted the mission to the mayor’s house. Instead, the mob tossed Smith’s body into a wagon, hauled it to the Roanoke River “amid the deafening cries of 4,000 people saying `take him and burn him!’”
Which they did.
“Lurid flames and dense volumes of dark smoke [rose] high toward the heavens,” The Roanoke Times reported. “The flames roared and cracked, leaping high in the air, while all around stood 4,000 people, men, women, boys and children, on foot, in buggies, and carriages and on horseback, and numbers of them shouting over the horrible scene. In a short while all was over and all that remained on earth of Thomas Smith … was a pile of a white ashes and a few bits of bone. Hundreds of visitors gathered close around the human bonfire and cast in pieces of wood, determined to add something to the cremation. Smith’s sister, a girl 15 years of age, stood by and witnessed the terrible fate of her brother’s remains.”
The mayor remained in hiding for another day before fleeing for Richmond on a train. The mob milled around for three days, demanding the mayor, the police chief and some police officers be fired. A committee of business leaders tried to negotiate; they agreed to suspend some city officials but insisted the mayor be allowed to return – which he did, about a week later. By then, the mood had changed and a crowd of 300 greeted the mayor and hailed him as a hero. The police chief was later indicted as an accessory in Smith’s death. The charges were later dropped, but Trout fired him anyway.
Accounts of what happened to others vary. The Richmond Dispatch reported that four men were charged with burning Smith’s body, convicted and sentenced to 12 months in jail. The Roanoke Times reported that 14 people in all were charged with various offenses but only three were convicted, and they spent but a single day in jail. Whatever the number, no one was ever charged with or convicted of murder.
The Roanoke lynching, and the riot that accompanied it, did spur state officials to some modicum of action. Gov. Philip McKinney, who had seemed unconcerned about previous lynchings, told the General Assembly that those earlier murders were “the only safe protection for society” but now “the crisis is over” and so lynchings should cease. His rationale: Lynchings were impractical because they happened so quickly they didn’t sufficiently intimidate the Black population. This apparently was the first time any Virginia governor had spoken out against lynchings, however tepidly. Lynchings, though, continued in Virginia for decades, and McKinnney is best known today as the governor who accepted the Robert E. Lee statue for Richmond’s Monument Avenue on behalf of Virginia.
In 1916, some 23 years after the Roanoke mob murdered Thomas Smith, a small item appeared in “Crisis,” the national journal of the NAACP. It read: “The jailer of Roanoke, Va., has recently revealed the fact that the colored man, Smith, who was lynched September 21, 1893, for assaulting a woman was innocent and known to be so by the officials a short time afterward. The real criminal was arrested, but after a conference he was allowed to leave on promising never to return.”