Alexandria, VA

Last month, Alexandria residents and city leaders honored the legacy of Joseph McCoy by placing a wreath at the location of his lynching at the corner of Cameron and Lee Streets in Old Town. Within 36 hours, that wreath was stolen, and on Saturday a group of determined residents placed a new wreath at the site.

“Mr. McCoy was killed, murdered, by the act of hate,” MacArthur Myers told ALXnow. “We can’t bring him back, but we can be a voice for him from now on. God has given us two powerful words to express emotion — hate and love. Let the healing begin with love, which is so much more powerful.”

More than a dozen residents attended the brief ceremony. The 19-year-old McCoy was arrested without a warrant and then murdered 123 years ago, on April 23, 1897, by a mob of white residents who stormed the Police House (now City Hall), where McCoy was being held after being accused of sexually assaulting three women. He was shot, stabbed and hanged from a lamppost.

McCoy’s death is one of two lynchings that took place in Alexandria. The other was 20-year-old Benjamin Thomas, who was shot to death and hanged the following year by a mob of residents at Fairfax Street near King Street.

No one was arrested for their deaths.

McCoy and Thomas have been included in the Equal Justice Initiative Community Remembrance Project. Their names have been added to a steel pillar representing lynchings that occurred in the city — just one of more than 800 pillars representing 4,743 terror lynching victims around the country.

Since last year, the city has been in the process of bringing its EJI pillar home from Montgomery, Alabama.

A week ago we marked the 123rd anniversary of the lynching of Alexandria teenager Joseph McCoy. We placed a wreath at…

Posted by Maddy McCoy on Saturday, May 2, 2020

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Several Alexandria organizations collaborated virtually to memorialize the 1897 lynching of Joseph McCoy.

McCoy was murdered by a lynch mob today (April 23) in 1897 at the corner of Lee and Cameron Streets in Old Town. Today, Alexandrians placed a wreath at the site of the killing to honor McCoy.

Today I had the honor of helping to place this wreath in memory of Joseph McCoy. He was lynched on the SE corner of…

Posted by Maddy McCoy on Thursday, April 23, 2020

The dedication is part of a broader effort by Alexandria to bring the city’s history of racial violence to light as part of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

“Alexandria exists because of the incredible history that has occurred in our community,” Mayor Justin Wilson said in a video. “Over recent years we have worked very hard to ensure a more just, complete, and equal telling of our history ensuring that future generations learn from the good and the bad. It’s those principles that have guided our participation in the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, to ensure that the stories of the two violent race lynchings that occurred in our community is something we can learn from in generations to come.”

A city proclamation told the story of the lynching.

McCoy, a teenager, was accused of sexually assaulting three women in Alexandria, according to the proclamation. He was arrested without a warrant and denied the charge. He was held in what is today City Hall. McCoy reportedly confessed to the crime after interrogation. A mob gathered but was repulsed, and at 1 a.m. a second attack overwhelmed the officers at the station. McCoy was pulled from his cell and dragged to the corner. The Washington Post at the time said McCoy was left hanging from the lamp post for 15 minutes before he was cut down. He was pierced by several bullets and struck in the head with a cobblestone.

Another lynching, of a man named Benjamin Thomas, occurred a few years later in Alexandria. Both names are on a pillar created by the EJI Community Remembrance Project that commemorates the victims of lynching. Eventually, the city plans to bring the pillar from Alabama up to Alexandria to be placed in a prominent location.

KaNikki Jakarta, poet laureate of Alexandria, wrote a poem to commemorate McCoy.

Black Boy
Born to Ann and Samuel as Reconstruction ended
And the era of Jim Crow started
Left many family members broken hearted
Before his life as a man officially began
A sorrowful trend amongst black families
Tugging on heart strings to rejoice or weep
when black boys are birthed
A blessing and a curse on a family tree
Because we’re never sure if someone will kill you
And write you down in history untrue
After accusing you of crimes like
Assaulting someone white
Talking back to someone white
Looking at someone white
Whistling at someone white
Despite putting up a fight or screaming a denial
You might get a trial
But it will be unjust
Although you initially denied it all
I think you thought it was best to confess…
This is not a history that belongs to you alone
And if you would have grown
Just a bit older
You may have cried on someone’s shoulder
Two years later over another black boy named Benjamin Thompson
Who shares this story too
I wish I could talk to you
I would ask you what really took place
I wish I could look upon your face
to hear your story
The way that you would have it told
The way that circumstances would unfold
On April 23, 1897
Truth is, I want to pen your story
But the newspapers don’t show
What happened all of those years ago
But this is what I know…
You were born Joseph McCoy
You had four siblings and you were the youngest boy
And before you were ever thought to be
Your grandmother Cecilia McCoy was born free
More than a half century
Before you were lynched
Hanged from a lamppost and shot multiple times
No family members would claim your body
And no one was ever charged with a crime
But, this is not the part of your story that I would want to tell
I don’t want to recap the horrible night a mob of 500 retrieved you from jail
I don’t want to write about your how your funeral was held
Instead,
I would like to highlight
That despite the fact you didn’t celebrate your 21st birthday
Today,
123 Years Later
You are celebrated
You are remembered
A legend, a light
Shining bright
even in your absence
An ancestor whose story far surpassed the details of your death
A part of history that will let in peace be the way you rest
No one remembers the names of the people who took your life
They don’t get glory for spreading bitterness and strife
But you
Joseph McCoy
A black boy
Born to Ann and Samuel as Reconstruction ended
And the era of Jim Crow started
Whose death left many family members broken hearted
Before his life as a man officially began
A horrific trend
In black history
Another tragedy
But your history will be one remembered alongside
Others who were also lynched, shot, or hanged
But we will remember your name
Because your history is within my pen now
Within my words now
A black writer
Who decided to write about you in a positive way
But still today
We are left with the question
Who could you have grown to be?
If they would not have killed you

McCoy’s funeral was held at Roberts United Methodist Memorial Church. James Daniely, the current pastor at the church, offered a prayer in McCoy’s honor.

Photo via City of Alexandria

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Officially, there are two lynchings in Alexandria’s history, but a new investigation by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) hopes to discover whether there were more that went unrecorded.

The two documented lynchings were of Joseph McCoy in 1897 and Benjamin Thomas in 1899. At a meeting of the Equal Justice Initiative on Nov. 16, Audrey Davis, director of Alexandria’s Black History Museum, said that one of the seven committees in EJI’s Alexandria branch is dedicated to conducting research to “find out if there were any other lynchings in Alexandria we’re not aware of.”

Davis said the committee is also researching McCoy and Thomas to see if they have any living descendants.

Eventually, Davis said the EJI hopes to collect soil from the two lynching sites and hold a marker dedication at or near those locations. The group is planning a trip to claim a marker from the Community Remembrance Project, an effort dedicated to cataloging racial violence in the United States between the end of reconstruction in 1877 and 1950.

“Restorative justice for 1890s racial terror [means] acknowledging the shameful past through commemorative events, marker placement, public programming and research,” Davis said. “We hope to install markers around the city and will follow city guidelines for signage.”

Krystyn Moon, president of the Alexandria Historical Society, said that mob violence was used in Alexandria as a tool of oppression.

“Violence is, of course, used to reinforce the racial status quo, here in Virginia and here in Alexandria,” Moon said.

Moon said the violence was not limited to the two recorded lynchings. On Dec. 26, 1865, a group of Confederate veterans attacked black residents of Alexandria and there was one reported death. Unlike so many other times in American history when perpetrators of racial violence against the black community were not brought to justice, the mob in this case faced punishment.

“What’s extraordinary is not just that we had a riot, but the fact that a military tribunal was convened and found 11 members guilty and sent them to jail,” Moon said.

Aside from the two known lynchings, Moon said there were at least three other instances — two in 1904 and one in 1922 — of individuals who were threatened with lynching and had to be moved out of Alexandria and to Fort Meyer for their protection.

The next meeting of the EJI in Alexandria is scheduled for Jan. 15 at 7:30 p.m. in the Beth El Hebrew Congregation (3830 Seminary Road).

Photo via City of Alexandria

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Tonight, the Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum is hosting a history lesson on on how the year 1619 shaped Virginia.

The year marks the founding of the Virginia Assembly, the first African slaves forcibly transported to Virginia’s shores, and the arrival of the first ship of European women to the colony. And tonight, Tuesday, October 8, three historians will discuss the significance of those pivotal moments for the state, and the country, 400 years ago.

The free event will begin at 7 p.m. in the The Lyceum at 201 S. Washington St.

Panelists include Dr. Nick Gaffney, Professor of History at the Professor at the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and a member of the Commemoration Committee to raise awareness of the history of slavery and the accomplishments of African Americans since then.

The professor is slated to discuss slavery and the significant of Virginia’s first enslaved African who were brought to the state in 1619 during tonight’s panel.

Gaffney will be joined by Dr. Jim McClellan, also a Professor of History at NOVA, who will talk about the founding of the Virginia Assembly and its European influences, as well as what the English settlers’ treatment of Native Americans in Virginia had to do with the events in 1619.

A third Professor of History at NOVA, Dr. Lynette Garrett, will join the panel discussion to speak about the role of women in colonial Virginia.

The event comes after a few months after the New York Times published a groundbreaking edition, the “1619 Project,” to examine the stories of slavery and the legacy of the slave trade today in America. Groups of African Americans have also been holding their own private ceremonies grappling with the beginning of slavery in the U.S.

A separate event celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Virginia Assembly in July was boycotted by the Virginia Black Caucus, which protested President Trump’s planned speech in light of what they said was his history of racist remarks and policies.

As with any part of Virginia, Alexandria has its fair share of local history intertwined with the legacies of slavery: from local man John F. Parker, who was born to slavery and later became the principal of Snowden School for Boys in Alexandria, to the city’s legacy of segregated housing.

Interested attendees who can’t make it to tonight’s panel have another opportunity tomorrow morning, October 9, when the NOVA Alexandria Campus (5000 Dawes Avenue) hosts a second panel discussion on the topic.

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