CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — More than a hundred years after his death, a black man named John Henry James is being recognized by the City of Charlottesville with a historical marker honoring his life and death.
James, an ice cream vendor, was supposed to be in the Albemarle County Courthouse on July 12, 1898. He was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman from a wealthy family. But, he never made it to his trial.
Fearing he would be hurt, authorities moved him to Staunton the night before his trial.
Newspaper reports from the day of the incident reveal when authorities moved him back to Charlottesville, a mob of around 200 men approached the train car and pulled him out of it.
The mob then “hung him to a tree” and after his death, riddled his corpse with bullets.
“The presumption of innocence which is supposedly guaranteed under the United States Constitution simply did not apply to black people,” said Dr. Jalane Schmidt, an advisory committee member of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.
After years of on-going conversations about the role of Confederate monuments, steps are being taken to honor James’ legacy.
Soil from where James was lynched was collected last year and brought by a group to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Today, in the shadow of a Confederate soldier – outside the courthouse where James was supposed to be given due process – stands a historical marker acknowledging his life and death.
“But have we changed?” Mayor Nikuyah Walker asked a crowd Friday. “That fear lives within the DNA of black people who walk these lands today.”
It’s one step to make sure people know the horrors of lynching in America and the racial tensions that still exist.
“But how do you honor taking someone’s life? How does a community heal?” Mayor Walker added.
The answers may not present, but local leaders say it will take more for the city to come to terms with its history.