A symbolic measure of racial justice was meted out Wednesday afternoon at the Albemarle County Courthouse.
"Judge, we are here on the 125th anniversary of the lynching of John Henry James in Albemarle County, and it is also the same day, 125 years ago, that the indictment against John Henry James was issued by an Albemarle County grand jury."
So began Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley’s argument inside a packed courtroom — the very same courtroom where that grand jury met in 1898 — in hopes of reversing the 1898 rape indictment.
Judge Cheryl Higgins delivered.
"The evidence," said Higgins, "shows that the indictment was improperly issued inasmuch as the historical record has established that John Henry James was killed before the indictment was issued."
That had been the contention of University of Virginia scholar Jalane Schmidt. Her somber testimony from the witness stand detailed not only the fact of a posthumous indictment but also a litany of extralegal cruelties inflicted on James. Now heading UVa’s Memory Project, an exploration of racism in Virginia, Schmidt said the Black man arrested at a local bar had the misfortune in the Jim Crow era of "somewhat" fitting the alleged victim’s description.
The life of James ended on July 12, 1898. One day earlier, a young horsewoman named Julia Hottop was riding back to Pen Park, her family’s 407-acre estate just outside Charlottesville, to find the farm gate inexplicably secured by a wrapped wire. Hottop dismounted her steed to open the gate when she was allegedly ambushed and sexually assaulted.
“It is said that the young lady resisted the fellow to the extent of scratching his neck so violently as to leave particles of flesh under her fingernails, and so effective was the resistance that he failed of accomplishing his foul purpose,” according to an account in The Daily Progress at the time.
The woman supposedly fainted at least three times that morning and claimed unconsciousness during the height of the attack. Between swoons, she allegedly claimed her assailant was a thin-moustached, dark-skinned Black man whose toes poked through his shoes.“About noon,” wrote The Daily Progress, “a negro named John Henry James was arrested in Dudley’s barroom as answering somewhat the description.”Local authorities, realizing the growing White antipathy for James, whisked him away to Staunton for his safety. But on a train ride back to Charlottesville, James and his escorts, the Charlottesville police chief and Albemarle sheriff, were headed off. More than 150 White men were said to have held them at gunpoint, demanding James be handed over.With James in hand, the mob carried him to a locust tree and hanged him. Some of the lynchers shot the dead or dying man, whose body remained hanging for as many as four hours.Before his killing, The Daily Progress quoted James as saying, “Before God, I am innocent."In court Wednesday, Schmidt provided a historical account of James death, with nods to the long fight against lynching throughout U.S. history and despite a high-pitched microphone feedback impeding the audibility of her testimony.
"White fears of racial equality were stoked by moral panic about the prospect of racial amalgamation," Schmidt testified.
"This 1898 lynching is a window in time," continued Schmidt, noting that Black journalist Ida B. Wells’ Memphis newspaper office was torched by a White mob and that Virginia rewrote its state constitution to disenfranchise Black voters.
In the wake of James’ lynching, the Richmond Planet, a Black newspaper, issued a full-throated condemnation.
"The lynching of John Henry James will be far more damaging to the community than it will be to the alleged criminal," Schmidt quoted from the newspaper.
Nothing could undo that murder, but today’s leaders could address the indictment.
"This stain," Schmidt testified, "remains on the books to this day."
Hingeley agreed with Schmidt that the posthumous nature of the indictment made it improper. He also took a swipe at then-prosecutor Micajah Woods, who was quoted in The Daily Progress as pronouncing the rape case against James as solid.
"That’s a lie," said Hingeley. "The evidence was far from conclusive."
"The motion to dismiss is granted," said Higgins as the courtroom erupted in applause.
"I’m just glad we finally had a judicial determination that this entire prosecution was unjust," said Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook, a lawyer who watched the proceedings from the front row. "It should never have happened in the first place."
Wes Bellamy, a history professor and former Charlottesville city councilor who led a successful fight to remove Confederate statues from the city’s public squares, said he was elated.
"I’ve seen this community make a great deal of change over the last ten years," said Bellamy. "For that I’m proud."