On August 8, 2019, I wrote an editorial to acknowledge the lynching of Benjamin Thomas, which occurred on that date in 1899 in the City of Alexandria. Today, I write on the anniversary of the lynching of Joseph McCoy. He was killed on April 23, 1897.
Both terrible events happened near Market Square and City Hall, then the location of Alexandria’s police station. Both McCoy and Thomas were brutally murdered by mobs, just steps from the agency that should have provided them protection. Their bodies were mutilated, and they were denied the right to a fair trial. Their deaths were among the 100 documented lynchings that occurred in Virginia, 11 of them in Northern Virginia, between 1882 and 1968.
Last year, I also wrote about Alexandria’s EJI Community Remembrance Project. This project launched Alexandria’s formal collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which interprets America’s history of racial terror lynchings as a tool to dominate and intimidate. The project is inspired by EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial includes over 800 steel monuments, or pillars, one for each city or county in the United States where a lynching took place, with the names of the lynching victims engraved on the pillars. As a community, Alexandria will gather soil at the lynching site for display at EJI’s Legacy Museum and arrange for markers in Alexandria at the lynching sites. One of the most important goals is bringing the Alexandria pillar (with both McCoy and Thomas’ names) from Alabama to Alexandria for placement in a prominent public location.
Toward that end, seven committees have developed out of the Community Remembrance Project: Public Outreach; Education & Programming; Marketing; Marker and Soil Collection; Research; Fundraising; and Public Pilgrimage to Equal Justice Initiative. Each committee’s mission is to educate the public and make the installation of the pillar a reality.
In the last year, much has happened. The City began with a September 2019 community meeting and a keynote speech by Kiara Boone from the Equal Justice Initiative. Her mandate from Equal Justice Initiative – to own and learn from our ugly history – has set the tone for the project. More than 300 people attended this meeting, including state and City officials, faith leaders, and community organization representatives.
Subsequently, we have held quarterly community meetings featuring invited speakers such as Krystyn R. Moon and Spencer Crew. Dr. Moon is a Professor of History and the Director of American Studies at the University of Mary Washington. Dr. Crew is the interim director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Dr. Moon spoke on the struggles of Alexandria’s African American community to gain equality, while Dr. Crew shared the social justice work being done by the NMAAHC and how social justice ethics have guided his career in museums.
This April, during the dark days of a pandemic, our social justice work moves forward. The City had planned a large community gathering at the McCoy lynching site, located at the corner of Lee and Cameron Streets, on April 23. Due to recent guidelines from the CDC, we have changed the format of this gathering, and we are using other ways to tell McCoy’s story and to educate the public about lynching.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a spotlight on inequalities that still threaten our nation and culture and question our humanity. Is access to health care equal? Are educational and career paths available to all? While many can shelter in place with relative ease, what of those who cannot?
Alexandria’s Community Remembrance Project aims to make Alexandria a stronger community. We must face the ugliness of our past and the horrors inflicted on those with no recourse. By doing this, we stand against hate, inequality and work to embrace the humanity of everyone in Alexandria and beyond. We apologize for past injustice and use restorative justice to strengthen our ties.
Today, remember Joseph McCoy. Let his murder be more than a horrible footnote in Alexandria’s history and an example of vigilante justice. Join Alexandria’s EJI Community Remembrance Project and help make Alexandria the most inclusive and welcoming of cities. Our success is in these endeavors is the legacy of Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas.
For more information on the Alexandria Community Remembrance Project, visit alexandriava.gov/Historic
For more on the history of lynching in Alexandria, see