City leaders back remembrance of Hburg’s lynching victim and discuss criminal justice issues at Tuesday’s meeting

By Randi B. Hagi, contributor

Council members offered support at Tuesday’s meeting to a civic project memorializing Charlotte Harris, a victim of a public lynching in Harrisonburg 141 years ago.

On March 6, 1878, several people abducted Harris, a black woman, from the local jail and murdered her.

Steven Thomas of the Northeast Neighborhood Association presented the Harrisonburg Community Remembrance Project to city council, asking for their support in memorializing Harris.

“The lynching of Charlotte Harris is not ancient history,” Thomas said. “We live in a time of increasing incidents of racial terrorism.” He said the council’s support would communicate that Harrisonburg is “a welcoming and safe locality” where the rights of all are protected.

No formal public event has been scheduled yet. But Thomas referred to the scholarship of James Madison University professor Gianluca De Fazio, who teaches in the justice studies department and has published a website recording lynchings in Virginia’s history — including the murder of Harris.

Attendees applauded as Thomas finished his presentation.

Council member Chris Jones expressed interest in attending remembrance project meetings, possibly with another council member or city staff member.

“There’s a lot of history that needs to be told,” Jones said, referring last fall’s discovery by local archaeologists that the “Thomas Harrison” house was, in fact, not old enough to have been the home of founder of Harrisonburg.  

“I sense that everybody up here wants to see us work with your group on this,” said council member Richard Baugh.

After the meeting, Jones said he thinks it’s important for the city council to participate in the project to educate current and future residents about what happened to Harris, “because the pain of lynchings and harsh criminal justice of the past has been long lasting.”

Group puts jails in spotlight

Current criminal justice issues once again prompted a discussion during the public comment period, where members of the grassroots organization Faith in Action have maintained a steady presence in recent meetings.

Seven members of the organization spoke, opposing fees inmates pay at the jail downtown and Middle River Regional Jail, calling for a community justice planner, and commenting on the justice system’s burden on taxpayers.

Baugh responded to the issue of the keep fee at the Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail, which charges $1 a day if those held in the jail want to access the commissary for extra food and items. That fee is under the sheriff’s authority, and Baugh said the city council has offered to cover that cost in the jail budget.
“We’re not an impediment to that,” said Baugh.

Council member George Hirschmann asked why such an offer would have been turned down. Baugh attributed this to a mindset that inmates, rather than taxpayers, should be responsible for the fee – a mindset he called a “failed social experiment,” which further penalizes those “in a difficult position.”

As The Citizen reported in November, the council approached Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson about eliminating the fee last year, but Hutcheson said he didn’t believe it was fair to pass on to taxpayers the additional $125,000 the $1-per-day fee brings in.

“How can I explain that to a victim?” Hutcheson told The Citizen. “There are at least two guys upstairs right now who murdered somebody. They pay the keep fee. They order from the commissary. How do I explain to the victim’s family that they are now paying for those guys’ honeybuns?”

Mayor Deanna Reed was absent while taking a group of high school students on a college tour.

Vice-mayor Sal Romero, who ran the meeting in Reed’s absence, said he “would like the sheriff to understand the hardship he doesn’t seem to see … just acknowledge that you are putting a hardship on families.”

Jones suggested that Community Criminal Justice Board meetings would be an appropriate avenue for community members to express these concerns.

He also said that city staff is currently looking at the feasibility of including a community justice planner in the city budget.

Airbnb regulations adopted

The council adopted regulations governing short-term rentals, such as Airbnb properties in Harrisonburg. Those regulations were discussed at the previous meeting.

One detail was altered: penalties will not be levied until Aug. 1 of this year, which “gives folks time to apply for special use permits” and allows staff to educate the public, said City Attorney Chris Brown.

Return of the Birds

City Manager Eric Campbell announced that the Bird scooter company “has purchased a franchise agreement with the city,” allowing the company to bring 150 scooters back to town – similar to the number that first arrived last fall.

Bird can add scooters to their fleet in 25-vehicle increments if they demonstrate that each scooter is used on average for four trips per day.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting:

  • The council formally recognized Reggie Smith for his service as director of the Harrisonburg Department of Public Transportation. Smith joined the department in 1976, when he oversaw eight used taxis as an administrative assistant. Smith became the director in 1978. Attendees gave Smith a standing ovation.
  • The council announced an upcoming public hearing regarding a new ordinance preventing pedestrians from “standing, sitting, squatting, or lying” in the median areas of seven major intersections with high numbers of traffic accidents. The hearing will likely take place at the council’s April 23 meeting.
  • Laura Toni-Holsinger, executive director of United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, announced a new initiative – Empower HR – which provides an online platform for service providers to share consenting clients’ data and provide immediate referrals. Rockingham Insurance is covering the technology costs for 50 participating organizations for the first year. Thirty of those spots have already been filled by groups such as Sentara RMH Community Health programs, Open Doors, Strength in Peers, and Our Community Place. 

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