New historical marker on Court Square tells story of Charlotte Harris’ lynching

Steven Thomas of the Northeast Neighborhood Association addresses those gathered at the unveiling ceremony for the Charlotte Harris historical marker on Court Square on Sat., Sept. 26. Harris was an African American woman lynched in March 1878.

Story and photos by Mike Tripp, contributor

Law enforcement dragged Charlotte Harris from a friend’s home in Albemarle County in March of 1878.

They took her back to Rockingham County to face a preliminary hearing, resulting in an order that she be taken to the county jail in Harrisonburg.

Because that was 15 miles distant, they decided to wait until morning.

Harris was placed in an outbuilding for the night.

Men with “faces darkened” and pistols drawn came for her.

They took her, joining with others also armed and disguised as “colored men.”

She was dragged to a tree and a noose placed around her neck. 

Steven Thomas with the Northeast Neighborhood Association, waves as he arrives for the unveiling ceremony on Sat., Sept. 26, 2020.

From remarks by Steven Thomas of the Northeast Neighborhood Association, which led a several-year effort to place the marker on Court Square:

“This Charlotte Harris historic marker unveiling ceremony that we are gathered here today for is a culmination of the collective witness and courage of numerous people and parties of various ethnic, social and political backgrounds, and for this mutual effort for the cause of truth, racial healing and social transformation, and indeed the principle of trust-building on the part of every single individual involved in this now three-year process, we applaud you. We congratulate you, and we thank each and every one of you.

“This historic marker commemorates our ancestor, Ms. Charlotte Harris, and is a testimony of the very best of the cooperative spirit of humanity. This is how we were able to make it happen. But the deeds that this marker outlines, in actual and factual detail, will remain a reminder, a warning of what the very worst consequences were, are and can be for African Americans in this country from the ideology of white supremacy if put into practice, executed, left unchecked and aided and abetted by the very institutions that are purported to serve and protect us all.”

Video of the full unveiling ceremony can be watched here.

The crowd spread out on the lawn at Court Square. The event was also livestreamed.
Mayor Deanna Reed welcomes those watching in person aand virtually at the start of the ceremony.
Masks and physical distancing were a part of the event.

In his essay entitled “The Lynching of Charlotte Harris,” Tom Blair describes it thus:

According to multiple accounts, the tree was a large sapling that was particularly tough. Five men applied their strength to bend the tree over.

After tying a rope to the tree and looping the other end around the neck of Harris, they suddenly let go of the tree.

At that point, in the words of one account, “the shrieking female was jerked up into the air with frightful velocity.”

Harris was pulled upwards as the sapling sprang back and she landed on the other side of the tree, which the mob propped up with a fence rail.

Harris hung there, struggling in great agony, until she was dead.

For nearly two days, they left her body hanging there beside that road.

She had been accused of “inciting a young African American man to burn the barn of a white farmer.”

The young man later stood trial and was acquitted on all charges.

And it should be noted that even if convicted, barn burning was not a hangable offense.

Guilty or innocent, Charlotte had died regardless.

And a grand jury failed to identify any of her killers.

Steven Thomas of the Northeast Neighborhood Association looks up at the newly unveiled Charlotte Harris historical marker. At the beginning of his remarks, he read aloud its text.
Those gathered applaud during the unveiling ceremony.

Now 142 years later, we remember.

A new Virginia historical marker with Charlotte’s story was unveiled during a ceremony Saturday at Court Square in Harrisonburg.

“This is the only documented lynching of an African American woman in Virginia,” the marker reads,” and it received nationwide attention.”

Ras Issa Selassie of Harrisonburg wore his mask in the socially distanced crowd.

He listened to the various speakers, watched as the new Virginia historical marker was uncovered.  

“We’re truth seekers and now the truth is revealed,” says Salassie.

“This combined with what’s going on around the world. … It’s excellent timing, excellent revelation.”

“I love it, and I hope more truths in Virginia are revealed so that we can teach right, so that we can think right and can act accordingly.”

“We are still searching for truth, still finding truth,” he adds.

The marker states over 4,000 lynchings happened in the U.S. between 1877 to 1950.

More than 100 people, mostly African American men, were lynched in Virginia.

The event was livestreamed for those who wanted to watch, but not attend in person because of the pandemic.
Ras Issa Selassie (center) of Harrisonburg looks towards the newly unveiled Virginia Historical Marker.
Colita Fairfax (center), Chair of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, stands with others as they are photographed with the Virginia historical marker that tells the story of Charlotte Harris’ 1878 lynching.

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