Hidden History behind the term ‘lynching’ and its ties to Virginia

ALTAVISTA, Va. (WRIC) — The term “lynching” holds powerful meaning, especially here in the south. But where did the term come from?

To find the answer, 8News visited the town of Altavista to learn about the history of the family where the term started before taking on a whole new meaning they never intended. We also met a man just now learning of his ties to that family.

The Avoca Museum in Altavista holds a lot of history for Alfred Dearing. He stood next to a picture of General James Dearing, who owned the home where the Avoca Museum now stands, and Alfred’s family.

“Handy Dearing, my grandfather, and my great grandfather, Sandy Dearing, were slaves on these grounds,” Dearing said.

He recently learned of his ties to the area on Facebook.

“I was on Facebook looking for ‘Dearings of Virginia.’ I was contacted by April Hickman from Utah, she’s a Mormon and she’s white,” he said. “She contacted me and we went into searching for our ancestors. Her great-great grandmother had married my great great grandfather;  we were relatives.”

Photo credit: Altavista Journal.

The two went to Altavista, to the home that’s now the Avoca Museum to learn more about their connection, which was a powerful experience for Dearing.

“I get emotional because I think of the suffering that my foreparents had and all slaves had; it’s emotional, but I thank God from which we come,” he said.

He also said he thinks the Avoca property is beautiful, and he’s happy he was able to visit it.

“It was just so, so wonderful to be able to stand and be in the areas of our ancestors,” he said.  “When I come into the area I can feel the spiritual presence of my ancestors. That’s why I love Avoca because every time I come I have a spiritual feeling.”

His story is only just a small piece of the history at the Avoca Museum.

“This museum represents 12,000 years of human history that occurred right here on this ground beneath our feet,” said Michael Hudson, the Executive Director of the Avoca Museum.

The museum houses Native American history, women’s history, Revolutionary War history, architectural history, and even the history of the Gilded Age.

“I think it’s quite a challenge, but it’s also interesting trying to incorporate so many elements of human history into one museum story,” Hudson said.

The Avoca Museum also holds the history of ‘”Lynch’s Law,” named after Col. Charles Lynch, James Dearing’s great grandfather, who in 1780 brought his own type of justice to those still loyal to the British.

“He was a figure during the Revolutionary War who used some controversial methods to maintain Patriot law and order,” Hudson said.

Col. Charles Lynch’s brother, John Lynch, founded Lynchburg.

Col. Charles Lynch, however, began his life at what’s now Altavista. That’s where he held his own trials and came up with his own punishments for people he thought were part of an uprising against the state of Virginia – many of whom were white.

“Here on these grounds in the summer of 1780 Col. Charles Lynch was informed by Governor Jefferson of a Tory Conspiracy, a British loyalist conspiracy,  to free prisoners of war. He was ordered by Jefferson to snuff it out, get the ring leaders, and snuff them out,” Hudson said.

But instead of bringing them to Richmond for trial, Col. Lynch took their punishments into his own hands.

“Col. Lynch decided that this would be the place — his plantation would be the place that his law and order would be applied,” he said. “The worst offenders were tied to the tree and were flogged… 39 lashes well laid on, which to us, clearly sounds like cruel and unusual punishment, but in the context of 1780 that really was pretty mild compared to what the British could do to their own soldiers for failure to salute an officer.”

This became known as “Lynch’s Law,” meaning someone who takes justice into their own hands without a formal trial. The term, Hudson said, originally had nothing to do with African Americans.

“It had no racial implications whatsoever,” Hudson said. “No one was on record of being murdered as a result of these trials.”

Hudson said the term has evolved to what we now know of as lynching today.

“It took on a decidedly racist flavor and it almost always involved murder,” he said. “So, this is just one example of how a term changed its meaning over time.”

“It’s one of those legends that die hard,” Hudson continued. “A lot of legends and lores that we believe about history as a culture have some kind of basis in truth, but most of it is fabricated. It’s kind of like a giant game of telephone. If you can imagine it being played over the course of a couple hundred years. It starts with the facts and things get a little more embellished as time goes on.”

And that’s why Hudson says it’s a shame that this term is associated with the Lynch family.

“I think it’s unfortunate that Col. Lynch’s name got tied to the act of lynching because if there’s anyone from this area who was white and owned land and wasn’t racist it was likely him,” Hudson said.

In fact, Hudson said Col. Lynch decided to free his slaves, but his son got them back after his death.

“That’s why it’s such a tragedy, it’s so lamentable that Col. Lynch’s name has gotten perverted the way it has because he clearly saw African Americans as equals and as humans,” he said.

“The link between the term ‘lynching’ and the Lynch family who lived here and the founding of the nearby city of Lynchburg do have a common thread,” he went on. “But in the context of when these things were first instituted it really had nothing to do with the original meaning.”

Over time, the town of Altavista has changed and grown like so many American towns. Most recently the town’s main street has gone through a revitalization.

“Anything that helps bring community awareness to Altavista and paint a beautiful picture and create town spirit,” said Emelyn Gwynn, the Main Street coordinator for Altavista On Track which is a nonprofit that seeks to preserve the area’s historic buildings while promoting growth in the commercial district.

A new mural on Main Street in Altavista is an example of that. It’s 120 feet long and it gives you a glimpse at the town’s history – past and present.

“We have a component of history but we’re also working towards the future to try to bring in new businesses and support the businesses that are already here,” Gwynn said about the mural. “It basically depicts a lot of historical features in Altavista from when the town was first founded to modern day… and it’s beautiful!”

She said the town is beautiful as well.

“It’s a wonderful place to live. I’m from a small town originally and it’s awesome to just kind of know everybody in the town,” she said. “It’s just a really tight knit community and everyone really does support each other so it’s just wonderful to be a part of that.”

Just about two miles away from Main Street Alfred’s life has come full circle as he took a seat on a 153-year-old couch that belonged to General James Dearing, his great-grandparents’ slave master.

“I do not think that General James Dearing would have ever thought that 200 years later one of the ancestors of a slave that worked on the plantation would be sitting on the couch of General James Dearing… someone might be turning over in their grave,” Alfred Dearing said.

“As far as slavery is concerned,” he said, “that’s gone, that’s behind us. There’s nothing we can do about that, but let’s come together as a people and do for our future, our children, and now. And that’s what I think me sitting on that couch represented.”

“I think God first and I’m hoping that this can have others come together and love and in spirit and in body and soul,” he said.

Alfred Dearing is planning a family reunion at the Avoca Museum next year.

This is a developing story. Stay with 8News online and on air for the latest updates.

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