“History teaches us … to remember.”
Those are the words of retired UVA Wise professor Preston Mitchell, who has become involved in a research project with student involvement for the first time since his retirement in 2014.
That undertaking, the Community Remembrance Project, was born around two years ago, and centers around lynchings committed in Wise County in the early 20th century. The project, according to Dr. Thomas Costa, “grew out of a desire to raise community awareness, aligned with … the goals of the Equal Justice Initiative.”
According to the Equal Justice Initiative’s website, the organization believes in a “need to engage in public conversations about racial history that begin a process of truth and reconciliation in this country.”
“The Community Remembrance is what the Equal Justice Initiative wants communities to do,” Costa said. The research portion of the project, the product of a partnership between Costa, Mitchell and three UVA Wise students, highlights the lynching of three African-American men: Wiley Guynn, Dave Hunt, and Leonard Woods.
According to Costa, the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution which condemned and apologized for lynchings throughout the commonwealth’s history not long after work began on his and Mitchell’s undertaking. Importantly for the Community Remembrance Project, the resolution asked “communities to get involved with EJI [Equal Justice Initiative] and do some research and do some memorialization,” Costa said.
The resolution, Costa said, proved to be the project’s ally. Using the commonwealth’s resolution as a foundation, he and Mitchell began attempting to get communities on board with their research. Beyond that, the duo are hopeful that communities will follow the commonwealth’s example, drafting resolutions of their own.
According to Mitchell, he and Costa will speak at Appalachia Town Hall on Thursday, February 20th. After their appearance at Appalachia, Costa said, only one town will be left to discuss the project with: St. Paul.
According to Costa, he and Mitchell hope that as more and more communities get on board with their work, Wise County can be convinced to pass a resolution in keeping with the Virginia General Assembly’s.
In addition to the work to bring the lynchings to the attention of local communities, there is another important aspect of the project: research. In 2019, Costa said, he began to organize a group to look more deeply into the murders of Guynn, Hunt, and Woods.
With the research process on the horizon, Costa had his targets for recruitment: UVA Wise students Zoe Crihfield and Dylan Mabe, and now-UVA Wise alumnus Thomas Noble. “They had been in classes with me, and I knew they were good students,” Costa said.
Costa gained a valuable contact before research with the student group officially began: Dr. Gianluca De Fazio of James Madison University. According to Costa, De Fazio had conducted similar research in the past, and shared his approach to the work with Costa. “That’s been a real good partnership,” Costa said.
Crihfield became officially involved in the project after she attended two lectures by De Fazio in March of 2019, she said. According to Costa, he had already been in contact with De Fazio for months, and Black History Month presented an opportunity for him to invite De Fazio to lecture. De Fazio did that and more, organizing a “community meeting” of his own volition in order to bring attention to the lynchings, Costa said.
According to Crihfield, the students’ work on the project began shortly after the conclusion of UVA Wise’s 2019 spring semester and continued into the inception of the fall semester.
When the research process finally began, the work was demanding. According to Noble, he went so far as making the journey to Richmond to investigate any pertinent information held by the Library of Virginia. Crihfield, responsible for examining censuses, recalled having to explore volumes of microfilm.
According to the group, their research not only directly investigated the events, but also the lynchings’ larger historical context and the sociopolitical environment surrounding the lynchings. The investigated lynchings covered a nearly three-decade span, from 1902 to 1927.
But now, the students’ hard work has paid off in more ways than one. According to Crihfield, she and Mabe will be responsible for presenting the group’s research at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research. “I’m real excited for them,” Costa said.
The duo will not be entering the conference without experience, Crihfield said, having previously assisted in presenting their research in October of 2019 at Recovering Appalachia.
In addition to the presentation of the research at NCUR, the work has earned an audience in another way, according to the group. De Fazio’s website, titled Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia, published an essay written by the group which summarizes their findings. Titled “Three Lynchings in Wise County”, it may be found online.
According to Costa, another goal of the group’s work is to obtain a commemorative sign from the Equal Justice Initiative. “They have one of those for each county, and it’s got the names of the three men who were lynched in Wise County,” he said. “They have duplicates of those outside, and what they want is communities, after they’ve gone through this process, to come and claim those and bring them back to the county.”
Costa fears that obtaining such a sign will be difficult, but is nevertheless determined to keep pursuing it. “We’re going to have to work really hard to get the local folks and the county behind that, and have somewhere to put it where it would be an appropriate place,” he said.
For Mitchell, it is essential that the murders be exposed. “The thing with reconciliation is, unless you can recognize and call out these things like these lynchings, for instance, you can’t reconcile. In order to reconcile, you got to recognize,” he said. The Community Remembrance Project has brought recognition to Wise County.