ALEXANDRIA, VA – Alexandria’s past is imperfect, but embracing that fact gives the city its strength. On Tuesday, the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved a plan to acquire a steel pillar monument honoring Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thompson, two African Americans who were lynched in the city in the 1890s.
“This is something that has a great deal of community interest and I think it’s very much in alignment with our posture of late in making sure we tell a more fulsome view of our history, and acknowledge and learn from our history,” Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said. “Bringing the pillar to Alexandria is an important step.”
Joseph McCoy was lynched on a lamp post at Lee and Cameron Streets on April 23, 1897, and Benjamin Thompson was lynched on a lamp post at Fairfax Street near King Street on Aug. 8, 1899. Alexandria’s steel pillar bearing their names is currently one of 800 pillars representing 4,743 terror lynching victims nationwide at the Equal Justice Initiative’s six-acre National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.
“Everyone has been very excited to hear about this process and concept of reconciliation for so many communities that have had terror lynchings in the past,” said Alexandria City Councilor John Taylor Chapman, who thanked City Manager Mark Jinks for including the item in the fiscal year 2020 Capital Improvement Program.
The Alexandria Black History Museum is teaming up with the Office of Historic Alexandria on the project. Both plan to look for descendants of McCoy and Thompson and place markers at both locations. Additionally, soil samples will be collected for the Equal Justice Initiative [EJI] Community Remembrance Soil Collections program.
Audrey Davis, executive director of the Alexandria History Museum, said that she has been contacted by hundreds of interested people on the topic.
“This topic is very timely and it touches on so many things – social justice, racial inequality, hate crimes,” Davis said. “It’s important to note these pillars at EJI, that nobody has claimed their pillar as of yet. We hope that Alexandria, because of our communication with EJI, will be one of the first communities in the country to claim its pillar.”
The council vote directed the city manager to create an ad hoc planning group to determine a location for the pillar, travel on a pilgrimage to the EJI memorial in Alabama, arrange for its transport and then hold a dedication ceremony. The group will comprised of representatives from the Alexandria faith community, the Human Rights Commission, the NAACP, the Northern Virginia Urban League, the Society for the Preservation of Black History, Alexandria City Public Schools, the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission and the Alexandria Public Library.
“We’ll hold public programs, we’ll work with different faith communities and other outreach to make sure that everyone is engaged in this process,” said Gretchen Bulova, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. “An important thing for us is that we do more research on these individual lynching victims and that we try to locate any living relatives.”