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Alexandria Gathers to Atone for Lynching of Joseph McCoy 125 Years After Murder

building behind a train illuminated in purple
The Masonic Memorial illuminated in purple to honor Joseph McCoy. (Photo Daniel Horowitz)

ALEXANDRIA, VA–In 1897, 19-year-old Joseph McCoy was viciously murdered in Alexandria. Now, 125 years later, Alexandria is still paying its respects and emulating belated accountability, reconciliation, and responsibility for this horrific crime.

group of people sit outside in chairs and smile at camera
Members of City Council and Vice Mayor Amy Jackson were in attendance. (Photo Lucelle O’ Flaherty)

On April 23, 2022, Alexandrians gathered in Market Square to further those payments of respect and accountability with a Remembrance Ceremony. The ceremony began with a performance of Oh Freedom by the Beulah Baptist Choir, followed by remarks from Mayor Justin Wilson, Police Chief Don Hayes, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter, and Vice President of the Black Student Union, Alexandria City High School Yahney-Marie Sangaré.

a line of people carrying wreath
The ceremony began with a procession and wreath laying. (Photo Lucelle O’Flaherty)

Mayor Wilson remarked, “What is so important about this effort is we are telling a story not only of people of color and women, but also about evil people who have walked these streets and the complicity the community has had in that evil. Every year that we come back here, it is about what we can glean from that history as instructive lessons of today. We grieve [McCoy’s] loss because it a loss of the Alexandria community. We grieve the circumstances of how it occurred, we want to take the incident of how it occurred and turn it into something positive in the future. Every year, I take something of the history I haven’t fully understood, and try to draw conclusions in my own head. This year I focused on the role of the governor, Charles Farrell, a former confederate soldier who began his term in January 1894.

“Throughout his term he was extremely aggressive in trying to crack down on lynching. He sent folks to different communities throughout the Commonwealth when there was even a threat of lynching. He made sure he had folks up here working to investigate what happened. He laid the blame on the mayor at the time as well as other city officials for allowing this to happen. He was incredibly progressive for his time. Right after [McCoy’s lynching] an editorial in the  Richmond Planet was really critical, saying Alexandria made a colossal mistake by allowing this to occur, that it should have allowed the judicial system to do its thing, and McCoy would have been quickly convicted and executed. When a justice system can replicate a mob on the streets something is wrong; that is the lesson I take from this incident 125 years ago.”

This is why Alexandria gathers on this day each year; to recognize what has been wrong in our justice system and to attempt to right it.

headshot of woman
Poet Laureate Zeina Azzam debuts poem written especially for today. (Courtesy Photo)

Following these remarks, Alexandria’s Poet Laureate Zeina Azzam, debuted her latest piece. She began, “I am honored to be with you as we mark this solemn occasion… I have chosen to write a villanelle, which is a highly structed poetic form that features repeated lines. These refrains reinforce the words of our remembrance and affirm our need to face history and seek justice.”

To Bring Justice Near — A Poem for Joseph McCoy; On the Commemoration of the Lynching of Joseph McCoy in Alexandria, Virginia, on April 23, 1897, reads as follows:

A Black man was lynched in our city, here,
where a white mob savagely had its way.
We must face history, bring justice near.

He lived on Alfred Street, age eighteen years,
grew up when harsh Jim Crow laws ruled the day.
A Black man was lynched in our city, here.

Together let’s say his name, bare our tears.
We lift up Joseph McCoy, and we pray:
We must face history, bring justice near.

The trauma from racial hate is severe,
remains till now, unless we change our ways.
A Black man was lynched in our city, here.

No one was tried for his murder; it’s clear
that this son of our city was betrayed.
We must face history, bring justice near.

Let’s educate our youth, open eyes, ears,
so inhumanity is not replayed.
A Black man was lynched in our city, here.
We must face history, bring justice near.

The ceremony was concluded with a eulogy, procession, and a benediction song.

group of people stand in front of lamp post
The remembrance marker stands at the corner of Lee and Cameron streets, across from Market Square. (Photo Lucelle O’Flaherty)

This lynching is the first recorded lynching of a black man in the city. Today, a remembrance marker stands in McCoy’s memory at the very site of Joseph McCoy’s murder. The full narrative of this event was thoroughly researched in 2020, by the Alexandria Community Remembrance Project (ACRP). ACRP is a city-wide initiative dedicated to helping Alexandria understand its history of racial terror hate crimes. ACRP conducts research, education, programs, and events that remember Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas and explores the long-term impacts upon Alexandria’s African American community.

The narrative of the lynching and the biography of McCoy can be found here. 

The McCoy family history goes back more than 50 years before Joseph’s life was taken from him. Cecilia McCoy, Joseph’s grandmother, was born a free woman in Alexandria. She raised a family of four children, who then had children of their own. Joseph, the youngest of five siblings, lost his mother, Ann, soon after he was born. So he and his two sisters and two brother went to live with Cecilia, and they began working right away to help support the family.

As Cecilia was a washerwoman, so were her children and her children’s children employees of the domestic realm. Joseph was employed by the Lacy family, all the way up until 1987.

On April 22, Richard Lacy accused Joseph of attaching three of his children. Joseph was subsequently arrested. Then, in the early hours of April 23, Joseph was dragged from his cell, shot, bludgeoned, and hanged from a lamppost, which stood on the corner of Lee and Cameron Streets. Joseph was only 19.

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Related: Virtual Remembrance Held for Joseph McCoy Lynching 

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