Jim Crow justice, the Richmond planet, and the murder of Lucy Pollard

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On 14 June 1895, an aging white farmer, Edward Pollard, returned from his fields to find the body his wife, Lucy, outside their home in Lunenburg County, Virginia, southwest of Richmond. She had been hewn repeatedly with an ax, and more than eight hundred dollars was missing from the Pollard home. Found with two twenty-dollar bills, a black man from North Carolina, Solomon Marable, was charged with the crime, and he confessed to his involvement as an accessory. He implicated three local black women-Mary Abernathy and Pokey and Mary Barnes-as the actual murderers. "Feelings were high" in Lunenburg and the surrounding counties, and lynchings appeared imminent. The local sheriff spirited the four defendants out of the neighborhood, assigning a deputy to guide them on a trek on foot through the night to the Petersburg jail to the north.2 In the following eighteen months, this case would become a sensation in Virginia's African American community and, to a lesser extent, among whites. Solomon Marable would be tried twice, convicted both times, and hanged for his part in the crime. This part of the story was predictable in end-of-thecentury Virginia. Pokey and the two Marys-who came to be known collectively as the Lunenburg women-had a much more interesting, complex, and telling path to tread, one that indicates that in 1895 racial lines and feeling in Virginia were not as rigid as they would become after 1900. The saga of the Lunenburg women fits a model of the best-case (although still inequitable) scenario for blacks facing southern justice in the Jim Crow era. They resided in Virginia rather than in the still more prejudicial Deep South. Lunenburg County was 60 percent black, and in 1895 this population was not yet fully humbled by disfranchisement.3 Indeed, black as well as white citizens sat on their juries in the first series of trials. The defendants were women, and what chivalry whites could muster for black womanhood softened the hardest edges of Virginia's judicial system. The case attracted a great deal of attention and raised questions of the legitimacy of the entire criminal justice system, which led a few prominent white lawyers to intervene to help protect the rights of the accused. It is a measure of endemic Southern racism that the Lunenburg women were repeatedly convicted in the Virginia courts. It was only a series of unusual actions by both blacks and whites in Virginia that saved the women from the gallows. The Lunenberg case was a rare success for blacks facing white justice in the South, but its exceptional nature merely throws into stark relief the racist nature of Southern justice in the era of Jim Crow. From 1880 to 1920, African Americans in the South experienced not only segregation and disfranchisement, but also lynching, race riots, and milder forms of intimidation. Violence and prejudicial justice were the most pressing issues confronting Southern African Americans in this period. White crimes against the race were so common as to be a steady drumbeat in the black press for decades. The ubiquity of white crimes also meant that individual crimes against blacks rarely became notable sensations in the African American press; they were simply too commonplace. But the most haunting cases in the black community involved strong evidence of the innocence of black defendants, as with the Lunenburg case. Such cases raised a larger question: would prejudicial white courts be able to acquit? This essay places the Lunenburg murder case in the wider context of justice and race in Virginia, evaluating the perspective of one of the South's most prominent black editor-activists. John Mitchell, the editor of an African American weekly, the Richmond Planet, covered the case closely, and his newspaper provides a rare source in the historical record of the era of lynching: A Southern black condemnation of Southern injustice.4 John R. Mitchell Jr. was born near Richmond, Virginia, in the midst of the Civil War. In his childhood, Mitchell obtained the sort of education that had been denied most African Americans, graduating with distinction from Richmond's Colored Normal School in 1881. For the next two years, he taught in Fredericksburg, then briefly in Richmond, where he began his newspaper career as a weekly reporter for the African American paper the New York Globe.5 In 1884, he took over the editorial post at the newly founded Richmond Planet, and remained in that position for the next forty-five years Little in John Mitchell's early history marked him as a radical. But in the 1880s and 1890s, he was as strident and vocal in opposition to lynching and white supremacy as any editor in the nation. He "has the reputation of being the bravest Afro-American editor in the country," in large part due to his "uncompromising war on lynching and all other forms of lawlessness," wrote the Colored American Magazine in 1902.6 John Mitchell lies in between the poles of W. E. B. Du Bois's assertive philosophy and Booker T. Washington's quieter path to raise the race, and Mitchell's years editing the Planet (1884-1929) nicely coincide with the pinnacle of the black press's influence. Mitchell could be aggressive; but he could also counsel caution, emphasizing business development and social peace. Mitchell confronted tidal forces-black people's postslavery yearning for equality and a repressive, white-run South tending toward the retrograde. He was what some whites called a "new issue Negro," born to freedom's first generation. Unlike many other vocal defenders of his race in the era, however, he never moved to the North. His struggle would be to find a place for himself and his people within this white-dominated New South. In the 1890s, John Mitchell sensationalized his stories of black innocence, highlighting the forces at battle in the black community: The rule of law, the prejudiced mobs and officials, the innocent victims, the protecting arms of the black community. The victims, along with the active public (including Mitchell himself, of course) were the heroes, fending off a system of white justice that was patently and persistently unjust. The clearest example of these themes was the 1895 Lunenburg murder case. © 2005 State University of New York. All rights reserved.

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Murder on Trial: 1620-2002

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