The night John Fitzhugh was hanged in Rappahannock County

State legislators pass resolutions regretting Virginia lynchings

Outlining a “dark and shameful chapter of American history,” state legislators in Richmond this week unanimously passed resolutions to “acknowledge with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching” in Virginia, where 104 mostly African American men were murdered by mobs between 1877 and the 1930s.

One of them, John Fitzhugh — victim #VA1884080201 — was hanged in Rappahannock County on Aug. 2, 1884 after reportedly outraging “a highly respectable married lady of Rappahannock County,” according to a newspaper dispatch.

The James Madison University research project Racial Terror, which draws attention to one of the darkest pages of Virginia and American history, has documented 104 known lynching victims in Virginia between 1877 and the 1930s.

According to the JMU project, “almost none of the lynchers ever faced trial, and even fewer were indicted for their crimes. Lynching was indeed a key institution in the preservation of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South.”

One such documented lynching in Rappahannock County surrounded the date of Sunday July 27, 1884, when “after attending a black church service, John Fitzhugh approached the house where a white woman lived,” according to research that included reporting by the Alexandria Gazette on Aug. 4, 1884.

“Fitzhugh watched the husband leave the house with a neighbor, leaving his wife alone; Fitzhugh then ran to his nearby home to grab a revolver and hurried back to the man’s home,” it was reported. “Upon arrival, Fitzhugh found the woman alone on the porch with an infant in her arms.

“Allegedly, Fitzhugh made an ‘infamous proposal’ to the woman, which caused her to react by pushing him off the porch and scream for help. A youth passing by heard the commotion and forced his way into the home and Fitzhugh left the home temporarily, waiting for the boy to leave.”

The Gazette opined that any crime would certainly “visit speedy and rigorous punishment,” pointing out that Fitzhugh had been captured and jailed.

However, “shortly after midnight on August 2nd, 1884, a small band of mounted men made their way to the jail and forced entry. They seized Fitzhugh from his sleep and informed him that he must prepare for a speedy death. They hurried him from his cell into the woods and put a noose around his neck.

“He begged to be spared, and promised, if permitted to live, to mend his ways and never depart from the path of rectitude,” the Gazette reported.

Fitzhugh was promptly hanged, or as the newspaper wrote: “A noose was arranged and in a jiffy Fitzhugh was dangling to the limb of a big oak tree.”

This week, HJ 655, approved by the House, and SJ 297, passed by the Senate, “call for reconciliation among all Virginians” regarding racial terror faced by African Americans during Jim Crow.

According to the identical resolutions, the state will document the lynchings and call further attention to them with historical markers.

The goal, the language states, is to “develop programming to bring awareness and recognition of this history to communities across the state, that such awareness might contribute to the process of healing and reconciliation in Virginia’s still-wounded communities and for families and descendants affected by lynchings.”

“African American men, women, and children lived in fear that their lives and the lives of loved ones could end violently at any time and in any place,” the resolutions continue, adding the lynchings were often public events, drawing thousands of spectators, “and many leaders and authorities and much of society denied and enabled the illegal and horrific nature of the acts.”

Kaytlin Nickens, of Capital News Service, contributed to this report from Richmond.

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John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at