Wise lynching history project gains web exposure

Mike Still • Feb 13, 2020 at 5:30 PM

WISE — After almost two years, a student-driven effort to research the history of three early 20th century lynchings in Wise County is getting national attention through an online essay.

Tom Costa, a history professor at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, and retired teacher Preston Mitchell have been working with students Zoe Crihfield, Tommy Noble and Dylan Mabe as part of a broader effort with the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project.

The project aims to document and mark the sites of lynchings across the U.S. Costa and Mitchell have worked to join schools, churches and county and local governments in support of setting a marker memorializing the three lynchings in the county in 1902, 1920 and 1927.

Part of the process in getting a marker set in Wise County, as in localities across the country, involves getting five community organizations to sponsor the effort.

Costa, Mitchell and other community members have lobbied successfully to get UVA Wise, the Wise County School Board, Pound Historical Society, Episcopal churches and African-American churches to help sponsor the effort, which has included researching the details surrounding the lynchings of Wiley Guynn in 1902, Dave Hurst in 1920 and Leonard Wood in 1927.

The students’ research involved months of combing through old federal census records and period newspapers and magazine for details on the lynchings and the victims.

“One of the things we’ve faced is the fact we can’t find any descendants of the lynching victims,” Mitchell said.

The work of Crihfield, Noble and Mabe recently gained attention from James Madison University professor and racial violence researcher Gianluca De Fazio who asked the group, Costa and Mitchell to distill their research into an essay for De Fazio’s research website, https://sites.jmu.edu/valynchings/three-lynchings-in-wise-county/.

Costa said that De Fazio’s work on racial violence led him to help draft the Virginia General Assembly’s 2019 resolution apologizing for lynching and calling for reconciliation of the truth behind that violence.

Part of De Fazio’s attention came from the students’ research on 1920 Wise County and Norton Sheriff A.J. Corder, who put down an attempt by whites to lynch a black man, Sidney Williams, accused of assaulting an Appalachia storekeeper. Corder had already seen Dave Hurst taken from his jail a month earlier when a mob rolled into Wise in an automobile convoy to try to take Williams.

Costa said Corder’s successful resistance to that mob and another a day later in Norton marked a theme in the three lynchings. A white prosecutor tried unsuccessfully to stop Guynn’s lynching in 1902, and a Kentucky prosecutor just across the line from Wise County said he was able to identify some members of the mob that lynched Leonard Wood just inside the Wise County line.

Costa said the students will present their work to the Pound Historical Society in March as part of a joint effort to lobby for a state historical marker near the site of Wood’s 1927 lynching near Pound.

Costa said that, while he and UVA Wise students have done research on the lynchings, it is important that the Wise County community be engaged in observing and memorializing the events.

“You cannot have true reconciliation without recognizing what you did wrong,” Mitchell said.