The Black Lives Matter movement has revived discussion of a problem that has persisted in this nation’s history since the time of slavery – the unequal treatment of African-Americans by police and the justice system. It’s a subject that distresses Ross Howell, author of a new book about a black teenager who was executed in Virginia more than a hundred years ago. Sandy Hausman has details.
Ross Howell, Junior's book – Forsaken – tells the story of a 16-year-old African-American girl convicted of killing a white woman from Hampton who employed her to do laundry. It was 1912, and lawyers kept Virginia Christian off the stand, because they feared racial unrest if she were to testify.
“She was upset that she had not been allowed to tell her side of the story," the author explains. "She invited newspaper reporters be brought to her cell, where she confessed to the crime but explained that there had been this argument about a missing locket and that the woman had struck her with a piece of crockery. There were shards of ceramic found at the murder site, and that an altercation had followed, and when the widow wouldn’t stop screaming she had suffocated her.”
Because she was so young, Howell says Christian wasn’t actually eligible for the death penalty.
“The Constitution of Virginia specified that a juvenile should not be executed or even incarcerated," he says. " What was supposed to happen to her was she would be put in an institution where she would learn a trade and some determination would be made on her fate at a later date. Unfortunately at that time there was no such institution for black girls.”
So the court sentenced her to die in the electric chair. The case provoked outrage in other parts of the country, and black newspapers in cities like Chicago took up the cause. Some letters of protest are on file at the Library of Virginia, where Roger Christman serves as a senior archivist. He had actually used the case of Virginia Christian to learn the library’s collection when he began work there in 1997.
“I had previously worked at the South Carolina State Archives, and I had done my thesis on juvenile executions in South Carolina in the 20th," he recalls. "They executed seven, including one who was 14 years old. Doing that type of research helps you learn the collection, because if there’s a coroner’s inquest, there are coroner’s records. There’s a court record. There are newspapers. If they go to the penitentiary, there are Department of Corrections records.”
After reading Howell’s book, Christmas created a digital bibliography, chapter by chapter, allowing the public to go online and see all the documents, letters and photographs that Ross Howell studied before writing the book.
“Even though it’s a novel, the framework is about the records of that case that are here in the library," Christman explains. "It’s really showing a creative use of our collection.”
Perhaps the most compelling thing on that website is a photo of Virginia Christian before she was transferred to the penitentiary.
“You see a child who is alone, fearful and it’s hard to look at that photograph and turn away,” says the author.
Howell admits he couldn’t turn away, and he’s profoundly honored by Christman’s website.
“For something like this to happen to me as a writer, I have to tell you it’s just unbelievable," he says. "I’m still getting my head around it.”
The author can say thanks in person when he speaks at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, this Wednesday at noon, and both will meet another interested party according to library spokeswoman Jan Hathcock.
“We are hoping to have in the audience Agenia Rogers, the descendent of the lead attorney who defended Virginia Christian back in 1912,” she says.
The program is free and open to the public, as is the Virginia Festival of the Book, where Howell will appear on a panel March 17 in Charlottesville.
Roger Christman's digital bibliography:
And his blogpost on Forsaken: