This Day (Virginia Answered Edition)

Published:November 30, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1927, somewhere near the Virginia-Kentucky state line, a mob of several hundred men broke into a jail in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and used hacksaws to open the cell occupied by Leonard Woods, a black man accused of murdering a white Virginian. Unsure of what to do next, someone suggested the mob take Woods to an already constructed platform at nearby Pound Gap, where a few days earlier officials from both Virginia and Kentucky had gathered to celebrate their cooperation in the building of a new highway. According to the Middlesboro (Ky.) Daily News report on December 1, the men then “tore off Wood’s clothing. A noose was quickly made and Woods was swang to his death from the improvised speakers stand. While swinging from the scaffold, the body was riddles with bullets.”

The New York Times article of the same day relied on Kentucky sources who insisted that Woods was lynched on Virginia soil by Virginians. According to the Jenkins, Kentucky, chief of police, “the mob was made up principally of Virginia citizens, several of whom he ‘thought’ he recognized. Virginia license plates were on a majority of the automobiles which escorted the negro from Whitesburg through Jenkins to the scene of the lynching at Pounds Gap, just across the Virginia line …” The local county attorney estimated that the mob numbered 400: “About one-third of the mob wore masks. These, he assumed, were Kentuckians. The crowd had grown to 1,000 at the time of the lynching.”

Another newspaper reported that members of the mob standing in Kentucky “posed a question across the state line: ‘Do Virginians want the Negro lynched?’

“Virginia answered.”

Virginia governor Harry F. Byrd denounced the lynching and promised “drastic punishment so that an example will be made of those who commit murder in the mobs as well as those who commit murder as individuals.” A few days later, however, the governor told the press he wasn’t so sure that the lynching had even occurred in Virginia. He wanted to help, the Associated Press reported, but … “The governor states that if the [crime] was carried out on Kentucky soil by Kentuckians there is nothing he can do except use his best efforts to see that the guilty parties are arrested, if found in Virginia.”

Or, put another way, when justice called …

IMAGE: A detail of the front page of the Middlesboro (Ky.) Daily News, December 1, 1927 (left); a page-one article in the Danville (Va.) Bee, December 1, 1927 (center); a page-twelve article in the Danville (Va.) Bee, December 2, 1927 (right)