Charlotte_Harris

Harris was kidnapped and lynched while awaiting trial after she was accused of inciting a Black boy to burn a barn, who was later acquitted.

A historical marker honoring Charlotte Harris, a formerly enslaved Black woman who was lynched in Rockingham County in 1878, was unveiled Sept. 26 in Court Square.

The marker was unveiled after it was approved by the Virginia Department of Historical Resources (DHR) in June. JMU professor and member of the Harrisonburg Community Remembrance Project Gianluca De Fazio has worked with community members to have this marker installed since 2017. 

“She was a person no matter what … she was a person with aspirations and dreams that we’ll never know about,” De Fazio said.  “All of her basic rights were completely denied … the justice system failed her.”

Harris was kidnapped while awaiting trial and lynched after being accused of inciting a Black boy to burn a barn, who was later acquitted. Harris is the only known Black woman that was lynched in Virginia. 

A grand jury in Rockingham County in 1878 said it wasn’t able to identify Harris’ killers. 

“It was a community event, it wasn’t just a simple murder,” De Fazio said. “This was an act of terrorism to intimidate the African American community in this county.”

In 2017, De Fazio said he met Steven Thomas, part-time staff and restorative justice coordinator at the Northeast Neighborhood Association, after he conducted research on lynchings in Virginia and couldn’t find much information about Harris. De Fazio said he began meeting with Thomas to keep Harris’ story alive. 

“We really know very little about her … not a single newspaper article mentioned her age, if she was married, if she had children, if she had any relatives — her story is completely in the background,” De Fazio said. 

The Harrisonburg Community Remembrance Project was created in 2018, with representatives from institutions in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. The committee consists of De Fazio, Thomas, JMU professor Sarah Zurbrigg, county representative Bradford Dyjak, city representative Amy Snider and Vice-Mayor Sal Romero.

“The idea was trying to find ways of how we could honor Charlotte Harris,” De Fazio said. “We quickly found the idea of the historical marker to be an important first step.”

De Fazio said the committee arranged a proposal to send to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR). The application was sent last year and approved in June after the DHR vetted the historical information and approved the marker, he said.

“It’s a sobering reminder of the untold history that really resonates with the community at this time,” Bradford Dyjak, the director of planning of Rockingham County, said. “It’s really brought an awareness to a really horrific and dark chapter of … our collective history.”

De Fazio said that he was pleasantly surprised by the support of the City and the County in the creation of the historical marker. He said there were unanimous votes on both the City and County level for the marker, and they showed their commitment to the project. 

“Her story was not told, we’re only recently, properly, remembering her,” Dyjak said. “She was not able to write her own story.”

Amy Snider, assistant to the city manager, said that it’s important to acknowledge and discuss the horrific and traumatic historical events in order to create more just communities.

“The purpose of the historical marker … is to provide everyone in the community exposure to the shared history of racial injustice in our community as well as to memorialize Charlotte Harris and elevate her story,” Snider said.

Both Snider and Dyjak emphasized the impact that De Fazio and Thomas had on the project before the committee was assembled. Snider said it was an honor to take part in the committee as a representative for the City. 

“It was a good opportunity to collaborate with our community partners as well as the City and JMU, to find the appropriate means to remember Ms. Harris’ life and then also the legacy of the unfortunate and horrific incident,” Dyjak said.

De Fazio said that it’s important to look at the long history of oppression for African Americans and connect it to issues in the present day. 

“Look at [the marker] as a form of warning, when people think that they can take justice into their own hands … and doing so with impunity,” De Fazio said. “That is a very very dangerous message, it’s something we should never repeat.”

Contact Ashlyn Campbell at campbeab@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.