Love and lynching in Wytheville: Raymond Arthur Byrd

1926 New York Times Raymond Byrd headline

1926 New York Times Raymond Byrd headline

Hands down, this is the most painful and challenging post I’ve written. If you’re easily upset, it’s perhaps best if you skip over this one.

I’m well versed in the horrors of lynching in the United States. It’s not a subject that was ever broached in school. However, it’s a subject that I imagine every African American is familiar with. Much in the same manner that the Irish are well versed in the inhumane treatment they were subjected to through English colonialism and the horrors of The Troubles. While I may have been familiar with lynching I never thought in a million years that it would have a direct impact on my family. A message received through Ancestry.com changed that.

Raymond Arthur Byrd was born in Speedville, Wythe County, Virginia on 2 April 1895 to Stephen C. Byrd (a Sheffey himself through his mother Lenah M. Sheffey, origins unknown) and Josephine V. Sheffey, a descendant of Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Raymond spent his life working as a farm labourer from his early teens. By the time he was 24, he had met and married Tennessee “Tennie” Hawkins in 1919. The pair quickly established a small family in Rural Retreat, Wythe Co. before moving to Wytheville. Daughter Edith M Byrd was born in 1919.  Edith was followed by Lillian Josephine Byrd in 1921 and Hazel Beatrice Byrd in 1924.

While the exact date is unknown, Raymond worked for the white Grubb family in Wytheville, VA in 1925. It’s here that his story takes a dark and barbaric turn. He fell in love with Minnie Grubb, the daughter of his employer. It’s worth remembering that inter-racial relationships were actively discouraged in the 1920s.  Marriage between the races was illegal. It was an anathema not solely restricted to the southern states.

Rumour and legend has it that Minnie kept a diary which, unfortunately, hasn’t been found. If it ever existed, her diary would shed a light on the progression of the relationship she had with Raymond: from first meeting him as an employee of her family through to the acknowledgement of feelings and the progression to an initiate relationship. Their relationship would have been problematic on two fronts: the first being Raymond’s colour, the second the fact that he was married man with a family. Despite being in love, the relationship was doomed from the outset. I can’t help but wonder what both of them must have felt about this.

In 1925, Minnie fell pregnant with Raymond’s child. I can only imagine the range of emotions both must have felt. Biology, being what it is, could grant them only so much time before her condition would become apparent, leading to Minnie inevitably telling her family. She must have informed her family at some point as the wheels that were set in motion afterwards would have consequences for Raymond and Minnie’s respective families and the State of Virginia itself.

Raymond was jailed in Wytheville, accused of forcibly attacking Minnie, a charge she strenuously denied at the time. Whilst in jail, a mob formed with the knowledge of the authorities and ‘stormed’ the jail on 15 August 1926, shooting Raymond in the head multiple times.  The men mutilated his remains before dragging his body behind a truck and hanging it in a tree near to the Grubb property. The body would be discovered by 16 year-old John Henry Davis who was on his way to milking his father’s cow.

Raymond would officially be the last person to be lynched in Virginia.  The crime against him was so horrific, so brutal and evil that it made the national news in the US. Along with a series of Virginian lynchings between 1920 and 1925, the nature of Raymond’s lynching prompted the Virginia State Senate to pass The Virginia Anti-Lynching Law of 1928. He and his family received a full posthumous pardon from the Governor of Virginia.

The tale of Minnie and Raymond didn’t end there.

Minnie gave birth to a daughter on 23 July 1926 whose name is believed to be Geraldine Johnson. Geraldine was born in Abingdon, VA. Originally named Willie, the child was sent to live with the Johnson family elsewhere in Virginia.  From there, she was taken by persons unknown. It’s believed that she was taken to Ohio. Ohio isn’t that much of a stretch of the imagination. Raymond had African American Sheffey and Byrd kin living in Ohio. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, the blood connection within the Sheffey family ran deep. To me, it seems entirely probable that either the Ohio-based Sheffeys or Byrds (or both, as these two families were related to one another) could have taken the child out of a hostile Virginia to a secure life in the more moderate Ohio. To-date, this child of Minnie Grubb and Raymond Byrd remains a mystery. She has never been found.

One things really drives Raymond’s story home to me. My first marriage was to a classic ‘English rose’. My second to a woman of Brazilian and Israeli heritage. Neither raised any eyebrows in 1990s UK. I’ve dated the daughter of an earl and a daughter of a viscount, again, without any eyebrows being raised within that august British entity known as ‘The Establishment’. I took something for granted that directly led to the death of Raymond, my second cousin twice removed. I was congratulated and my marriages celebrated. His love relationship led to an unforgiving and brutal death.

Alongside the family successes I’ve uncovered along the way, this is a tale that will remain with me always.

As I read in the press how the states of Texas and Tennessee want to whitewash slavery and the eras that followed, stories like the one above – no matter how uncomfortable they may be – should never be forgotten. I remain firm in the belief that the only way the country of my birth can address where it has fallen short of the ideals upon which it was founded is through open and honest dialogue. If the English can actively engage in this process with its former colonies and with the Irish, the US can do it too with the different ethnic peoples which bore the brunt of its shortcomings. From this lays the roots of healing and moving forward as a collective people.

In loving memory of Raymond Arthur Byrd, 1895 – 1926

For more information:

Beers, Paul G. 1994. The Wythe County Lynching of Raymond Birdhttp://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40934963?uid=3738032&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21102453700747

Ottney ,Ryan Scott. 2009. In Search Of Geraldine, Portsmouth Daily Times. http://www.portsmouth-dailytimes.com/pages/full_story/push?article-In+Search+Of+Geraldine%20&id=6789146&instance=secondary_stories_left_column

Smith, Douglas. Anti-Lynching Law of 1928, The Encyclopedia Virginia. http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Antilynching_Law_of_1928#start_entry

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10 Comments

Filed under family history, Sheffey family, virginia, wythe

10 responses to “Love and lynching in Wytheville: Raymond Arthur Byrd

  1. The times have changed, as they always do. For many not fast enough for others too fast. All of our families are a part of this history of change. I could not help but wonder if someone out there doing family research, has found a relative who took part in these lynching’s. What would their thoughts be? As for the whitewashing you speak about, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The lack of good history courses in our schools is appalling.

    Anyway enjoyed your writing very much.

    • Thank you for your considered comment on what is an emotive subject. And that is a great question about the descendants of the lynchers.

    • Tony

      The couple of individuals I spoke to our embarrassed and afraid to speak out even after all of these years. Some of the men involved have descendants that are prominent figures in business and politics from the Virginia, Maryland and D.C. areas.

      • Well, I’ll certainly bear them in mind if and when the TV series gets the green light. I have no reservations at all in speaking to them and interviewing them for the programme.

  2. What an amazing story. You’ve done a great job sharing it with a lot of detail and information. It’s going to haunt me for quite a while. On a related topic, I learned recently that one of my (white) relatives of a previous generation was married to an African American man in, I believe, the twenties. The story is he was accepted by my family (northerners), but the couple did end up divorcing. I have no other info, but she never married again (I think). It’s an area for further research, but it’s going to be a tough one to find info on.

  3. CSheffey

    Read your posts about Sheffeys in Ohio and also Maryland. Would love too help and see if our families could be the same! Dot know quit that much or that far back.

    • Hello. Feel free to email me. I’m more than happy to give you guest access to the family tree on Ancestry.com. I’ve traced more than a few Ohio Sheffeys back to WVA and VA. My email is: anamericanincornwall[at]gmail[dot]com

  4. Tony

    My wife is a great granddaughter of Raymond Byrd. We appreciate your efforts. His wife had a rough time of it after Raymond’s death. She ended up in a marriage with man who didn’t treat her well and in the end she died via problems with her pregnancy because no doctor would touch her because she was the widow of Raymond Byrd. Before she died she wrote a poem about Raymond. It reads:

    “In the cemetery at Murphysville where the flowers gently wave .
    Lies the one I love so dear in a cold shallow grave..
    Folks may think I have forgotten and may think the wound has heal, .
    but they do not know the sorrow that is in my heart concealed. .
    I do not know the pain he bore .
    I did not see him die, .
    but this I know, .he had to go and did not say goodbye. .
    Sleep on, Sleep on, early fallen in your green narrow bed. .
    I will see you in eternity where no more goodbyes are said.”

    • Hi Tony

      Thank you so much for getting in touch. And thank you as well for sharing this. I did wonder whatever happened to Tennie and their daughters. What a powerful and evocative poem. The tragedy certainly seems to have repercussions which echoes down to the present day.

      I was wondering of your wife or her family knew anything more about Raymond’s parents, Stephen Byrd and Lenah (or Senah) Sheffey? Specifically, I’m looking for information about either their parents or their brothers and sisters.

      If you would like to chat and/or exchange information privately, my email is: anamericanincornwall{at}gmail[dot]com

  5. Tony

    The older two sisters married into their stepfather’s family (Patterson) and had children. The youngest, Hazel, joined the Army just after her mother’s death in 1941 to escape home and became a WAC (Women’s Army Corp) at age 16, but told the military she was 18. After serving several years she moved to Detroit, MI for Beauty School and then to Ohio where she eventually married another Army Vet of WW II and had five children. My wife is her only grandchild.

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