ALEXANDRIA, Va. (DC News Now) — On Monday night in Alexandria, dozens of people remembered the life of a Black teen killed by a mob of angry white people who lynched him at the turn of the century.
They sang, prayed, and reflected, looking inward at the city where it all happened.
Back in 1899, 16-year-old Benjamin Thomas, a Black boy, was accused of sexual assault of a white girl, but he never had his day in court as he was brutally lynched on August 8.
123 years later, people remember Thomas and those who tried to protect him.
Behind the Shiloh Baptist Church Choir’s rendition of We Shall Overcome, Alexandrians marched from City Hall to the corner of King and Fairfax, where the lynching happened.
“Do you hear the blood… crying… from the ground?” asked Rev. Dr. Taft Quincey Heatley from Shiloh Baptist Church during a reflection at the lynching site.
Before the march, a ceremony was held in front of City Hall. An art project that featured Thomas’s name and all the Black community members who tried to protect him was presented. At that ceremony, several Alexandria City High School students told the story with all the hard-to-hear details.
“[The white mob] ran down St. Asaph St., dragging Benjamin,” Miracle Gross, a senior, said. “First on his back, then on his face — the rough cobblestone battering his head.”
It was an important moment for the teenagers roughly the same age as Thomas when he was lynched.
“Being able to stand here and tell that story of this horrific event that happened 123 years ago, but feels like yesterday, is a transcendent experience,” Junior Yahney-Marie Sangare said.
There was also a moment of reconciliation from Sheriff Sean Casey, who acknowledged the roles his department and police and city government leaders played in the lynching. They allowed it to happen, despite the efforts of the Black community members.
“Our profession’s history of racial oppression and white supremacy cannot be overlooked,” he said. “And it should not be overlooked.”
For some, it reminded some of a 2020 murder that fueled a movement. Thomas called for his mom as he was being beaten.
“This reminded me of George Floyd calling out for his mother 121 years later,” Zeina Azzam, the city’s poet laureate, said.
But as the wreath was laid on the corner, there was a message both through sermon and song.
“You have to see those who look differently from you as your brothers and sisters,” Quincey Heatley said.
Then, the choir performed a rendition of This Little Light of Mine.
The telling of Thomas’s story is far from over. Alexandrians will take part in a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, with jars of soil from the Virginia city. One for Thomas and the other for Joseph McCoy, who was also lynched in Alexandria. They’ll leave the jars at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.