Southern Cultures 10.2 (2004) 110-111
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Lunenburg—a tiny grouping of houses and farms southwest of Richmond near the North Carolina border—served as the unlikely host to Virginia's biggest media spectacle of 1895. For a few months in the summer and fall of that year, the murder of Lucy Jane Pollard topped coverage of the increasingly controversial Populist and free silver movements, as well as the upcoming presidential election. The victim was found dead by her husband, having been murdered in their yard on her way to set the hens. Locals quickly rounded up three suspects, all African American women and all with some connection to the Pollard farm. Another suspect, Solomon Marable, a black man seen spending twenty-dollar bills in the nearest town, joined the women in custody the next day.
As Suzanne Lebsock unfolds the story of this murder investigation, she exposes interwoven networks of interracial neighbors and estranged families, pockets of Republican-holdovers where black men sat on juries, and a moment of considerable potential in this period between the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. Intricately constructed from rural county court records and newspaper clippings, Murder in Virginia reads like the best of crime novels as it pulls the reader along. Except, as this Bancroft Prize-winning historian points out in the [End Page 110] prologue, the story is true and much too convoluted to get past any sensible fiction editor. Here bananas and body-snatchers, a Catholic priest, and upwards of eleven judges people a story grounded in the latest historical debates on household work and wealth systems in rural communities, women's roles, and lynching. Lebsock does not overwhelm with this historiography—in fact, much is subsumed in the sparse and well-articulated endnotes or simply relied upon without specific reference. This allows her to build a rich text, based on a framework of up-to-date historical interpretation, while remaining concerned first and foremost with telling a good story well.
At the time of the Pollard murder, lingering memories of slavery and resentment over the South's recent defeat rendered most African Americans accused of murdering a white woman guilty in the eyes of the community, without the benefit of judge or jury. As a mob embodying the very real threat of lynching surrounded the Lunenburg prisoners, however, a group of white neighbors helped move them to safety. When their trial began, the untiring reporting of John Mitchell Jr., editor of the African American weekly the Richmond Planet and champion of the women's cause, kept this obscure murder a standard feature of the Richmond papers. Mitchell also hired a crack team of white attorneys to represent the women, drawing upon a national network of African American social and fraternal organizations for financial support. This collaboration of black and white in the women's defense seems unexpected at the end of the nineteenth century, a time better known for mob violence than a thorough justice system. The Pollard case, spanning nineteen months, seven trials, and four appeals, and still mostly forgotten in the histories of this time period, defied many such expectations.
The rich narrative that Lebsock uncovers is surprising—coming as it does in the 1890s, a decade of American history often understood, as she characterizes it, "as a time of galloping racism." Lebsock looks beyond the seemingly solid front of white supremacist ideology and asks us to rethink this history—to think about how Jim Crow was created in the first place. When reactionary redemption gripped the South after the relative opening up of civil society during Reconstruction, instances of interracial cooperation, such as those seen in the Pollard trials, were erased from popular memory. By showing us engaged black citizens, divided whites, and the myriad daily interactions that took place beneath the veneer of a codifying racial system, Lebsock opens the window onto a remarkable moment of ambiguity and lost possibility in the...