In third grade, when we toured Fire Station Number 1 and visited the Mill Mountain Star, when we spent weeks studying Roanoke’s river and rail yard, the entire town’s history, our teachers mentioned nothing about the Smith lynching. How could they miss it?
It was a media event covered as far away as New York and a local horror that had as many as 5,000 witnesses, nearly a third of the town’s population at the time. While accounts vary, most agree that it began when an African American man bought wild grapes from a farmer’s wife, Sallie A. Bishop. Bishop later said that the man asked her to accompany him to a nearby cellar to get his money. Then, according to Bishop, he tied her up, robbed her at knife point, bashed her head with a brick and left the elderly woman for dead.
Bishop claimed to have laid in her own blood for half an hour. She was dazed but alive. Minutes after providing a vague description to authorities, a suspect was apprehended. Media outlets reported multiple locations for Thomas Smith. He was said to have been in the woods, on the banks of the Roanoke River and also on board an outbound train, trying to skip town. Wherever he was, Smith was immediately taken to Sallie Bishop for identification. According to a dramatized and slanted article in the Roanoke Daily Record, she said…
“‘He looks like him; I think he is the man; if I could see his hat I could tell.’ Smith hastily took his hat from his head and threw it behind him, but the detective quickly picked it up and handed it to Mrs. Bishop, who, after examining it said: ‘He is the man.’”
Roanoke was a powder keg in 1893. An economic depression was on the rise, causing layoffs and closing local banks. The town was rife with prostitution and crime, for which African Americans were too often blamed; and perhaps most importantly, in a racially divided contest, the town had just voted to prohibit alcohol. According to “Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South” by Rand Dotson, white laborers had opposed the ordinance. They were narrowly defeated by an unlikely alliance between well off whites and large segments of the black community.
It took nothing — just an accused black assailant identified only by his hat — to ignite the ire of Roanoke’s white workers. Before Smith was even at the jail, town folk were already throwing rocks and calling for his hanging. By dusk, a mob had formed outside the jailhouse. Roanoke’s mayor, Henry Trout was popular with the townsfolk, but even his calls for order did no good. He summoned the Roanoke Light Infantry. This ragtag band of clerks were as much a social club as a brigade. They had never seen armed conflict, and at points, joked with the rioters outside the jail. Undeterred, the mob was passing whiskey bottles by 8:00 PM and emboldened by the arrival of men from Sallie Bishop’s county of Botetourt who reportedly declared, “Rally men, Botetourt is here!”
The crowd rushed the side door of the jail. An unidentified shot was fired and the infantry let lose. People ran mad. The rioters returned fire. Bullets hit the doors of Greene Memorial Church, sending parishioners under their pews for shelter. At least one leg was blown clean off. Stomachs, groins, and heads were punctured. According to one witness, “The streets before the jail looked ashambles, bloody in forty places, the street car rails slippery with it.”
In total, eight men were killed and thirty four wounded. In the melee, Mayor Trout and Smith were spirited away. Trout was taken to the nearby Ponce De Leon Hotel. Smith was taken by police to a secret spot on the opposite side of the Roanoke River.
When the mob realized that the jail was empty, it proceeded to divide into small groups and ransack local officials homes, searching for the mayor and the prisoner. At this point, The New York Times concluded its coverage of the day and lauded Trout’s adherence to the law. It’s article was entitled “This Mob Did No Lynching.”
What The Times did not know was that a Chief Terry had pleaded with the mayor at the jailhouse to turn Smith over to the mob. While the mayor refused, Terry did not give up. Around 2:00 AM, he convinced his sergeant to return Smith to the Roanoke jail, and he informed at least one member of the mob. Their men would be waiting.
According to Dotson, “Smith spotted the posse first and took off running but made it only a few dozen yards before he was knocked down…The men proceeded only a short distance before they stopped beneath an electric light at the corner of Franklin Road and Mountain Avenue.”
There they stopped, and there they stayed. By morning Smith was hanging from a nearby hickory tree. His eyed bulged. His tongue dangled from his mouth. His body was riddled with bullets, and a growing crowd was pulling away bits of his clothing, threads of the rope, and bark from the tree. They clamored for mementos like candy at a parade.
Thousands gathered, posed for photos, and laughed at the card mounted to Smith’s bloody back; it read “Mayor Trout’s Friends.” The mob later dragged Smith’s body toward the mayor’s house where they intended to bury him in Trout’s yard. A local minister intervened, convincing them instead to burn the corpse on the banks of the Roanoke River.
“A crowd of hundreds then followed the wagon that bore Smith’s body,” says Dotson, “cheering and tearing down fences on the way. When they reached a spot near the narrow gauge railroad bridge, several men gathered brush and tree limbs to build a pyre, doused Smith with coal oil, and set him afire. ‘The flames roared and cracked, leaping high in the air,’ according to a reporter at the scene, ‘while all around stood 4,000 people, men, women, boys and children on foot, in buggies and on horseback, and numbers of them shouting over the pitiful scene.’ Hundreds of onlookers fed the flames by tossing braches [sic] and twigs into the fire, and by noon, according to another correspondent, all that remained of Smith ‘was a few ashes and here and there a bone.’”
Maybe this isn’t a story for third graders, but it is a story that we all should know. As fulfilling as it is to revel in the natural beauty and cultural quirks of our region, we should not overlook this horrific piece of our history. Learn more through the online exhibit “The Roanoke Riot” hosted by The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum.
For more stories on the African American experience in Appalachia check out the “Black in Appalachia” series on the right.