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Historical marker to recognize 1927 Wise County lynching

Historical marker to recognize 1927 Wise County lynching

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Nearly 94 years after a mob hung, shot and burned Leonard Woods, a new state historical marker will be dedicated Saturday in Wise County that recalls the lynching of the black coal miner who was accused of killing his employer.

In late 1927, about 150 cars filled with angry residents descended on the Whitesburg, Kentucky jail, where Woods, 20, was being held. He was incarcerated after authorities accused him of killing Coeburn, Virginia resident Herschel Deaton outside the town of Jenkins, Kentucky.

Late that evening, the motorcade arrived at the jail. An unmasked throng of men approached the facility, sawed through its iron bars, placed a chain around the prisoner's neck and led him away, according to newspaper accounts.

Conflicting reports attempt to describe what happened next.

The mob took Woods to a spot near the Kentucky and Virginia state line. He was hung from a platform that a week earlier was used by the two state governors to dedicate the opening of U.S. Highway 23.

The men then shot and burned the man, said Thomas Costa, a historian from the University of Virginia's College at Wise. Due to conflicting reports and the inability to identify those involved in the lynching, no one was charged in the death.

Three years ago, Costa and others at the university launched a community remembrance project in Wise County to recognize lynchings that took place in the early 20th century. Costa said a friend suggested the effort following similar projects in Wytheville and Albemarle County.

UVa-Wise obtained a grant to research lynchings, which allowed Costa to hire three college students to assist. Costa said they have used newspaper articles, records from the NAACP and traced U.S. Census records. They've also tried to find descendants, but none have been located due to the "transient lifestyle" of coal workers at the time.

Woods is one of three black men to be lynched in Wise County, leading to the development of state legislation that made lynching a state crime in 1928. Costa said Woods' death sparked extensive news coverage and conversation across the state. As a result, local leaders urged the legislature to pass the law, the first in the southeastern United States.

With assistance from the Historical Society of Pound, the students and staff at the college have been able to obtain a historical marker from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The marker, funded by the historical society, will be dedicated in Wise County near the site of the lynching Saturday.

The public dedication ceremony is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., at the marker’s location at 12643 Orby Cantrell Highway in Pound, just east of the Virginia–Kentucky border. Parking is available near the sign’s location, according to a news release.

Event speakers will include Margaret Sturgill of the Historical Society of Pound; the Rev. Steve Peake, pastor of Corinth Baptist Church in Fleming, Kentucky; and Terran Young of the Community Remembrance Coalition, who will provide keynote remarks. Following the ceremony, the Community Remembrance Coalition will host a reception at the historical society at 8404 Main St. in Pound.

The “Leonard Woods Lynched” marker was approved for manufacture and installation in 2020 by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, which is authorized to designate new state historical markers.

Additional markers are expected to be installed at a later date for the two other black men lynched in Wise County: Wiley Guynn and David Hurst.

rsorrell@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2531 | Twitter: @RSorrellBHC | Facebook.com/robertsorrelltn

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