Years before lynching was outlawed in Virginia, a black teenager in Loudoun County was a target of the gruesome act for allegedly scaring a white, teenaged girl.
But before Orion Anderson's day in court, researchers say a small group broke into his jail cell, dragged him to the Leesburg freight depot in southeast Leesburg, hanged him and shot him.
This Wednesday, in the same area where Anderson was lynched, the first of three markers remembering those lynched will be memorialized. Community members and elected officials will join the Loudoun County NAACP, Loudoun Freedom Center and NOVA Parks to honor Anderson in the first of a series called Loudoun Remembrance and Reconciliation.
“When I first proposed this back in 2015 or 2016, I really thought I was going to run into a ton of opposition, but I have to admit I’m real surprised at the local governments and NOVA Parks of how cooperative they’ve been on this process, and I’m real happy with that,” Loudoun County NAACP member Phillip Thompson, the organization's previous president, said.
Anderson was one of three black men lynched in Loudoun County between 1880 and 1902, according to Thompson. Anderson was lynched in 1889, Page Wallace in 1880 for an alleged rape and Charles Craven in 1902 for an alleged murder. Thompson said the other lynchings occurred along Route 15 near Point of Rocks and in the former Potter’s Field at the corner of East Market and Catoctin Circle in Leesburg.
All the lynching victims were believed to be between the ages of 18 and 25 until further research concluded that Anderson was 14 years old, prompting researchers to begin a search for all of the victims’ descendants. Previous records showed Anderson to be around 19 and 20.
"To continue to say he was ‘around a certain age’ did not sit well with me, not only because it was disrespectful, but because it doesn’t give him the decency of a human birth and death,” Loudoun Freedom Center and Loudoun County NAACP President Michelle Thomas said. “I questioned the age, and then once I realized the age was wrong, then we started to dig a little deeper to find his descendants.”
Shortly after Thompson announced efforts to establish the markers last summer, the Remembrance and Reconciliation Initiative began with a group of researchers investigating the descendants of those lynched. The goal was to extend the research shortly after an April panel discussion addressed the need for the memorial markers. The panel was facilitated by George Mason University graduate students from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
As part of the reconciliation process, organizers are inviting descendants of Anderson and the white teenager, May Leith, originally from the Hamilton area, to Wednesday's event.
“If our only and exclusive purpose is to remember the victim without adding the component of reconciliation, then we have shortchanged progress,” Thomas said.
The project moved forward in September when Leesburg Town Council unanimously approved a memorial marker at the former Potter’s Cemetery, now the intersection of East Market Street and Catoctin Circle, to remember the lynching of Craven.
Thompson said he is still working to establish the remaining two markers and encourages anyone with additional information about the project to reach out to the members of the Loudoun Freedom Center or Loudoun County NAACP.
Once the project is completed, the soil from each site — like many across the country — will be collected and sent to the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the National Lynching Memorial, in Alabama. The memorial, which was created to honor the victims of lynching, was founded by the Equal Justice Initiative and opened in April 2018.
Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution for the commonwealth to acknowledge “with profound regret” the existence and acceptance of lynching. The resolution was introduced by Democratic Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan from Richmond and co-patroned by local Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-33rd). Democratic Del. Delores McQuinn (D-70th) introduced a similar resolution in the House.
Wednesday's event will begin where Anderson was held at the old jailhouse, now a parking lot, and end where he was hung in southeast Leesburg.
Attendees are invited to gather at 5 p.m. in the nearby parking lot at the intersection of Edwards Ferry Road and Church Street in northeast Leesburg. Orion Anderson’s story will be told from 5:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The group will then travel to the intersection of the Washington and Old Dominion Trail and Harrison Street in southeast Leesburg to begin the ceremony at 6 p.m.
"I like to say that the many historic parks that are owned and operated by NOVA Parks tell the story of America," NOVA Parks Executive Director Paul Gilbert said. "We have Native American sites, Colonial sites, many locations that saw fighting during the Civil War. We also have civil rights and voting rights sights. But the era of Jim Crow and the lynchings that were part of that time is also part of the story of America. We have to be willing to see both the good and the bad that is part of our history."