Researchers unearth century-old documents in Virginia Beach lynching

Archivists at Library of Virginia in Richmond find coroner’s inquest in mob violence that killed Noah Cherry

By: - May 15, 2023 12:04 am

After the Virginia Mercury’s twopart investigative series into the 1885 lynching of Noah Cherry in what is now Virginia Beach, staffers at the Library of Virginia in Richmond searched archives and discovered a variety of documents, including the coroner’s inquest about Cherry’s death, which hasn’t been seen publicly since the late 19th century.

In a series of emails, Vincent T. Brooks, senior local records archivist at the Library of Virginia, said the Mercury’s coverage prompted staff to scour county records. They retrieved several boxes from a separate facility, and a member of the local records staff, Mary Ann Mason, found Noah Cherry’s inquest along with three others filed within a box of constable’s warrants. 

This inquest, along with the inquest into the death of Alice Powell – whose murder triggered Cherry’s lynching – had been missing from the Princess Anne coroner’s records. Powell’s inquest remains missing.

A threepage document showed the mob killed Cherry on Nov. 15, 1885, and the inquest took place the following day. This timeline aligned with the Norfolk Virginian’s account of the lynching. A single line inserted into the text said the jury could not determine who had killed Cherry in a lynching that involved 150 to 200 people and was reported across the county, according to the Virginian’s account

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Endowed Professor of Virginia Black History and Culture at Norfolk State University, said John Mitchell Jr., a former enslaved person who edited the Richmond Planet, investigated how law enforcement officials in Virginia often hid their responsibility for lynchings by blaming unruly mobs, which they did little to control.

“No arrests were ever made of anyone,” she said, “including people who did these crimes in plain sight.”

In addition, Library of Virginia staffers uncovered a notation of an $11.50 charge for summoning the coroner’s jury, a $7 charge for making Noah Cherry’s coffin and a $1 charge for digging his grave. The inquest had a notice from the coroner, E.W. Eaton, that Cherry’s estate was too poor to pay for the costs of his inquest. 

Staffers also found a $25 charge for Charles H. Ferrell’s services as a detective for “working up the case against Noah Cherry for the murder of daughter of Mr. C.D. Powell.” A notation on the document says the county only allotted $15 for the service.

Library staff did not find the actual inquest into Powell’s death, or any records of payment for the jurors who would have taken part in it, after an extensive search. Brooks said the inquest should have led to Cherry’s arrest and called it “odd” that the documents were missing.

“We’re pretty much out of obvious (and not so obvious) places to look,” he said. “We’ve looked at every conceivable box of records around the 1884-1886 time frame. Unless it is wildly misfiled in some random year, it is not in the Princess Anne Co. materials here.”

The Mercury’s investigation of the case found two state newspapers, the Norfolk Virginian and the Richmond Dispatch, put together timelines of Alice Powell’s murder that didn’t agree with each other or the county’s death registry. The story of this murder, widely circulated in the press, incited the lynching and scapegoated Cherry as the chief suspect in the murder, an accusation that has persisted, without solid proof, for more than a century.

The publishers of the newspapers were actively involved in a rising political movement aimed at curtailing the civil and voting rights of non-white people. 

Brooks said his staff worked on a lynching documentation project at James Madison University, and the library’s Virginia Untold project highlights Black history before 1870.

[Read more: New information in 138-year-old Virginia Beach lynching shatter’s state’s genteel veneer]


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Paul Bibeau
Paul Bibeau

Paul Bibeau has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Virginia Business and Men's Journal. He created an investigative podcast, "The Secret War of Willis Hodges," for NPR.