A Special Day

Saturday I talked with someone I’d admired for years, but had never met. Mary Leigh Howell, our three dogs, and I were on our way from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Seagrove Beach, Florida. During the drive we had an unsettling moment. In Atlanta we merged into a convoy of pickups flying Confederate battle flags, probably […]

Black Leader Visits Virginia Christian

When the Eighth Biennial meeting of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) convened July 23, 1912, at the Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute, Virgie Christian, convicted of killing her white employer in a house nearby, was scheduled to die in the electric chair at the Richmond state penitentiary in ten days. The convention’s […]

A Farewell to Arms

Yesterday I was speaking by phone with my publisher, Suzanne La Rosa of NewSouth Books, about the book trailer storyboard I’d sent her. Since my novel Forsaken is set in 1912, photographs are available of real people and places that appear in my fictional account of the trial and execution of the African American girl, […]

Who Says They Aren’t Real?

With the controversial release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and its dark depiction of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, I asked some of my writer friends to respond to this question: Why are fictional characters so important to us, since they aren’t even real? Journalist, editor, and novelist Don Wallace is author […]

Fight of the Century

Jack Johnson was the son of former slaves. When he defeated Canadian fighter Tommy Burns in 1908, he became the first African American heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Johnson was a huge threat to Jim Crow. He was proud of his blackness, a magnificent physical specimen, and worse, attractive to women of all colors. […]


Narrative choices often are conscious—a character needs to say this or the plot needs that. And sometimes they’re not. Dahlias were my mother’s favorite flower. She always planted two rows of them by our farm gate. When the school bus dropped me off, I’d stand for a moment, watching the white dust from the road […]

Legacy of Fear

Just hours after I posted “The Legend of Jim Crow” last week, nine black people were shot to death at a prayer meeting in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Jim Crow stereotype is a laughing, simple, guileless “darkie.” I said I’d write about the stereotype of Nat Turner this […]

The Legend of Jim Crow

“Jim Crow” is clothed in ambiguity and irony. I first came across the term in a University of Virginia class. On the syllabus was C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, a series of lectures at the University published in 1955. It’s likely there was a real, historical Jim Crow, an African American, […]

Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) is best known for the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. But he designed a notorious building earlier in his career—the state penitentiary in Richmond, Virginia, where Virginia Christian died in the electric chair in 1912. Emigrating from London to the United States in 1796, Latrobe landed in Norfolk, Virginia, after a […]

Mug Shot

The African American girl Virginia Christian was photographed once in her life, on June 3, 1912, when she was transferred from the jailhouse in Hampton, Virginia, to the state penitentiary in Richmond. So this day was a fateful one in Virgie’s life a century ago. And we know almost nothing about it. In fact, although […]