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 her trial and execution were sensational, covered in newspapers as far away as Chicago, we know next to nothing about the girl.
The only record of her manner of speech is her confession, transcribed by reporter Charles Mears in her vernacular and printed on the front page of the Hampton Times-Herald newspaper.
Her only other known words, “Not guilty,” lie in the court transcript of her trial.
We know from the testimony of Whittier School teacher Miss Fannie Price that Virgie was a student there from 1907 to 1910. Miss Price said school enrollment records showed the girl’s birthday was August 15, 1895, confirming she was still a juvenile when she committed murder.
We know from the testimony of her father, Henry Christian, that the money Virgie earned washing clothes, along with what her four older brothers and sisters earned, was needed to keep food on the table. He said Virgie had always been a good child, never causing any problems.
We know B. L. Poindexter, the telegraph operator at the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad depot in Hampton, testified he had been able to identify Virgie going to and from the house where Ida Belote was murdered because he had often seen the girl scavenging for coal along the tracks at the depot.
The fateful June day when Virginia Christian was taken to the penitentiary to die more than a century ago is as strong a justification for the craft of the historical novel as I can think of. That an uneducated, inarticulate, seventeen-year-old black girl was executed in the name of justice and Jim Crow is a sad fact of history. But the historical novel can show us the dreams and fears and hopes she held, like any other human being, then or now.
Aren’t those good and useful things for us to know?