Breaking down the history behind how the City of Lynchburg was named

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WFXR) — When a Lynchburg resident tells someone where they’re from, it can raise some eyebrows, and the resident may then say something like, “That’s not what it’s named after.”

The mental connection between Lynchburg and lynching is nothing new. It inspired movements as recently as last year to change the name.

“John Lynch was a man who in the 1750s, he started a ferry service across what was then the Fluvana River and is now James River,” said Dr. Lindsay Wood Michie, Co-Chair of the Africana Studies department at the University of Lynchburg.

A bridge now bears his name over the James River, a nod to the service that inspired the original name, Lynch’s Ferry.

“Lynch’s Ferry then became Lynchburg,” said Michie, “and so that’s the origin of the actual name of Lynchburg.”

She says Lynch was a Quaker who freed his slaves before his death. He had a brother, Charles — a judge who set up a court to punish British loyalists during the Revolutionary War.

“They didn’t get due process, and that’s sort of the origins of the idea of lynch laws, of someone being punished without due process.”

According to Michie, lynching eventually took on the meaning we know today: the extrajudicial targeting and killing of Black people.

“It gets changed to this more especially tragic meaning of targeting Black people and killing them without due process, and of course accusing them often of things they hadn’t done.”

So while the City of Lynchburg and lynching aren’t named after each other, the two share origins from the same family.

Michie thinks it’s worth it to revisit the word and consider a change.

“Words change over time. Symbols change over time historically, and I think we have to be very aware of that.”

James Madison University documented and mapped out known cases of lynchings in Virginia from the Civil War to the early 1930s.

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