Local leaders stood tall that day

Published 8:14 pm Tuesday, July 12, 2016

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    (The following column was published on Feb. 24, 2010. The reprint here also includes material from an earlier related column on A.E.S. Stephens published on June 30, 2004.)

    We have come to expect, in this nation, that our leaders follow the latest whims of public opinion — and many try. But leadership is built of courage, not pandering, and the truly great men and women of our history have often defied, rather than yielded to, the opinions of their fellow citizens.

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    A page from Isle of Wight history makes the point.

    J. Douglas Smith, a visiting assistant professor of history at Occidental College in Los Angeles, researched Virginia’s struggle with itself during massive resistance and has written a book that should be instructive to all who love the Commonwealth. His “Managing White Supremacy,” published by the University of North Carolina Press, documents institutional racism in Virginia during the first half of the 20th century.


    Included in Smith’s often-disturbing book is a chapter on mob rule and lynching, including an incident that stands as a dark chapter in Isle of Wight history, as well as a tribute to courageous local leadership.

    In October 1927, a black man, Shirley Winnegan, was arrested here and charged with raping and killing a 14-year-old white girl.

    A local lunacy commission had declared Winnegan legally insane in August of that year, but overpopulation in the state’s mental institutions had precluded his incarceration.

    White county residents, infuriated by the crime, convinced of Winnegan’s guilt and afraid that he might not be executed because of the insanity declaration, threatened to lynch him.

    Sheriff Willie Holmes Chapman sent the prisoner to Petersburg for his safety. A mob confronted the sheriff, furious that he had protected Winnegan, and forced him to disclose the prisoner’s location.

    Commonwealth’s Attorney George F. Whitley Sr. (father of the late Circuit Court Judge George F. Whitley who many of my generation knew) warned Petersburg authorities of the local mob’s intentions, and Winnegan was moved to Richmond.

    A second lunacy commission was quickly convened and declared Winnegan sane. He was given a change of venue, tried in Richmond, convicted and executed for the rape and murder.

    Whether the second commission was legitimate or an effort to appease whites remains an open question. What is known is that Winnegan was identified by a black youth as being in the vicinity of the crime, and that seems to have been the bulk of the evidence against him.

    But despite the outcome, some Isle of Wight residents were furious that their efforts to lynch Winnegan were thwarted by the elected sheriff and commonwealth’s attorney. The turned on the two at the polls, ending Chapman’s career as sheriff.

    They attempted to get the late A.E.S. Stephens to run against Whitley for commonwealth’s attorney, but he refused. Smith says in his book that Whitley was also defeated in his re-election bid that year, but there seems to be some confusion over his fate. Stephens refused to run and was, himself, threatened by a mob that visited his home. And Helen King’s history of Isle of Wight lists Whitley as commonwealth’s attorney until 1935.

    Regardless, Whitley and Chapman stood their ground against many of the people who had elected them because of their respect for the oaths they had taken to defend the laws and the Constitution of the Commonwealth. And they were joined on the high ground by Stephens, who would have a successful career in law and politics, rising to become lieutenant governor of Virginia.

    Willie Holmes Chapman, George F. Whitley Sr. and A.E.S. Stephens should be remembered today as courageous men. Not so, the mob they resisted.

    A.E.S. Stephens

    A.E.S. “Gi” Stephens was later elected to the House of Delegates, the State Senate and, still later, became lieutenant governor of Virginia.

    It was as lieutenant governor that Stephens took the stand that would become known as his “finest hour” and, which in turn, would cost him any chance of becoming governor.

    That was the era of massive resistance to school integration, a time of strong sentiments that led to the closing of some schools and an all-out legal effort by Virginia to block the Brown vs. Board of Education court decision.

    The General Assembly was called into special session to consider legislation to end massive resistance and move the state toward a more moderate approach, known as freedom of choice. It was not full integration, but it was aimed at moving Virginia in the right direction. Legislation to accomplish that was approved by the House and sent to the Senate, where as lieutenant governor, Stephens was the presiding officer.

    A supporter of ending massive resistance, he cast his vote to break a Senate tie and convene the Senate as a committee of the whole to consider the bill, rather than send it to the Senate Education Committee, where it faced almost certain defeat.

    The legislation prevailed, massive resistance ended and so did Stephen’s ambition to become governor. He had been one of the Byrd Machine’s fair-haired young troops, but the Byrds turned against him because of his stand and he was defeated in the Democratic Primary by Albertis S. Harrison, the Byrd-favored candidate.

    Stephens came home to Smithfield and was a respected local attorney until his death in 1973.