The Wansley Case

By Hunter Simms, Lynchburg Museum Volunteer

Lynchburg, Virginia, 1963–In the heat of the Civil Rights movement, Thomas Wansley, a sixteen-year-old black teenager was convicted of two counts of rape and one count of robbery by a Lynchburg Corporation Court jury. Wansley was sentenced to death for each rape charge and given an additional twenty years for the robbery charge. This conviction would set off a chain of events that would last for more than ten years. Prominent civil rights lawyers and activists would become involved, the legitimacy of Lynchburg’s newspapers would be challenged, and the case would intrigue major media outlets such as the New York Times.

 

Throughout the south, accusations of rape frequently led to barbaric lynching rituals. Klansman or angry white “lynch mobs” would round up the accused black men and subject them to unfathomable brutalities. In fact, historians project that 25% of lynching’s took place after sexual assault allegations. If there was a moment in Lynchburg’s history that could have resulted in a lynching, the Wansley case would have been it. Thankfully, no such horror occurred.

 

December 1962—Thomas Carlton Wansley was corralled by police after being charged with the rape of Kyoko Fleshman—an Asian woman and the rape and robbery of Annie Carter—a middle aged white woman. The amount allegedly stolen was $1.37. After a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. John G. Novak reported that Wansley was fit to stand trial; proceedings began on February 7, 1963.

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Several procedural errors ensued. Wansley’s lawyer, Reuben Lawson, was unable to secure a court reporter for the proceedings, so he requested continuance—which was overruled. The same issue arose two days later and played out similarly. Two more weeks into the trial, new evidence concerning Wansley’s mental health was presented, the admittance of which was also overruled by the judge. The denied motions, along with sudden death of Wansley’s lawyer Reuben Lawson (replaced by L.W. Holt) would prove to work in Wansley and his legal team’s advantage over the next decade as they challenged the verdict on multiple occasions.

 

September 1964: Thomas Carlton Wansley v. Commonwealth of Virginia— Based on the circumstances of Wansley’s lawyer’s unexpected death, the court’s refusal to grant continuances on multiple occasions, and missing transcripts—the Supreme Court of Virginia ordered a retrial.

 

Lynchburg’s two main newspapers; The News and Daily Advance, headed by Carter Glass, never hid its bias as it pertained to the Wansley trial. Bias grew even stronger as the 1967 retrial approached, and it was learned that William Kunstler would be representing Wansley. Kunstler was given the McCarthy treatment as he was accused of communist involvement in any article he was featured. Prominent black nationalist, Stokely Carmichael, originator of the “black power” mantra, gave a speech at Court Street Baptist Church in defense of Kunstler in 1967. In the papers, Wansley was referred to as the “twice convicted rapist”—the case had, by that point, captured the nation’s attention.

 

In the 1967 retrial, Wansley v. Wilkerson, Wansley’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Wilkerson, at one point admitted she wasn’t sure if the defendant was her attacker. Five years later, Wansley would be released from prison after a reversal was handed down by a Federal District Court. The presiding Judge Merhige determined that Wansley did not receive a fair trial guaranteed to him by the Constitution due to local press coverage and the courts mishandling of Wansley’s rights as a child. Wansley, after learning his fate stated, “It seems like a dream, a miracle has been performed.”

Amaza Lee Meredith: Teacher, Artist, and Architect

 Amaza Lee Meredith was the daughter of an interracial couple in the Jim Crow era of Lynchburg history

Amaza Lee Meredith was the daughter of an interracial couple in the Jim Crow era of Lynchburg history

by Hunter Simms, Lynchburg Museum volunteer

 

Impactful and praiseworthy is the life of Amaza Lee Meredith. She was born in small-town Lynchburg with aspirations and accomplishments—alive and posthumously, that extended beyond the boundaries of a small-town and influenced fields including education, art, and architecture. Meredith was the daughter of Samuel Meredith who was white and Emma Kenney who was black. Due to race, Meredith and Kenney were required to ride in separate railcars on the way to their wedding in Washington DC. Their interracial marriage would cause controversy and affect Samuel’s business, subsequently costing Samuel his life as he committed suicide in 1915. This heartbreaking event did not stop Amaza.

Graduating at the top of her class from Jackson Street High School (demolished in 1970), the same year her father died, showcased her resilience. Amaza would enroll at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute, now Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia and receive a teaching certificate. Over the next few years she would use her education to educate others as she taught in Botetourt County and in Lynchburg at what was Dunbar High School at the time. Unsatisfied, Meredith furthered her education and credentials by earning a degree in teaching, along with a bachelor’s and master’s in art education from Columbia University. This was a time in which Amaza’s professional focus shifted toward the arts.

 Jackson Street School, demolished in 1970

Jackson Street School, demolished in 1970

Meredith would teach art at her alma matter, Virginia State University for five years before eventually being named department chair. She would remain department chair until she retired 23 years later in 1958. She was not only a teacher of art, but a creator as well. She traveled the east coast, from New York to North Carolina exhibiting her artwork. As she evolved, her interests did as well. Perhaps her next move was predictable considering her father’s craftsmanship background.

Amaza would delve into architecture and interior design. She was paving the way for aspiring African American female artists and architects.

Her most notable structure in which she also resided was Azurest South, built in 1939, in the southern Chesterfield area. Lauded for its international appeal, more today than when it was erected; its curvature, lines, and window layout were foreign to the American eye but elegant nonetheless. Standing the test of time, it illustrated her precociousness. Although it was her most popular design, it wasn’t her only project. She and her sister Maude Terry worked together to create a prideful vacation destination for black Americans. As segregation still had a stronghold on the status quo, Maude and Amaza eluded the rigidity of the system and challenged it with the opposite; leisure. Middle class blacks from all professions vacationed to what was known as “Azurest North” in Sag Harbor, NY and still do to this day—some having called it home for decades.

 Azurest South, one of Meredith's most notable designs

Azurest South, one of Meredith's most notable designs

 Azurest South 

Azurest South 

Meredith would continue to contribute to the arts over the next few decades. After her death in 1984, her dream of building an “Alumni House” would be realized. After willing half of her home, Azurest South to VSU, the university would officially designate it as the Alumni House for the VSU Alumni Association in 1986.

The Story of Piedmont Auto in Lynchburg

The only automobile company ever chartered in Virginia was located in Lynchburg.

“It is believed that the establishment here of a factory for the manufacture of motor vehicles at this time presents an attractive proposition, both to the city of Lynchburg as a whole and to the investors in the enterprise”…The News, November 28, 1915. Within the year, Piedmont Motor was formed and granted permission by the State Corporation Commission to issue up to one million dollars in stock. In 1916 the company began taking orders and delivered their first vehicles in the spring of the following year.

From 1917-1923 Piedmont Motor operated in Lynchburg, Virginia. The company was located on Hollins Mill Road where Flowers Bakery stands today. Parts purchased from top manufacturers arrived by rail and were assembled into a finished product at the facility. Multiple companies then purchased the cars and sold them under their own label.  In Texas the car was known as the Lone Star, in Chicago it was the Bush, and in Europe it was the Alsace. This European partnership proved to be the most profitable.

 

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While the company produced both cars and trucks, the best-selling Piedmont was the touring car. Available as a 6-cylinder or 4-cylinder, it carried five passengers and was modeled after the Hudson. At its peak, plant capacity was six cars per day. All were painted forest green and reached speeds of 55 mph.

In an attempt to demonstrate its superiority, the car was driven on a 424 mile journey from Lynchburg to Richmond then back through Charlottesville, on to Staunton, Lexington, and Roanoke, before returning to Lynchburg. The goal was to establish the Piedmont as faster and more reliable than the Essex, its primary competition. Total trip time was 20 hours and 47 minutes beating the Essex by three hours and four minutes! The actual run time was 17 hours and 17 minutes. Three hours and twenty minutes were lost due to a blowout and repair work. Today that same trip is estimated to take six hours and forty-seven minutes.

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Priced higher than its competition, the Piedmont sold for $1,200-$2,000. The higher price, along with European demand for the car, is credited with its downfall. Sales were so brisk in Europe that Piedmont ignored local dealerships. When the European market slowed, the company faced difficulty recapturing the local market.  In an attempt to gain back their local audience the following advertisement was placed in the December 20, 1920 issue of The News, " We have set aside 20 of our latest model automobiles — to be sold between tomorrow and January 15, 1921, only to residents of Lynchburg, Campbell, Bedford, Amherst and Appomattox at the  prices being $500 below usual.”  The company even convinced the local police to use their car in hopes of boosting their popularity. In the end, that was not enough to salvage the company.  In 1922 the company was forced into bankruptcy and later sold at auction.  After five short years and approximately 3000 cars, Piedmont Motors disappeared.  It is estimated that only three of these cars exist today.  Two vehicles are owned by private collectors and other is in the Virginia Museum of Transportation’s collection.

 

Written by Wanda Carpenter, staff of the Lynchburg Musuem

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Ammon G. Hancock and Tobacco

            Tobacco played a large role in the development of Lynchburg. Smoking and chewing tobacco were manufactured in numerous factories around the city. Ammon Goode Hancock established a tobacco factory in 1853 on what is now Cabell Street. In the mid-nineteenth century, there were eighteen tobacco factories in Lynchburg. They would help support the city for fifty years but most would not survive past 1906. Out of the factories that started the tobacco industry in Lynchburg, only Ammon G. Hancock’s factory would still operate into the 1900’s.

            Hancock did not isolate his tobacco business to one factory, but purchased other properties along Sixth Street and Cabell Street. His company could be found under the following names: “Hill City Steam Tobacco Works,” “Hancock and Sons,” and “Hancock Brothers and Company.” The latter name was created in 1883 when Ammon’s sons and nephew were the proprietors of the business. Ammon G. Hancock stayed involved in the tobacco industry until his death in 1888. It was bequeathed to his wife, until her death when it was equally divided among their children.

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He had four children: James, Ernest J. Edwin Ammon, and Lilly. While Ammon’s properties were equally divided, his holdings expanded beyond tobacco factories. James received a drug store. Ernest J. received the tobacco factory at 31 Cabell Street while Edwin A. received the tobacco factory at 41-49 Cabell Street. Lily became the owner of her parent’s residence. Ernest J. and James used their properties as collateral on loans that they were not able to meet. 

            Due to their financial defaults, the tobacco factory and drug store were auctioned off in 1901 and 1903 respectively. Lilly and Edwin A. purchased the properties. Edwin A. became the owner of the drug store on Sixth Street while Lilly acquired the tobacco factory. The business would remain in the family and grew more inclusive in 1910. At that time, the tobacco enterprise was incorporated with Ammon G. Hancock’s great nephew and grandson as officers. The company would operate until Imperial Tobacco Lofts bought it in 1918. Although the manufactory enterprise had been sold, “Hancock Brothers and Company” can be found in the Lynchburg Business Directory in 1919-1920 operating a tobacco business at Main Street. It remains in the Lynchburg Business Directory in the tobacco business until 1922. The Hancock family operated a successful tobacco business in Lynchburg that operated for more that half a century.

            Ammon G. Hancock created a tobacco factory in the middle of the eighteenth century when there was a lot of competition. Despite many other factories, he was able to create a family business that would outlast various other Lynchburg tobacco factories. He created a successful business that incorporated his family. It grew after his death and lasted until the proprietors decided to sell.

 

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Written by Emily Bordelon of the Lynchburg Museum

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