The town of Wytheville in rural southwest Virginia looks like the mythic American ‘Main Street’ studding the discourse of American political actors and media during campaign season. It was named in honour of a ‘founding father’ with no tie to the place. Its proximity to mineral resources and rail made Wytheville strategically significant during the American Civil War. Its heyday now long past, Wytheville faces an unbalanced geography of opportunity as American workers migrate to urban areas with higher job density, wage and compensation growth, and prospects for prosperity. Average yearly incomes are significantly below the national average and almost 23% of its eight thousand odd residents live in poverty, defined as individuals living on the dollar equivalent of £29 daily or a family of four on £58. With 88% of residents identifying as ‘white alone’ in the naive yet striking language of the US Census Bureau, Wytheville is as demographically diverse as it has been in memory.
Wytheville was also the site of one of the last of eighty-six documented lynchings in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Between 1877 and 1950 there were more than 4,400 extra-legal mob murders in the US intended to reinforce white supremacy by terrorising black folks. The term lynching originated in the Revolutionary period when Charles Lynch of Bedford County, Virginia, a justice and militia colonel, meted out extrajudicial punishment to suspected Loyalists in central Virginia (I write from the city founded by his brother John, the unhappily named Lynchburg). ‘Lynch law’ is far more often associated with the terroristic entertainments of the Jim Crow South, which occasionally drew the censure of state officials, often involved the complicity of law enforcement, and never resulted in accountability for participants and spectators. The 2021 short documentary Lynching Postcards: ‘Token of a Great Day’ tells the grim history of graphic postcards sold as souvenirs of these events. Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row (1965) opens with the lyric ‘they’re selling postcards of the hanging,’ a reference to the 1920 lynching of three black men in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota (a world away from Wytheville in the righteous North).