Trigger warning: In this post, I write about a lynching, in a fair amount of detail. Please be advised.
Google “English ivy,” and after you pass over numerous advertisements for nurseries where you can purchase it, you will find page after page of warning.
You see, English ivy is an invasive plant, introduced into the North American colonies by European settlers as early as 1727. While it doesn’t thrive in extremes of moist or dry climates, English ivy will grow in a wide range of soils and is one of the few exotic plants that can thrive in full, deep shade. It grows into thick carpets on the ground and crowds out native vegetation.
English ivy also climbs trees, secreting a glue-like substance through tiny roots to attach itself to the bark. Once the mature vine reaches the upper canopy, it shades the leaves of the host tree, depriving the tree of the sunlight it needs for growth and nourishment. After the ivy has taken all the sunlight for itself, it flourishes, producing flowers and seed-bearing fruit ingested by many species of birds. Who then defecate and spread the seeds far and wide.
English ivy spells Death for trees and native plants. But even though it has been recognized as a serious threat to natural ecosystems, it continues to be sold and marketed as an ornamental plant, desirable for its evergreen foliage and its dependability as a ground cover that is “carefree.”
And one last observation before we move on: although it is difficult to eliminate English ivy, it is not impossible. If the soil is moist, it can easily be uprooted by hand. However, one must make sure to remove every last remnant of plant material from the soil, because the ivy can grow again from any part of the root or stem. If shoots appear after the ground has been cleared, they must be killed as soon as possible. And the required treatments of herbicide and other chemicals may take multiple applications every year, for many years, to completely eradicate it.
The first of my Shipp ancestors to arrive on this continent, as far as I can tell, was the Englishman William Shipp II. He came from Norfolk, England, in the early 1600s. The Shipp family settled in Virginia, in what became known as Princess Anne County. They farmed and married with the Flanagans and the Tullys, the Kellams and the Murdens; birthed their children, burying some of them in infancy or as toddlers, raising others into adulthood: men and women who in turn married, birthed and raised their own children, while they farmed the land. For nine generations I can trace them, up to the present day.
The people living in the Chesapeake area when William and earlier colonists arrived were the Piscataway and the Pamunkey, the Nanticoke and the Mattaponi. In public school history classes, the only Indigenous people named are usually the Powhatan, accompanied by a vapid romance story about John Smith and Pocahontas. (Pocahontas was actually a member of the Pamunkey Nation.) However, 11 different tribal nations in Virginia have received federal recognition, and 5 of these are in Chesapeake.
The Shipps left their mark in that area of Virginia: Shipps Bay, Shipps Corner. And I confess, there is a thrill that goes through me when I return to Virginia Beach and see my family’s name writ large on maps, on street signs.
There are parts of my immediate family’s history that please me. There is a story about my grandfather, Andrew Wesley Shipp, who, as Registrar for Princess Anne County, was directed to give a special poll test to any person of color who came to register to vote. Granddaddy, whose formal education ended with 4th grade, took one look at it and thought, I couldn’t pass this test. He took it to a lawyer he knew, who told him, “Man, the governor of Virginia couldn’t pass this test!” So Granddaddy went back to the Princess Anne Courthouse and declared that he would give that test to everyone who came to register, or he would give it to no one. For which small protest he was fired.
Or there is the story of how our home in Wake Forest, NC, was blasted with buckshot during a party in 1969 where Black and white teenagers were socializing together; and how the white church my father pastored fired him the very next morning. My family traveled together to hear my father preach for two or three different African American congregations every Sunday during the five months we continued to live in Wake Forest. We were supported both spiritually and financially by communities of Black people in North Carolina, often at great risk to themselves, because, as one Black deacon put it, “I’m tired of seeing good people run out of the state.” My father went on to pastor churches whose commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ meant that they included all of God’s children, regardless of race.
And then, there is Nehemiah. Nehemiah Shipp, 1805-1867, my 3rd great-grandfather, who lists two human beings among his “property” on the census of 1830. No names are given, only statistics of age and gender: Male, under 10; Female, 10-23. In 1840 the number increases to three: Male, 10-23; Female, under 10; Female 10-23. In 1850 the statistics are no longer included in the census, but instead supplied on a separate “Slave Schedule:” 3 Females, ages 45, 8, and 3. No information is included about their relationship, if any, to each other or to the people whose statistics are reported in 1830 and 1840.
Two of Nehemiah’s sons, half-brothers because they were born of different mothers, signed up to fight for the Confederacy in April 1862 at a place called Tanner’s Creek. Both of them apparently fought at Gettysburg. As the Confederate Army retreated in defeat, the elder, Simon, was captured in the rain and mud at Falling Waters, Maryland, and held in a POW camp near Washington, DC, for several months, until the record shows he was released, just before Christmas, and “sent north.” The younger, my 2nd great-grandfather Andrew Wesley, for whom my grandfather would later be named, is listed in September 1863 as “Absent without leave.” The records show that he got married that same September; the 1870 census shows him settled with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. He would die in 1892; his half-brother Simon, in 1910.
White man, hear me! History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us….James Baldwin (from the 1968 Esquire interview, quoted in Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., p. 82)
On November 15, 1885, a young man named Noah Cherry was lynched near the Princess Anne County Courthouse. That courthouse still stands, less than a mile and right around the corner from where my grandfather’s farm was when I was a child. In the newspaper accounts, ages are fluid: Noah insisted he was 15, but the mob who lynched him decided that he was at least 18 years old. He was accused of murdering the daughter of his employer, Charles Powell; her age is also fluid: in one account, she is 10; in another, 14. She was murdered on Friday the 13th of November, 1885 on her way to, or from, school. By Saturday, Noah had been arrested and evidence either found or planted that sealed the public’s conviction of his guilt. Late Sunday night, at about 11:00 pm, a mob of 200 people stormed the jail and with crowbars and sledgehammers broke into his cell and dragged Noah outside. He tried to escape; they shot him in the arm. The noose was placed around his neck; he was advised to pray. The news account indicates that he confessed to the crime, rather conveniently for those who were lynching him, at which point he was hung on a branch that stretched out over the road, at the Hickory Bridge Schoolhouse. When his body was finally cut down on Monday afternoon, the coroner reported that it was riddled with 100 bullets. A hasty inquest was performed, and his body was buried without ceremony in the jail yard. Pieces of the clothesline that was used to hang him were given out as souvenirs. It was the first reported lynching in Princess Anne County.
The jailer’s name was Murden. My father’s mother was a Murden. Her grandfather was wounded at the Battle of the Crater; her great-uncle was killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. I wonder: Was the jailer one of my relatives? And what are the chances, do you think, that some of my ancestors were not part of the mob that lynched Noah Cherry?
What is the purpose of sharing such stories with you? Why dredge up such a painful part of the past? Aren’t we supposed to be working for reconciliation? Aren’t we just making the situation worse by stirring up the past? Why not let bygones be bygones, and get busy “fixing it”?
We cannot go straight to reconciliation, because there can be no reconciliation without truth-telling. Unearthing the truth, uprooting the lies that have covered and smothered the truth almost out of existence, is the necessary first step. Furthermore, the history that I’m relating–and there is more, I promise you!–is not past. The roots of white supremacy have never been completely removed, and so, like English ivy, racism continues to grow, to spread, to invade every area of our lives. “History, as nearly no one seems to know,” James Baldwin said in 1968, “is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary,” he continued, “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us….” (italics mine)
The racist history of my ancestors is present in me.
As with English ivy, ignoring the racism in our history doesn’t work; it won’t just “go away” on its own. It must be actively removed, every part of it. Not only the part that can be easily seen, like monuments and statues and cannons, but the whole network, the whole system, root and stem. Otherwise racism will continue to grow, continue to bear fruit, continue to be ingested and spread far and wide.
If I hope to be part of a history that repairs the damage my ancestors have done, the only way to begin is to face, admit, and confess the part they played in the gruesome history of slavery and lynching–not only their general participation, but the specific, the particular part they played. I have come to believe that the actions of subsequent generations cannot be fully understood outside of this context. What follows then is the painstaking work of uprooting the racism and white supremacy that are embedded in my brain and in my body, in my relationships with others and with the world around me.
I expect to spend the rest of my life pulling up weeds, uprooting invasive plants from this patch of land that I’ve been given. Racism will only yield to repeated treatments, multiple treatments over many years. Only if we work consistently, daily, will we be able to completely eradicate the racism that twists around and through our lives and deprives us of the light we need for growth and nourishment.
I am under no illusion that the work will be completed before I die. Nevertheless, since I have been given this present time to tend and care for, as a faithful gardener, how can I do less?