According to a news story, Medora Alice Powell was singing a Christian hymn, “The Sweet By-and-By,” as the 10-year-old girl left for school early in the morning on Friday the 13th of November in 1885. She took a solitary path through a portion of the rural area then known as Princess Anne County where Holland Road now snakes past a paint store, a tattoo shop and a Starbucks in southside Hampton Roads.

At the day’s end, following a violent thunderstorm, she didn’t return home.

A search party gathered and combed through the piney woods near the child’s home, retracing her steps. Late that night they came upon the scattered remains of her lunch before discovering Powell’s mutilated body in a gruesome crime scene within the dark scrub just a half-mile from her home.

When people found what had been done to Powell, it triggered deadly mob violence that escalated into the only publicly recorded lynching in what is now Virginia Beach.

Two Virginia newspapers, the Norfolk Virginian and the Richmond Dispatch, gave the first accounts of Powell’s death and were among the first to report the subsequent lynching of her alleged killer, a Black employee of the family named Noah Cherry.

The same weekend the Dispatch and Virginian’s accounts came out, Cherry was murdered by an angry crowd not far from the Princess Anne jail near the intersection of Princess Anne and North Landing roads.

The two deaths became a nationwide story, reported by newspapers from Maine to California. The account continues to surface in articles, in a book and on a true crime podcast. Alice Powell’s entry on the database says, “This child was murdered by a young black man who had a grudge against her father.”

Reports of this case have made Noah Cherry the chief suspect in Powell’s murder for more than 135 years. They cast his lynching as an act of vigilante justice. But the reports of the timeline of when this crime occurred, and how authorities blamed Cherry for it, do not match a review by the Virginia Mercury of official records in the Library of Virginia in Richmond and files at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

All this comes to light at a time when Virginians are arguing over what to teach about the state’s history of systemic racism, as lawmakers in other states wonder if “hanging by a tree” could be added to official execution methods and amid shifting public sentiment about racism and racial history in America.

Lynching and its secrets

A 2017 report by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) shows more than 4,400 lynchings occurred between 1877 and 1950 nationwide. Virginia documented 84 of them within its borders.

The EJI makes a distinction between “frontier lynching” in the West and racial terror lynchings that occurred in the South. In frontier lynchings the subject was accused of a serious crime and given “some form of process and trial.” Southern lynchings were largely “extrajudicial” – without court proceedings – and racialized: The ratio of Black victims to white victims in Southern states was 4-to-1 from 1882 to 1889, increasing to more than 17-to-1 after 1900.

Lynching in Virginia was commonly triggered by allegations that Black people committed violence against white people, according to Gianluca De Fazio, an associate professor at James Madison University who directs a research project that has collected almost 600 historical news accounts of lynching across the state.

To READ MORE. This story is written and reported by our media partner The Virginia Mercury.