Higginbotham’s Conviction

February 1, 1902


A black man named Joe Higginbotham, accused of raping Mrs. Webber, a white woman “has forfeited his right to live” after being tried by a conservative white jury because his crime was so awful.


The trial of Joe Higginbotham (colored) charged with having raped Mrs. Ralph Webber (white) Saturday, January 11, 1902, at Lynchburg, Va., took place Wednessday, January, 22, 1902, in the Corporation Court, Judge Christian presiding.
Higginbotham’s uncontradicted statement, “I am guilty of it all” removes from the minds of the conservative public the last vestige of sympathy entertained for his undone condition.
Never in the history of the commonwealth have we observed a more determined effort to prevent a lynching and to save the grand old commonwealth from the odium of a ruthless disregard of its laws.
Gov. A.J. Montague has realized the full import of the oath of office and he is seeing to it that the laws are faithfully executed.
There is but one unfortunate feature of the whole affair. The prisoner was tried without counsel. He was conveyed to Roanoke, Va, for protection and upon his return, eight companies of state militia had been assembled at Lynchburg for the purpose of maintaining the majesty of the law.
The jury was obtained at Danville, Va., it being impossible to secure persons in the locality in which the crime was committed, who were unbiased in their judgment.
The only sad and unfortunate feature about the case, so far as an impartial trial was concerned, was the fact that he was arraigned without counsel.
If it be a fact that the members of the bar assigned to the case by the court declined to serve, it reflects very materially upon the bar. Higginbotham should have been defended by counsel. He had confessed. He knew the penalty of his crime. The jury had been secured from a “hanging town.” The gallows loomed up in the distance and there were none so blind as not to be able to see the not far-away apparition. Then why should a member of the bar decline to do his duty and carry out the order of the court?
But, it is all over now. The machinery of the law was put into operation. The Governor communicated with the Mayor and the Mayor with the sheriff, and the sheriff with the jailer.
Higginbotham was convicted and sentenced to die February 24, 1902.
Sympathy for him? You ask. No none for him. He has forfeited his right to live. He was brought up in one of the best homes in Lynchburg, surrounded by all of the comforts which indulging, foster-parents can give. He was sent to the Sunday-school and he joined the church. He was janitor in the temple of learning. He could read and he could write. He had read the flaming condemnation of this crime of crimes.
He had read of the recent burning of colored men charged with similar offenses. He knew that the law was inexorable and his punishment was death. Yet, he risked all for a moment of imaginary pleasure.
When the deed was done, fear prompted murder, and the youth added to villainy the crime of fiendishness.
He seemed not to have remembered that even though he had escaped, he would have thrown the pall of suspicion upon every colored youth in Lynchburg. He knew the frenzied state of feeling upon the subject among the lower elements. He knew that this charge is the most embarrassing one with which our people have to contend, and yet he risked it.
Not alone this, but he stabbed to the heart one of the best, one of the most respected, one of the most beloved families in Lynchburg.
Housed and fed by them, educated by them, honored by them, viper-like he turned upon the Higginbotham family whose name he bore.
It is for them we have sympathy. It is for them we would shed our tears. No one can tell the mortification, the anguish of this old Virginia family, which has lived during all these years among the “quality white-folks” of the old commonwealth.
Higginbotham is the arch-enemy of the “New Negro,” the element which is now striving to march onward and direct their step upward.
But, the Higginbothams need not despair. They prayed over him, wept over him, suffered bitter pangs for him and this is their reward.
We cannot tell about these things. Many a white family has suffered in a similar way. There is they say, a black sheep in every fold.
The conservative, liberty-loving white people, those who have had wayward sons will understand. The aristocratic Virginia family in whose midst, the Higginbothams were reared will know that Joe’s aberration did not come from the foster parents’ stock.
On the 24th of the month, he will die. The gallows will be sprung, the last plunge will take place and all that remains of that faithless, ungrateful, death-deserving mortal will be silenced forever more. So be it.
Let the colored people of Virginia stand mute at his end and hope that his fate may serve as a warning to all, both white and black, rich and poor.
When white men commit similar crimes upon colored females, let our white friends be equally as indignant and positive in their demand for punishment.
William O’Boyle, (white) is now under sentence of death at Newport News, Va. for the commission of a crime upon a colored woman as fiendish as the one with which Higginbotham stood charged.
He murdered a colored woman and her unborn babe, stamping the life out of both.
Two white juries have found him guilty of death. Two colored juries would have found Higginbotham guilty of death. This is indicative of a better state of feeling existing between the white and colored citizens of the commonwealth.
It shows that the law can and will be executed, that mobs should be sent to the rear and that the dawn of a brighter morning will bring peace and prosperity, hope and contentment in one of the fairest portions of the land of sunshine and flowers.
All honor to our state officials for their fidelity to duty. When the law is supreme, and guilty criminals punished, regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude; then the advent of the millennium is at hand and the glad refrain will be heralded from the Atlantic to the Pacific; from Canada to the gulf.
Lynch-law must go!
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Upper Left Quadrant

Contributed By

Brooke Royer


“Higginbotham’s Conviction,” Black Virginia: The Richmond Planet, 1894-1909, accessed January 30, 2023, https://blackvirginia.richmond.edu/items/show/64.