The Ballad of Thomas Smith

Can you feel the memory of this place?
Or does the weight of time erase
Blood from the root, leaving only fear?
Do you know what happened here?

In 1893 they hung me from a hickory tree;
Still hungry, they tore its branches free
And cut my clothes for souvenirs
Like something great had happened here.

What they say I did – does it matter?
Given tribe or truth, would you choose the latter?
All that mattered was that someone pay
The debt that bore their sin away.

Mrs. Bishop was selling grapes,
She led him down the cellar steps…
Man stole two dollars and beat her flat,
A black man, she said, in a slouch hat.

Willie was at the wrong place in the wrong shoes;
They got him at the wrong time, rubber boots…
Oh, don’t think I didn’t pray
That I had left my hat that day!

They got me at the train station…
Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman.
They had someone else too;
He even confessed, but I never knew…
Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman…

They made him swear to leave town
Then let him go;
They had me, and I would do…
“Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman!”

Shouting at the courthouse, gunfire at the jail,
Rough hands pushing me down, bidding me be still…
Would they risk their lives for me now, a negro?
Would they fight and die for me now, a negro?

Eight fell that night, by the Light Infantry,
Eight died that night, but not for me;
Eight men down, but they weren’t done,
They mourned for eight, but I wasn’t one.

Law washed its hands of me then – not proud,
They handed me over to the crowd…
At last, they tied me to the tree…
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

As a child I held my mama’s hand
As salt tears watered the scarred-up land;
She said, “Son, now we’s gon’ be free…”
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

They set me free on Franklin and Mountain…
Bullets biting from every direction…
Mama, why could they not let me be?
Lord… have… mercy…

It’s over now, Mama.
Into His hands I commend my spirit.

And then when they had cut from me
Every last piece that they could gut from me,
They built a pyre for me down on the river bank;
They lit a fire for me down by the river bank.

The blaze left only a few charred bones,
Smooth and polished as river stones…
My sister saw me burn that day;
She heard them sing, then turn away.

Days passed and no one could recall
The wind that blew in early fall
That made them whoop and shout for blood,
That made them throw me on the wood.

Now people pass, but do they hear?
Does my singing reach their ears?
God sent His mercy down on me,
But nothing ever grew from that hickory tree.

Historical Note: This poem is based on actual events. Thomas Smith was lynched in Roanoke in the early morning hours of September 21, 1893. The previous morning, a Mrs. Bishop of nearby Cloverdale had been beaten and robbed near the downtown farmer’s market. She identified Smith as her assailant on the basis of his race and his “slouch hat.” That night, Roanoke mayor Henry Trout called up the Light Infantry to protect Smith from the lynch mob that had gathered at the jail. When the mob tried to storm the jail, the Light Infantry fired into the crowd, killing eight bystanders.

The mob eventually overtook Smith as he was being returned to the jail later that night. They hanged him from a hickory tree on the corner of Franklin Road and Mountain Avenue and shot him numerous times. A man cut souvenirs from the tree and Smith’s clothes, handing them out to the crowd. Many in the mob wanted to bury Smith’s body in the mayor’s front yard, but they were persuaded instead to burn him on the banks of the Roanoke River.

This tragedy was not Roanoke’s first lynching. A little over a year earlier, on February 12, 1892, William Lavender was lynched after twelve-year-old Alice Perry accused him of trying to rape her. He was identified on the basis of his rubber boots.

  1. “Boss I didn’t hurt that woman.” – Thomas Smith’s words from his arrest at the train station.
  2. “Oh, Lord, have mercy on me.” – Thomas Smith’s last words as he was being lynched.
Works Cited:
Alexander, Ann Field. “‘Like an Evil Wind’: The Roanoke Riot of 1893 and the Lynching of Thomas Smith.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 100, no. 2, 1992, pp. 173–206. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4249275. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.