One hundred and five years ago, ethnic conflicts that had been simmering since the Civil War ended came to a boil along the banks of the Shenandoah River in West Virginia. A conversation yesterday with a researcher documenting aspects of African American life in the area where West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia meet reminded me of the story of the 1906 lynching of Ed Howell.
“Edward Howell, colored, shot and killed George Fauver, white, near Fairmont schoolhouse, across the Shenandoah river [sic.] from Myerstown at dusk Wednesday night,” reported a Jefferson County, West Virginia, newspaper January 18, 1906.
Howell allegedly shot Fauver because the latter repeatedly watered his livestock in a spring the Howell family used for its drinking and cooking water. The same paper reported that the day Fauver was shot the white man was again watering his horses in the spring and allowing the animals to “trample dirt into it.” Howell encountered Fauver at the spring. “Howell met him and, it is said, Fauver used insulting language to Howell, who secured a rifle and shot him in the breast.”
The day after shooting Fauver, Howell surrendered himself to the authorities and he was jailed. Three months later, the same paper that reported Fauver’s shooting at the spring reported another death. “Edward Howell, colored, in jail here awaiting trial for the killing of George Fauver, white, on the east side of the Shenandoah river [sic.], in January last, committed suicide Wednesday morning by hanging.”
The 1906 incidents are recounted by African Americans and whites throughout Jefferson County, West Virginia. An oral history project sponsored by the NAACP recorded several versions of the event. The project culminated with a 1993 report that described a lengthy feud between the Howell and Fauver families.
The 1906 murder by the spring and Ed Howell’s death while in custody survive as oral traditions with differing versions told by each man’s descendants. One of Ed Howell’s great grandchildren once told me, “I was just shocked to find that it was a rumor still alive in the white community as recently as a couple of years ago.”
Ed Howell’s family firmly believes that he was lynched in his jail cell only three days before the start of his trial. The white newspaper of the time and white residents living in Jefferson County near the turn of the 21st century steadfastly maintain that Howell hung himself with his dirty underwear.
Each year in the last quarter of the twentieth century, members of Edward Howell’s extended family held family reunions on the banks of the Shenandoah River. Ed Howell’s kin swap stories about births and deaths, share meals, and catch up on each others’ lives. They also recount the fateful period in 1906 when Ed Howell shot George Fauver.
The stories, white and black, are inextricably tied to the hillsides flanking the Shenandoah River. They are tied to recognizable places in the landscape and they are highly significant to the historically disenfranchised African Americans who have lived in Jefferson County since the end of the Civil War.
“The official history – one of my former college professors … hardly ever mentions blacks,” explained one of Howell’s great-grandchildren. “I mean here we’ve been here all this time and in the numbers we’ve been and still we never figure in the history. And when you think about slavery and the fact that free labor built many of these places around here, still, we were ignored. So it was just good to have that unofficial history at any rate.” That unofficial history includes the old Howell home place, the banks of the Shenandoah River, and the spring where the feud between the Howells and the Fauvers and the tensions between white and black were played out one winter day in 1906.