For Walter Cotton

For Walter Cotton


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I was ready to die in Skippers, defending myself from Confederates

who thought they had easy money; I came out my sleep shooting.




For Walter Cotton, Outlaw

— lynched by Emporia, VA, March 24, 1900


By Rudolph Lewis


You just couldn’t escape your fate, could you, Stack-O-Lee of Scotland Neck? 

At your birth in 1870, they had it in for you, black rebellion was still in the air. 

Fifteen years a slave and as many free they finally whipped the hell out of you. 


You were a Jubilee Child, youngest of four. Nobody told Rosa your mama 

Slavery was dead as Abraham Lincoln. She learned no letters or instruction 

other than the whip or the rod. At eight years old, you were too bad for her 

to raise and she gave you to a white man to break, to manage seven years. 

You worked night and day for that white man, no pay, just enough to wear. 

You worked ‘til your legs were sturdy and arms powerful, your spirit defiant.  

What becomes of a fifteen-year-old boy, no mama, no papa, nothing?

Now you seem at peace, at rest in heaven, you, upright in an unpainted box 

in public view, on the street, they have stripped you bare, button, cut of cloth, 

sprigs of whiskers, the tip of a finger, an ear, a toe.


Black man, the photographer will archive this image! 

Thirty-six witnesses and twelve jurors, the great men of Hicksford 

sanctioned your murder, found “no presentments” in the law 

and the mob, lynched a jailed Negro on a cherry tree in courtyard square.


Walter Speaks


I ran away and promised myself I’ll die before I’ll work

for another white man, a vow that led me to take what I needed. 

In yesterday’s slavery, for breaking & entering, stealing meat 

from the smokehouse, a black could be given “thirty and nine,” 

branded and hanged


At fifteen I got twenty months for Edmunsen and Jasey’s

then three years for Mr. Shield’s Store.

By twenty I nearly killed a man with my blade 

and so I left Scotland Neck. I rolled and rambled for years 

until I was twenty-nine, on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad

in Southside Virginia, when I fell in with the Irishman O’Grady.


August 3, 1899, Charles Wyatt, a grocer, was robbed and killed

Second Avenue and Glasgow Street, Portsmouth, Virginia, I was

there; seized in Norfolk, given a speedy trial. Sentenced to hang

June 12, 1900, my partner Dave Brandt O’Grady passed me a file.


The Irishman was an educated tramp by choice, with an evil temper.

I robbed George Blick of Belfield; O’Grady killed him with a coupling

pin, mangled him brutally with a heavy steel rod for sport and revenge.


My life is worth no more than others; if I were the murdering

savage they take me for I could have killed John Grizzard,

his wife and infant; yet I took only clothes, a watch, a pistol.


I was ready to die in Skippers, defending myself from Confederates

who thought they had easy money; I came out my sleep shooting.

Joseph Weldon drew; he never got off a shot. J. W. Saunders,

he got one in the back. J E. Morris escaped with his life.


I was still standing, a hole in my hand, a dead man walking,

on my head, $1000, four white men dead, my life not

worth the clothes on my back. I knew I didn’t have long

to live; I was dog tired when C.P. Parham & W. H. Moore

took me bleeding in Jarratt. Waiting on the railroad tracks

they were hunters and could scent a Negro a mile away.


A bogus telegram arrived in Stony Creek–back to Emporia.

Dragged from the train, the mob ready to kill me, I escaped

with bruises, but my time was near, 1500 in the courtyard,

yelling, “Lynch the nigger! Lynch the nigger!” I taunted them

aplenty. ”Hang me, you cowards, hang me. Break this neck.

It’s been a good one.” Two white men dead; a stolen gun!


I walked boldly, erect to the cherry tree, my arms

tied behind my back, a rope around my neck. I done

done some wrong in my life, not all that people say.

I have no regrets. I did the best with what I had.


Hoisted in mid-air; the whites cry out with joy,

me, strangling, dying, suspended like a scarecrow.

*   *   *   *   *



Dayna Austin (Great granddaughter to Charles Wyatt and Sheriff John Saunders): Mr. Lewis, I read with interest your article “For Walter Cotton, Outlaw.” Retrieved 11/9/2005 from Chicken Bones.

I am a descendent of the two men that Walter Cotton killed.  There is another side to your story.  My great grandfather on my father’s side, Charles Wyatt, was bludgeoned to death by Walter Cotton.  My great grandfather was a hardworking business man who had never owned slaves and never condoned it. He happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He had spent the night in his store to get up early to go on a fishing trip at the nearby Elizabeth River.  He surprised Cotton who was robbing the store and the rest is history.  

He left behind two children who were swindled out of their inheritance by unscrupulous lawyers and then sent off to an orphanage. My great grandmother had died years before and Charles was trying to be both mother and father to them.  My grandfather was always bitter about the treatment.  Despite having had his father killed by a black man for no reason, he was ALWAYS good to blacks who lived around him.  

When I was a child back in the 50s I remember that he clothed and fed many.  I learned from him that a person should be judged about how someone treats them, nor the color of their skin.  I had every right to be prejudiced against blacks.  You see, the story doesn’t end there.

When Cotton left Portsmouth and fled to Emporia.  My great grandfather, on my mother’s side, John Saunders, was the sheriff of Emporia.  He was eating dinner with his wife and 12 children when he heard of Cotton being in the area so he formed a posse to capture Cotton.  People were upset because a good honorable man had been brutally murdered.  

Cotton then killed my other great grandfather and left behind 12 innocent children.  You see blacks aren’t the only people in the universe who have suffered because of race.  Do I hate blacks and try to see a witch in every closet?  No, my grandfather taught me better. 

In addition, I have failed to see any articles in your publication that mention the hundreds of whites who put themselves in harms way to form the underground railroad and to fight slavery.  Many whites opposed slavery and defended the rights of blacks at every turn but somehow those endeavors are overlooked.

I choose not to hate or draw conclusions about a person because of their heritage.  That is called being prejudice and it works both ways.

Rudy: Dayna, I find your story very moving and human. Let me say upfront: I do not justify murder and cruelty from any quarter. My intent was to tell the story of Walter Cotton, Outlaw, from his perspective retaining the integrity of his life. The story is more or less as I found it in the Emporia library. I made every attempt to tell the story with the known facts as objectively as I could. I do not condone killing of any sort, either for survival or societal retribution.

I weep for your losses. And I am pleased by the generosity that your family has shown black individuals. Growing up in Sussex County my life was rather isolated from whites and I had little chance to observe such kindnesses. I am sure they existed.

My family as far as I can remember at that time were slaves and sharecroppers washing and cleaning up after white folk, and excluded mostly from the financial recovery of the South.

We did become landowners, eventually, not quite the best land, mostly swampland. But with our mules we could farm a few acres of corn, maybe an acre of tobacco, some peanuts and cotton. Of course, we couldn’t live off just that. In the 50s Mama worked at Jarratt Motel for less than $20 for a six-day week. And Daddy was a carpenter and a house builder. There are no murderers in my family and there has never been an assault, that I know of, on any white man, woman, or child—except possibly in defense. Nor have we ever argued for such assaults.

Rudy: I quite appreciate your response to my “For Walter Scott, Outlaw.” Yours is actually the 2nd one. A professor now at Howard was raised in Emporia and she knew nothing of the lynching in courthouse square. I am sure you are not one who is sympathetic to a long-dying American practice. As you know we could never get our federal government to outlaw it, not even FDR dared to threaten this Southern pastime. Admittedly, Virginia was never Mississippi or Alabama.

No reader of “For Walter Scott, Outlaw” (who is fair) can conclude that I the author desire white misery. I hope your family has recovered from the tragedies committed against you a century ago. My uncle was killed in Emporia in 1956 by the town cops. He was not yet 35. The cops were just having fun.  I know that the past can be more insidious in the present than many are willing to believe. But I suspect we Southerners know better.

What might be best is that I post your story along with that of “For Walter Scott, Outlaw.”. So people can get a rounder view of the impact of slavery and Jim Crow in America on both blacks and whites.  But you should also read The Confessions of Walter Cotton, the prose version, which was written first. There you may get there a clearer statement of authorial intent.

Dayna: Mr. Lewis, I do appreciate your letter.  I will never understand slavery or mistreatment of blacks or any other nationality. It is so far removed from the way I was reared.  I remember as a child there was a white and black line to get food in a takeout restaurant.  I was only about six.  I remember there were black and white schools and churches but I never questioned it.  It was never talked about.  I just thought black folk liked to be with black folk and whites liked to be with whites.   My dad took me to Chinatown and I thought Chinese just like to be with Chinese!  As a child it just didn’t register.  That is all I remember about segregation.  We had a black maid named Bessie Dailey who was like a family member and I adored her.  She didn’t have children of her own so she babied the children in our family.  She is still living and must be over 100. She won’t tell us her age!  She was really the only black I had contact with when I was growing up and the experience with her was always positive.   

I am sorry that your childhood contained such bad memories.  Poverty was not a stranger to whites or blacks during those days but you sure got the short end of the stick for reasons  beyond your control.  I see a similar treatment of Hispanics in this country and it makes my blood boil.

Dayna: Mr. Lewis, you are a talented man with much to offer and I do appreciate your taking the time to respond to my letter.  May God bless you and yours and may you have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful new year. Blessings

Rudy: Dayna, thank you for your kind and generous words. On the whole my childhood memories are quite wonderful. From the child’s view it was quite idyllic and innocent. Those days will not come again. Of course, one cannot live one’s life ever in isolation. I and my family are well. I wish you and yours the best of the holiday season. As ever and always.

Crucifixion  painting by Kaki

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posted 19 December 2005




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Related files: For Walter Cotton, Outlaw   For Lucy Barrow  Confessions of Walter Cotton  Killing Fiends & Monsters   Nat Turner Sermon 

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