Love and lynching in Wytheville: Raymond Arthur Byrd

1926 New York Times Raymond Byrd headline
1926 New York Times Raymond Byrd headline

Hands down, this is the most painful and challenging post I’ve written. If you’re easily upset, it’s perhaps best if you skip over this one.

I’m well versed in the horrors of lynching in the United States. It’s not a subject that was ever broached in school. However, it’s a subject that I imagine every African American is familiar with. Much in the same manner that the Irish are well versed in the inhumane treatment they were subjected to through English colonialism and the horrors of The Troubles. While I may have been familiar with lynching I never thought in a million years that it would have a direct impact on my family. A message received through changed that.

Raymond Arthur Byrd was born in Speedville, Wythe County, Virginia on 2 April 1895 to Stephen C. Byrd (a Sheffey himself through his mother Lenah M. Sheffey, origins unknown) and Josephine V. Sheffey, a descendant of Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Raymond spent his life working as a farm labourer from his early teens. By the time he was 24, he had met and married Tennessee “Tennie” Hawkins in 1919. The pair quickly established a small family in Rural Retreat, Wythe Co. before moving to Wytheville. Daughter Edith M Byrd was born in 1919.  Edith was followed by Lillian Josephine Byrd in 1921 and Hazel Beatrice Byrd in 1924.

While the exact date is unknown, Raymond worked for the white Grubb family in Wytheville, VA in 1925. It’s here that his story takes a dark and barbaric turn. He fell in love with Minnie Grubb, the daughter of his employer. It’s worth remembering that inter-racial relationships were actively discouraged in the 1920s.  Marriage between the races was illegal. It was an anathema not solely restricted to the southern states.

Rumour and legend has it that Minnie kept a diary which, unfortunately, hasn’t been found. If it ever existed, her diary would shed a light on the progression of the relationship she had with Raymond: from first meeting him as an employee of her family through to the acknowledgement of feelings and the progression to an initiate relationship. Their relationship would have been problematic on two fronts: the first being Raymond’s colour, the second the fact that he was married man with a family. Despite being in love, the relationship was doomed from the outset. I can’t help but wonder what both of them must have felt about this.

In 1925, Minnie fell pregnant with Raymond’s child. I can only imagine the range of emotions both must have felt. Biology, being what it is, could grant them only so much time before her condition would become apparent, leading to Minnie inevitably telling her family. She must have informed her family at some point as the wheels that were set in motion afterwards would have consequences for Raymond and Minnie’s respective families and the State of Virginia itself.

Raymond was jailed in Wytheville, accused of forcibly attacking Minnie, a charge she strenuously denied at the time. Whilst in jail, a mob formed with the knowledge of the authorities and ‘stormed’ the jail on 15 August 1926, shooting Raymond in the head multiple times.  The men mutilated his remains before dragging his body behind a truck and hanging it in a tree near to the Grubb property. The body would be discovered by 16 year-old John Henry Davis who was on his way to milking his father’s cow.

Raymond would officially be the last person to be lynched in Virginia.  The crime against him was so horrific, so brutal and evil that it made the national news in the US. Along with a series of Virginian lynchings between 1920 and 1925, the nature of Raymond’s lynching prompted the Virginia State Senate to pass The Virginia Anti-Lynching Law of 1928. He and his family received a full posthumous pardon from the Governor of Virginia.

The tale of Minnie and Raymond didn’t end there.

Minnie gave birth to a daughter on 23 July 1926 whose name is believed to be Geraldine Johnson. Geraldine was born in Abingdon, VA. Originally named Willie, the child was sent to live with the Johnson family elsewhere in Virginia.  From there, she was taken by persons unknown. It’s believed that she was taken to Ohio. Ohio isn’t that much of a stretch of the imagination. Raymond had African American Sheffey and Byrd kin living in Ohio. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, the blood connection within the Sheffey family ran deep. To me, it seems entirely probable that either the Ohio-based Sheffeys or Byrds (or both, as these two families were related to one another) could have taken the child out of a hostile Virginia to a secure life in the more moderate Ohio. To-date, this child of Minnie Grubb and Raymond Byrd remains a mystery. She has never been found.

One things really drives Raymond’s story home to me. My first marriage was to a classic ‘English rose’. My second to a woman of Brazilian and Israeli heritage. Neither raised any eyebrows in 1990s UK. I’ve dated the daughter of an earl and a daughter of a viscount, again, without any eyebrows being raised within that august British entity known as ‘The Establishment’. I took something for granted that directly led to the death of Raymond, my second cousin twice removed. I was congratulated and my marriages celebrated. His love relationship led to an unforgiving and brutal death.

Alongside the family successes I’ve uncovered along the way, this is a tale that will remain with me always.

As I read in the press how the states of Texas and Tennessee want to whitewash slavery and the eras that followed, stories like the one above – no matter how uncomfortable they may be – should never be forgotten. I remain firm in the belief that the only way the country of my birth can address where it has fallen short of the ideals upon which it was founded is through open and honest dialogue. If the English can actively engage in this process with its former colonies and with the Irish, the US can do it too with the different ethnic peoples which bore the brunt of its shortcomings. From this lays the roots of healing and moving forward as a collective people.

In loving memory of Raymond Arthur Byrd, 1895 – 1926

For more information:

Beers, Paul G. 1994. The Wythe County Lynching of Raymond Bird

Ottney ,Ryan Scott. 2009. In Search Of Geraldine, Portsmouth Daily Times.

Smith, Douglas. Anti-Lynching Law of 1928, The Encyclopedia Virginia.

22 thoughts on “Love and lynching in Wytheville: Raymond Arthur Byrd

  1. The times have changed, as they always do. For many not fast enough for others too fast. All of our families are a part of this history of change. I could not help but wonder if someone out there doing family research, has found a relative who took part in these lynching’s. What would their thoughts be? As for the whitewashing you speak about, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The lack of good history courses in our schools is appalling.

    Anyway enjoyed your writing very much.

    1. The couple of individuals I spoke to our embarrassed and afraid to speak out even after all of these years. Some of the men involved have descendants that are prominent figures in business and politics from the Virginia, Maryland and D.C. areas.

      1. Well, I’ll certainly bear them in mind if and when the TV series gets the green light. I have no reservations at all in speaking to them and interviewing them for the programme.

  2. What an amazing story. You’ve done a great job sharing it with a lot of detail and information. It’s going to haunt me for quite a while. On a related topic, I learned recently that one of my (white) relatives of a previous generation was married to an African American man in, I believe, the twenties. The story is he was accepted by my family (northerners), but the couple did end up divorcing. I have no other info, but she never married again (I think). It’s an area for further research, but it’s going to be a tough one to find info on.

  3. Read your posts about Sheffeys in Ohio and also Maryland. Would love too help and see if our families could be the same! Dot know quit that much or that far back.

    1. Hello. Feel free to email me. I’m more than happy to give you guest access to the family tree on I’ve traced more than a few Ohio Sheffeys back to WVA and VA. My email is: anamericanincornwall[at]gmail[dot]com

  4. My wife is a great granddaughter of Raymond Byrd. We appreciate your efforts. His wife had a rough time of it after Raymond’s death. She ended up in a marriage with man who didn’t treat her well and in the end she died via problems with her pregnancy because no doctor would touch her because she was the widow of Raymond Byrd. Before she died she wrote a poem about Raymond. It reads:

    “In the cemetery at Murphysville where the flowers gently wave .
    Lies the one I love so dear in a cold shallow grave..
    Folks may think I have forgotten and may think the wound has heal, .
    but they do not know the sorrow that is in my heart concealed. .
    I do not know the pain he bore .
    I did not see him die, .
    but this I know, .he had to go and did not say goodbye. .
    Sleep on, Sleep on, early fallen in your green narrow bed. .
    I will see you in eternity where no more goodbyes are said.”

    1. Hi Tony

      Thank you so much for getting in touch. And thank you as well for sharing this. I did wonder whatever happened to Tennie and their daughters. What a powerful and evocative poem. The tragedy certainly seems to have repercussions which echoes down to the present day.

      I was wondering of your wife or her family knew anything more about Raymond’s parents, Stephen Byrd and Lenah (or Senah) Sheffey? Specifically, I’m looking for information about either their parents or their brothers and sisters.

      If you would like to chat and/or exchange information privately, my email is: anamericanincornwall{at}gmail[dot]com

  5. The older two sisters married into their stepfather’s family (Patterson) and had children. The youngest, Hazel, joined the Army just after her mother’s death in 1941 to escape home and became a WAC (Women’s Army Corp) at age 16, but told the military she was 18. After serving several years she moved to Detroit, MI for Beauty School and then to Ohio where she eventually married another Army Vet of WW II and had five children. My wife is her only grandchild.

  6. Tony,
    My mother grew up in the Rural Retreat area and lived literally down the road from where this lynching occurred. She was approximately 5 years old when this happened and my uncle was about 3.
    I’ve heard this story many times growing up, mostly from my grandmother, mother, uncle, and cousins. Oddly, everyone seemed to know the names of everyone involved, Minnie Grubb, Grover Grubb, etc, but no one ever know or mentioned the name Raymond Bird. It wasn’t until I did a web search in 2014 that I first heard the name “Raymond Bird”. (I know you have it “Byrd” but most of the documents I can find have his name spelled “Bird”. The Governor at the time was named “Byrd” and was heavily involved in trying to bring the men to justice.
    My grandfather, John King, instructed my grandmother, Bessie King, to stay with my mother and uncle at Saint Paul Lutheran Church that morning while he went up the road to where this lynching happened. It is believed he was one of the first men from the Church that made it to the site and cut him down.
    The thing I remember most about this story from my grandmother’s point of view is her telling of how Grover Grubb came to Church late that morning and set in the back. She always said that he was extremely red his face was, and that he just sat there glaring at the floor still full of anger. She always made it a point to mention this every time she related the story. The look on his face that morning seemed to stay with her for as long as she had the ability to remember it.
    It’s odd how one incident in August of 1926 can ripple for such a long long time and through so many lives and families. No one is an island.

    1. Thank you for sharing Wayne. Very interesting story. As for the spelling it has always been spelled BYRD. The only thing we could think of is they didn’t want to associate Raymond with the Governor and changed the spelling of his name. It’s even spelled BYRD on his headstone and his official records related to WW1, marriage record and death certificate. Only in the papers discussing his murder was it spelled BIRD. The daughter that was born between Raymond and Minnie I found out about a year ago that she died in 1979 never having any children because she feared the child may have had black features. If you have more to share feel free to contact me at

      1. Anthony,

        Was the daughter’s name by chance Geraldine?

      2. We thought her name was Geraldine. However, we found out she was raised with a black family for a few years and she was known as Willie Johnson. She was taken and ended up with Minnie and was known as Clara Cox. She married twice, but she and her husbands agreed not to have children. She died in Missouri at the age of 53.

  7. Just curious Anthony, is their any documentation that Clara Cox is the daughter of Raymond Byrd. The gravesites at St Paul Lutheran church in Wythe County confirms your comment. However, the 1920 census, listing Minnie indicates she married to James E Cox in 1929. Clara’s birth age is off by 3 years and a few months. She is shown as 8 months old. Perhaps she was made “younger” on the census because of the Cox marriage being in 1929.

  8. See Find A Grave “Minnie Grubb Burkhart” or “Grover Grubb” for family links. The baby was known as Clara Cox. I read of the case on Facebook this week from a post by a doctor who did genealogy research for his wife, a Byrd descendant. The most tragic figure ended up being Raymond’s wife, who wrote a love poem to him after the events. She remarried and has a crude headstone. Only one of their three daughters’ burials is in online. I am not a “friend” of the person who posted the poem and photographs of Byrd’s children, including the baby as an adult.

    1. She (Tennie) had a rough life that ended because doctors did not want to provide care for her because she was Byrd’s widow.

  9. This is crazy reading about this since I am a Sheffey! My grandmother was Helen Sheffey born in 1936 in Wytheville County VA…I also had a great Aunt named Amanda Byrd. My grandma and her siblings relocated to Ohio in the early 50s. This is some deep family history…wow.

    1. Tracee, if I remember the chronology correctly, Raymond was Helen’s 3rd cousin. There will be another connection via the Byrdsof Wythe County and the Byrds in Ohio. I’m just missing documentation for two people to finally nail that down and confirm it. This is why some Sheffeys from Wythe and Smyth Counties moved to Ohio after slavery ended.

  10. Mr. Byrd is buried with my ancestors. Murphyville cemetery is where my great great great grandfather is buried.

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