Penny Hill Cemetery: Notable Burials

Historic Context

Established in 1796 as Alexandria’s community graveyard, Penny Hill served for 180 years. Initially situated on the banks of Great Hunting Creek and accessible via Penny Hill Street—as depicted on George Gilpin’s 1798 map of Alexandria—its location has since shifted to South Payne Street. Primarily, the cemetery was the final resting place for the town’s poor and destitute. Although about 1400 individuals are buried there, mostly in unmarked graves, only a few gravestones remain visible today.

Gilpin’s 1798 map of Alexandria showcases Penny Hill Street, running east to west beside Great Hunting Creek. Though the street has since vanished, the original Penny Hill was positioned at the creek’s west end. Named after an English site utilized as a warning beacon against the Spanish Armada, Penny Hill’s current location is on South Payne Street.

Visitors to the cemetery may discover oyster shells that were once employed to delineate the borders of graves. Within the African American tradition, these shells were symbolic, representing the enslaved people’s return to Africa. This belief was rooted in the idea that just as the sea had brought them to their new land, it would likewise carry them back to Africa in death!

Joseph McCoy (Date of Death April 23, 1897) Lynching Victim

On April 23, 1897, the young African American, Joseph McCoy, was tragically lynched in Alexandria, Virginia. During the preceding night and the early hours of that fateful day, a white mob made two relentless attempts to breach the police station where McCoy was detained. Their second attempt was successful, as they violently removed him from his jail cell, shot, beat, and ultimately hanged him from the lamppost at the intersection of Cameron and Lee Streets. McCoy’s final resting place was a pauper’s grave in Penny Hill Cemetery.

A poignant moment came when McCoy’s aunt visited Demaine and Son, stating, “As the people killed him, they will have to bury him.” This short yet impactful declaration seemed to point directly at the City of Alexandria and its white residents, holding them responsible for the death. McCoy was laid to rest wearing “a dark coat, light trousers, and a white shirt,” placed in a simple pine coffin provided by the state. His family declined to bear the funeral costs, further underlining the grave injustice of his death.

Benjamin Thomas (Date of death August 8, 1899) Lynching Victim

On the eve of Tuesday, August 8, 1899, shortly before the clock struck twelve, young Benjamin Thomas, a 16-year-old African American resident of Alexandria, met a tragic fate, being lynched at the corner of King and Fairfax Street.

Earlier that evening, a frenzied mob of white individuals had stormed the City Jail located on N. St. Asaph Street. It was here they brutally took hold of Benjamin, dragging him over the harsh cobblestone streets for half a mile, subjecting him to a barrage of stones, bricks, and iron blows. His desperate pleas for his mother echoed through the streets. In a grim irony, his torture reached its climax near the city’s administrative symbols — City Hall and the police station. Here, Benjamin was repeatedly stabbed, shot, beaten, and ultimately hanged.

The preceding day, Monday, August 7, 1899, authorities arrested Benjamin, solely relying on accusations from an eight-year-old white girl, charging him with her assault.

Upon hearing of his arrest, the African American residents of Alexandria were gripped with dread. Only two years before, another young Black boy, Joseph McCoy, had been killed by a white mob on similar grounds. In hopes of preventing a repeat of that atrocity, Black men banded together, offering their assistance to the police to ensure Benjamin’s safety. However, their genuine fears were met with mockery by the police and Mayor George Simpson.

In an act of chilling indifference, Mayor Simpson addressed the baying mob from the jail’s steps. He proposed a bargain, pledging that if they dispersed peacefully, he’d guarantee a court trial for Benjamin the very next day. If this wasn’t done, he vowed to lead the lynching mob himself the following night.

The irony was stark; many from the Black community were arrested that same night, with the mayor condemning them to hefty fines or imprisonment. Notably absent was any retribution for the white individuals responsible for Benjamin’s lynching.

Post the horrifying events, Benjamin’s body was taken to the Demaine funeral home on King Street. His heartbroken mother, Elizabeth Thomas, couldn’t bear the sight of her son’s lifeless body. Hundreds gathered at Shiloh Baptist Church, where Rev. Henry H. Warring eulogized Benjamin, emphasizing his innocence.

Following his burial at Penny Hill Cemetery, efforts by the Black community were made to transfer him from the unmarked grave to Douglass Cemetery. Yet, records of this transfer are missing. Thus, the exact location of Benjamin Thomas’s grave remains an unresolved mystery.

Sources of Information

For additional information on the History of African cemeteries, please visit this page (the link will redirect you to an official South Carolina State website).

For additional information, please visit the City of Alexandria’s official website on Joseph McCoy.

For additional information, please visit the City of Alexandria’s official website Benjamin Thomas.

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