"The Roanoke Riot"

Roanoke Riot main page | song | newspaper clippings

On September 20, 1893, a volatile mixture of racism, rumor, violence, and justice unleashed a vengeful mob in the city of Roanoke. Sallie Anna Bishop, an elderly market vendor, was beaten and robbed by an unidentified black man. Within hours a railroad detective had used Bishop's vague description of the suspect to pick up Thomas Smith, and Smith was placed in jail. A lynch mob of over 1,000 men gathered outside, and the local militia was brought in as additional protection for the prisoner.

Despite pleas from city officials, the crowd grew rowdier. The guards eventually opened fire, killing eight and wounding 34. In the era of overt racism and Jim Crow laws, the slaying of white citizens to protect a black prisoner was particularly shocking. That night an armed crowd overpowered police as they were trying to move Smith. He was lynched, and his body was burned the next day.

Some lynching participants were subsequently arrested and tried, but all were either freed or given light fines. According to newspaper accounts, it was subsequently discovered that Smith had been innocent. The police captured the real robber but simply forced him to leave town.

Through both the story line and the choice of words in the lyrics, "The Roanoke Riot" reveals the ugly racist attitudes of the Reconstruction Era. The song entered oral tradition on a local level, and according to one informant, singing it was officially banned in one community. "The Roanoke Riot" is no longer sung today, but the melody was reportedly that of the well-known British ballad "Barbara Allen."


Roanoke Riot main page | song | newspaper clippings

Deathly Lyrics:
Songs of Virginia Tragedies


Audio Credits


Breeding Mill

Caty Sage


Dewey Lee


Freeda Bolt

Great Kanawha

Kent Steffie

Mollie Tynes

Old 97

Poor Goins

Roanoke Riot

Rye Cove

Talt Hall

Vance Song

Wreck of the 1256