I learned of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, collecting soil from the sites of lynchings in America, a few years ago when I was lucky enough to hear Bryan Stevenson speak. I was intrigued and, driven by the type of fresh fervor you feel when first inspired by an idea, contacted EJI the following day. I wanted to be involved in whatever way possible. I received a response thanking me for my interest and offering to send me some research on the work the organization was doing at the time. Days later a package came in the mail containing a horrifying report: Lynching in America. I am not sure if EJI gets a number of these exuberant emails from people like me, but the report was sobering enough to deter those who want to simply dig around, put some dirt in a jar, and walk away patting themselves on the back. It had the opposite effect on me; I studied the report several times – each time with a knot in my stomach. That sensation never goes away for me. I never want it to.
Over the course of the next year or so, I kept in touch with the organization, wanting to make sure they knew I was serious about my intent. I read the report’s stinging words and I forced myself to look at every photo and my stomach still ached.
To lynch someone means to mete out supposed “justice” in an extra-legal fashion. There were no trials for the lynched. No official evidence was presented of the individual’s guilt or innocence. They were based on lies, resentment, and hatred. Lynchings were sometimes announced in newspapers beforehand. They were at times attended by families, who brought blankets and picnic baskets, as though attending a leisurely event. Occasionally, postcards were made of the murdered individual to commemorate the event. There were instances when participants or onlookers would take pieces of the deceased as souvenirs. I think what most Americans believe about lynchings is wrong; even those events have been romanticized in a disgusting way. Perhaps some believe these events are meant to live in the past. But wounds that are never treated will never heal. Any deep cut to the flesh will scar if not tended to. And so it is with racial reconciliation. Those who seek to hide from the horrors visited upon Africans, African Americans, and people of color will deepen the wound and worsen the scar.
Consider Mary Turner and tell me the wound is healed. In 1918, after the murder of an abusive plantation owner, Turner’s husband Hayes was one of many men lynched as a result – though there is no evidence he participated in the murder. Immediately afterward, the eight-month pregnant Mrs. Turner began to publicly decry her husband’s murder. Local newspapers reported that she was making “unwise remarks” about the lynching and public bloodlust began to focus on her. On May 19th, several hundred men and women seized Mary Turner and hung her upside down from a tree, setting her on fire. She was still alive when a member of the mob began to notice movement in her belly, splitting her womb open with a knife and tossing her baby to the ground. The child was stomped to death and Mary Turner was shot hundreds of times. Does this feel like a closed wound to you – or, instead, is there a knot in your stomach? That’s what I thought.
To quote EJI, “Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce laws and racial segregation—a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime. Our research confirms that many victims of terror lynchings were murdered without being accused of any crime; they were killed for minor social transgressions or for demanding basic rights and fair treatment.”
Many of the communities where lynchings took place have erected markers and monuments to memorialize the Civil War, the Confederacy, and their white ancestors. “These communities celebrate and honor the architects of racial subordination and political leaders known for their belief in white supremacy."
Renowned lynching researcher Ida B. Wells published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases in 1892. EJI’s research has confirmed much of what Wells found over one hundred years ago – that lynchings were carried out to reinforce white supremacy over black people to retain the desired balance of power and economic dominance. While rape is an oft-used justification for lynchings, there is little evidence to support most of these claims. Wells and other researchers have shown that rape was a red herring used to terrorize, brutalize, and send a message to the black race.
When EJI sent out its invitation to attend the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, I sent my RSVP within minutes. I have never felt so called to do anything in my life. The Montgomery monument is set in a former slave warehouse on a six-acre site and uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror. There are over 800 six-foot monuments hanging – one for each county with documented lynchings and each column listing the names of the individuals lynched in that location. There are over 4,000 names carved into those columns, which are arranged so that some begin resting on the ground, gradually raised up overhead to represent the murdered bodies of the lynched as they hung.
I arrived at the memorial in the morning. I knew the air would still be cool and the crowd would be sparse. I needed to have this experience on my own. As you enter the enclosure, you see that the columns are arranged alphabetically by state. The first pillar I came to was from Texas; my hand reached out and my fingers traced the names carved into the metal. I said their names out loud. As I did this I noticed a figure on the opposite side of the same pillar. I looked at the man and said, “It feels so rough.” The man looked back and me and said solemnly, “Yes. Yes.” I knew from his long thin neck and the curve of his face that I was standing with the Reverend C.T. Vivian, a legendary civil rights activist I’d admired all of my life.
Reverend Vivian doesn’t speak much these days and, at age 94, he is always accompanied by his assistant Don Rivers. I broke into audible sobs. Mr. Rivers grabbed my hand and pulled me into a hug. I rested there until I realized I was about to ruin his perfect maroon velvet jacket. “You’re okay,” he said. “I’ve been with Reverend Vivian for 44 years. I even shine his shoes when he needs it – and I can tell when someone is special.” I heard a whisper, a very soft voice say “the spirit”. It was Reverend Vivian. “Yes – you see, he says you’ve got the spirit. It’s gonna be alright,” Don assured me. I wiped my eyes and we shuffled slowly and silently to the row for Oklahoma. The reverend paused at each column, nodding. I looked at him and whispered, “I’ll leave you. Peace be with you.” I don’t know why I said that. I don’t think I’ve ever said that. I grasped his hand, which was holding a pink rose, and then moved slowly down the incline – wondering what exactly a man such as that was thinking on a day like this.
As I passed, I began whispering some of the names on each column. There were so many names and I realized I would be there all day if I looked at each one. That felt like a betrayal, but I moved on. I sat on a bench across from a wall with gentle and soothing water streaming down. Water was gliding over the words, “Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings whose deaths cannot be documented, many whose names will never be known. They are all honored here.” It was a perfect and intentional marriage of peace and sadness.
When I moved farther down the incline, I knew that soon I would reach Williamson County, Tennessee, where I work. Soon enough, there it was, just hanging above.
Jim Walker, 03.13.1887
Calvin Beatty, 08.07.1878
John Thomas, 10.06.1878
Amos Miller, 08.10.1888
Jim Taylor, 04.29.1891
I ran ahead, knowing that where I live, Davidson County, Tennessee, was a bit further down. The column hung high above my head.
Bill Rearson, 10.06.1879
Tom Jones, 10.06.1879 – both men killed the very same day
Henry Grizzard, 04.28.1892
Ephraim Grizzard, 04.30.1892 – these men who share a name were killed only two days apart.
Samuel Smith, 12.15.1924 – the same date, 32 years later
Virginia – my mother is from Virginia. I began to look frantically, hoping there would be nothing. But there it was: Newport News, Virginia.
William Allen, 12.05.1881
Fred Tinsley, 06.09.1902
Unknown, 12.09.1909. Goddammit. Unknown. Again.
Gulping, I looked for the row of columns for Alabama. My father was born in Colbert County. Looking up, it seemed there were so many names. I had to shield my eyes, as the sun was shining right upon it, but I still could not read the names. I held my camera up and snapped a photo, hoping it would focus and I could read them. Eleven names. Eleven.
Unknown Jordan, 05.08.1885
Oscar Coger, 01.01.1888 - New Year's Day
Jesse Underwood, 07.26.1891
Ed Felton, 04.22.1894
Emmet Deloney, 04.22.1894
Fayett Deloney, 04.22.1894 - three on the same day. Were they brothers, cousins, neighbors?
Jim Speaks, 07.22.1897
William Reynolds, 04.06.1902
Sam Davenport, 04.24.1909
William Bird, 11.10.1918
George Whiteside, 11.12.1918 – two days after William Bird.
Were they killed for the same supposed crime or was there just blood in the air?
I knew what was coming next. Lauderdale County, my home. “Please let there be no one,” I whispered. But of course, there were names. I stood underneath the pillar and stared at the words LAUDERDALE COUNTY ALABAMA. Three names:
George Ware, 04.28.1883
John Edmonson, 07.17.1897
Cleveland Harding, 03.24.1907.
Were my people there when these acts were committed? Did they strike a blow or fire a weapon? Did they tie the rope or light the match? Did they know the murdered and stand in silence? Did my people know or did they see?
And who were the dead? I had to find out.
That night in my hotel room, I began my search. I knew that whatever I found would likely be untrue or exaggerated and, above all else, unjust.
In the field surrounding the monument are identical columns, lined up and situated in rows – almost like coffins – that are waiting to be claimed by each listed county. Over time, this memorial will serve as a reminder of which communities are ready to accept their past and honor the murdered, and those who are not. After you walk the pillars inside the memorial, you must pass by these rows. Just as they are inside, the names of each county is laser etched into the bottom of each column. I looked for Lauderdale County and saw that it was only a few feet away.
I knelt down in front of the pillar, my bare knees crunching in the gravel. It stung like fire ants crawling on my skin. The sun had been shining down on the column for several hours now and it was hot to the touch. I placed my hands on it, crying. I lay my head sideways on top of our monument like a pillow and felt the hot, rough metal sting my cheek. My tears were warm and the rust-colored metal absorbed them. I did the closest thing to praying that I can do, sending love and sorrow to each of these men. If ever a place or a moment felt holy, it was this one.
“Come get your people.” I said it out loud. “Come claim them. They are ours.”
The wind brings your names.
We will never dissever your names
Nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.
The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water.
There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us
how you got over. Say, Soul I look back in wonder.
Your names were never lost,
each name a holy word.
The rocks cry out –
call out each name to sanctify this place.
Sounds in human voices, silver or soil,
a moan, a sorrow song
a keen, a cackle, harmony,
a hymnal, handbook, chart,
a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.
Ancestors, you will find us still in cages,
despised and disciplined.
You will find us still mis-named.
Here you will find us despite.
You will not find us extinct.
You will find us here memoried and storied.
You will find us here mighty.
You will find us here divine.
You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.
Here you endure and are luminous.
You are not lost to us.
The wind carries sorrows, sighs, and shouts.
The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.
- Elizabeth Alexander