How They Did It: College Students Were Trained in Research Techniques to Tell the Stories of Jefferson County’s Lynching Victims

A mob of white men broke into the jail in Birmingham, dragged Lewis Houston into what is now Linn Park and hanged him from a pine tree in 1883. Houston had been accused of raping a white woman. (Source: Michael Clemmer)

Before college students recruited to research lynchings for the Jefferson County Memorial Project could start their work, they had to go through training on finding information and interpreting it.

As their work began in earnest, students gathered at the Linn-Henley Research Library in downtown Birmingham for a primer in archival research.

“It’s hard to uncover information about people from a long time ago,” said Devyne Troy, a student at Miles College. “(The JCMP) taught us the best avenues to find birth certificates and death certificates. They gave us an outline of what public records you could possibly obtain and what records would be more strenuous to get. And they taught us about microfilm.”

Microfilm, on which miniaturized photographs of old newspapers were preserved, was an essential part of the research process. But it came with its own set of challenges for students, particularly regarding how contemporary sources should be understood and interpreted, since many newspapers at the time were white-owned and in many cases tacitly condoned lynching.

Abigail Schneider, project director for the JCMP, said the students were trained “to read against the narrative” present in primary sources.

“The way in which they reported these acts of racial terror violence was very much in a way that condoned them and made them seem like it was a rough-justice act,” Schneider said. Preliminary discussions with the students, she said, focused on how to interpret those “incredibly biased” sources. “How can we pick out the real facts and information that we need to try and start to rehumanize and retell this history in a way that’s more accurate to what occurred?”

But bias wasn’t the only problem; records of lynching victims were often incomplete, inconsistent or missing entirely. “I definitely had a problem with nailing down exact ages and variations on names, because back in the 1870s and 1880s, the census wasn’t as strict (as it is now),” said Madelyn Lisette Cantu, a UAB student. “There was a lot of variation in names. … I noticed this especially for census records for people of color. It was very shorthand. They’d shorten names, so it’d be like, ‘Is this the same person I was just looking at? I can’t really tell!’”

Hana Presley, a student at Jefferson State Community College, said one of the victims she researched, Wilson Gardner, had “no documentation” on record. “It became really challenging,” she said.

Ashley Pates, a UAB student, had similar problems because newspapers had simply gotten her subject’s name wrong. “Come to find out, they put the wrong name down,” she said. “A couple of newspapers had different names, but they were talking about the same person.”

It wasn’t just documents that sometimes caused the students problems. At times, the nature of the information they found was disturbing for many of them.

Schneider said the project purposefully recruited a racially diverse group of students from area colleges to work on the JCMP’s “Jefferson County’s 30 Residents” report.  Students from six area colleges — Lawson State Community College, Miles College, Samford University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham — researched stories for the report.

They concentrated their work on the 30 African Americans who were killed in the county as an act of racial terrorism by white mobs of at least three or more people, whether they were killed by hanging, burning, mutilating, shooting or other forms of assault.