The Jefferson County Memorial Project, a grassroots, citizen-led organization that focuses on uncovering and reconciling racial terror and racial violence that is a part of the county’s past, is in its second year of operation with no end in sight.
The coalition has continued its work with city committees to delve more deeply into local incidents and to make plans for memorials in their areas, with events to raise awareness, with a student essay contest and with a quilting project to illustrate the area’s past of racial violence through art. More academically inclined work also is continuing, and JCMP on Tuesday released a new report that built on last year’s work documenting Jefferson County’s lynching victims and describing the ways police, the media and businesses fed into the violence of the era.
The JCMP is an offshoot of the work done by the Equal Justice Initiative to erect a National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery in April 2018. The monument consists of 800 steel slabs, each a monument representing a different U.S. county and engraved with the names of lynching victims from that county. Jefferson County’s monument lists 30 of the 362 victims of lynching that had been documented in Alabama at the time.
EJI created duplicates of each county monument to ultimately place at the local level. The process toward that goal includes an invitation to individual communities to participate in the conversation about where the county monuments should be placed and other historical markers desired at the city level. The most positive response so far has been for Jefferson County’s monument to be placed in Linn Park. Lewis Houston, the first documented lynching victim in Jefferson County was killed in Linn Park, making that location historically significant. No decisions about the county monument have been finalized to date.
Speaking about the timing for the retrieval and placement of the Jefferson County monument, JCMP Director Abigail Schneider said, “We’re in constant communication with EJI and excited to continue work on community readiness with them. EJI is focused on making sure communities have properly prepared and educated,”
“The monument is just one part of a larger process not only to educate the community but also to advocate for change around the issues of criminal justice that still exist today,” said Schneider.
JCMP also last year turned its attention to prisons, conducting educational seminars with the public and talks with inmates about conditions.
On Sept. 16, JCMP dedicated the county’s first historical marker recognizing events of racial terror and violence and placed it at Sloss Furnaces. The marker acknowledged the lynching deaths of two men who were killed at the Brookside mines, which were owned and operated by the Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Company. The decision to place the first marker at Sloss Furnaces was driven by the security the location offered as well as the volume of public traffic the national historic site and museum receives. JCMP also placed a second plaque during the same dedication that explains the two lynchings in the context of the post-slavery convict-leasing system that was used to supply workers at the mines.
JCMP also has helped form committees to delve into and understand the history of racial terror in specific cities and communities. In 2019, JCMP city committees were created by local leaders in Bessemer, Crestwood, Irondale, Homewood, Mountain Brook and Pratt City. The committees, made up of interested residents, hosted meetings and events and worked on establishing sites for historical markers to memorialize incidents of racial terror.
Schneider said that in 2020, the work at the city level will continue and local memorial dedications are in process. Markers are likely to be dedicated in Irondale for the lynching death of William Wardley; in Pratt City in connection with individuals who were lynched in association with Pratt Mine; and in Bessemer, where soil is being collected at four sites where individuals were lynched and for whom the committee would like to dedicate markers.
The Brookside committee is working to have a duplicate of the Sloss Furnaces marker placed this year in their city, where the racial violence occurred.
EJI fabricates the markers and determines the schedule for placing them. City councils approve the placement.
Last February, JCMP released a report detailing the lynching accounts of 30 victims in Jefferson County between 1883 and 1940. College students, brought on as JCMP fellows from six Jefferson County-area colleges, led by university advisers researched and compiled the report. The research continues in 2020 with a new crop of JCMP fellows who scoured local news to unearth more information on victims and other previously undocumented events.
“We have these 30 documented victims, but we are finding ways in which racial terror was used to control the black community. We see the ways in which the mines used sexual violence to control black women,” Schneider said.
JCMP also conducted an essay contest for Birmingham City Schools high school students and worked with teachers throughout Jefferson County who put together a curriculum, “Your Names Were Never Lost: Teaching the History and Language of Lynching and Resistance in Jefferson County, Alabama.” That curriculum will be piloted in several Jefferson County schools this year.
Using art as a vehicle to better understand the county’s history with racial violence, Schneider said, the JCMP is co-sponsoring The Lynch Quilts Project, presented by local sewing nonprofit Bib and Tucker and UAB.
The project is a community-based effort led by artist LaShawnda Crowe Storm, who leads community-based efforts to examine the history and ramifications of racial violence in the United States through the textile tradition of quilting. Including exhibits, lectures and workshops by Storm, the project will run until March 15.
As an offshoot to the event, a group of Pratt City quilters will launch a quilting project to memorialize racial violent and terror that occurred in their city.
The Jefferson County Memorial Project leadership includes nine core coalition members and has 230 volunteers who work on a variety of tasks including marketing, research and help at events. Schneider said the response to JCMP’s work over the past year has been positive. Pointing to the more than 3,200 people in attendance at JCMP events and the inclusion of 32 community partners* Schneider said, “We are in awe and so grateful to the community for embracing our work We have seen no pushback to make us question what we are doing.”
Read more BirminghamWatch coverage of JCMP’s Work
*Community partners to JCMP include:
Abroms-Engel Institute for Visual Arts
Alabama Dance Council
Alabama Faith in Action
Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation
ARC Outreach Center, Bessemer
Birmingham AIDS Outreach
Birmingham City Schools
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Birmingham Holocaust Education Center
Birmingham Islamic Community
Birmingham Jewish Federation
Birmingham Museum of Art
Brookside Civic League
City of Bessemer (Mayor’s Office)
City of Birmingham (Mayor’s Office)
Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham
Desert Island Supply Co.
Greater Birmingham Arts Education Collaborative
Greater Birmingham Ministries
Foundation for Arts and Cultural Connections
Highlands United Methodist Church
Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama
Jefferson State Community College
Kids in Birmingham, 1963
Lawson State Community College
Magic City Acceptance Center
Magic City Bar Association
Mission Impossible Inc.
No More Martyrs
Offender Alumni Association
Personnel Board of Jefferson County
Red Mountain Theatre Company
The Regenerative Society
Space One Eleven
The Altamont School
The Listening Project
University of Alabama, Birmingham
White Birminghamians for Black Lives
YWCA Central Alabama