The Jefferson County Memorial Project dedicated a historical marker in honor of lynching victims Tom Redmond and Jake McKenzie during a ceremony Monday night.
This is the first historical marker placed by JCMP, a grassroots coalition that has researched the stories behind 30 people who were lynched in Jefferson County between 1883 and 1940.
The goal of JCMP is to bring awareness of the victims of racial terror and their descendants, advocate for racial injustice reforms and place historical markers at lynching sites throughout Jefferson County. The group’s efforts are inspired by the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery in April 2018. The memorial is made up of monuments that represent 800 U.S. counties and are dedicated to African American victims of lynchings.
“Thanks to the platform that EJI has created, … events like this can occur that can help us engage head-on in this difficult history that explains so much,” JCMP coalition member Carol Clarke said in her welcoming remarks.
“Sure, some question the wisdom of going back and digging up so much painful stuff all over again,” Clarke said. She said that, to move forward, it was important to avoid hiding from or glossing over difficult history. “Awareness is the first step in healing almost anything,” she said.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales and Birmingham City Councilor Darrell O’Quinn also made remarks.
“We have to be real honest with each other. The story of the black experience in the South often has been replaced by revisionist history,” Woodfin said. “Painful truths are often masked or sometimes outright erased in a misguided attempt to move on or, worse, to protect the reputation of the guilty. But that’s not truth.”
Scales commented on the personal importance of the dedication to her, saying that her grandfather worked at Sloss Furnaces for 30 years and that her mother “grew up on the commissary.”
Scales also commented on the diversity of the standing-room-only crowd that attended the event.
“As I look out at the crowd and see such a sea of beautiful people, I always say that you can either watch your television in black and white or you can enjoy the beauty of color. Color transcends lines,” Scales said.
Celebration and Solemnity
The Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir, a choir born out of the Birmingham civil rights movement, performed the song “Satisfied.”
Christina Wade, who performed an interpretive dance to “Strange Fruit,” a song whose metaphorical lyrics evoke images of lynching, led the audience in a candlelit procession to the unveiling of the marker.
As the plaque was revealed, the crowd was solemn, but after the formal remarks were complete, there was a note of triumph in the air. Groups were posing for pictures, photos of the plaque were taken and hugs were exchanged.
The historical marker also includes information about the practice of convict leasing, a post-Civil War practice of forced labor in which local governments imprisoned black people as vagrants and sold them to work, unpaid at private industries. Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Company engaged in this practice. The marker notes lynching as one form of racial terror and this practice as another.
The marker is available for viewing during the hours of operation at Sloss Furnaces.