“This Report Will Be Hard to Read:” Jefferson County Memorial Project Puts the Spotlight on Lynchings, and There’s More to Come.
Updated – Thirty people were lynched in Jefferson County between 1883 and 1940, victims of racial terror in the segregated, postwar South. Now, a new report tells the story of each of those victims, with the goal of fostering dialogue about racial violence and its connection to present-day injustice.
The “Jefferson County’s 30 Residents” report, released Wednesday night, was compiled by the Jefferson County Memorial Project, a citizen-led cooperative working to spark conversation around the county’s history of racial violence.
The project was sparked by the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery in April with the stated goal of placing America face-to-face with its history of injustice.
JCMP organizers said that their report will place Jefferson County at the forefront of a national movement sparked by the EJI’s monument, making the county a model for others looking to create a dialogue and advocate for change.
The EJI’s memorial is centered on 805 steel monoliths suspended in midair, each of which represents a county in which a lynching was documented. Replicas of each of those monuments surround the memorial, to be claimed and taken to their respective counties as satellite memorials.
The JCMP’s report is Jefferson County’s first step toward that reclamation, said project director Abigail Schneider. “We think historically of how Birmingham has been a leader in issues around racial injustice, and we can continue to be for this national conversation,” she said.
The report focuses on 30 African Americans who were killed 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.
“This report will be hard to read,” Schneider warned.
Organizers also warned it would be hard to talk about.
SRO for First Discussion
Representatives of the EJI spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts on Wednesday night as the report was released.
Most of the night was focused on fostering dialogue about the county’s traumatic history; after brief comments from JCMP organizers and fellows, the crowd was split up into groups to discuss the findings of the report, which compiles the sparse remaining data about the 30 victims of racial terror lynching in Jefferson County.
Gabrielle Daniels, a representative for the EJI, told those in the crowd that such dialogue was essential to addressing current-day issues of inequality and racism.
“We don’t often know how we got here,” Daniels said. “(Our) failure to preserve social memory and … to preserve a dialogue that can investigate that social memory (and) to apply it to problem-solving today has also been related to the fact that we haven’t created the space to think about a need for new narratives as fully as we should have.
“When we think about the legacy of enslavement and the era of racial terrorism, the resistance to ending segregation … . We have to talk about the legacy and narratives of racial difference, the mythologies of white supremacy and black inferiority.
“We have to talk about the ways in which, for over seven decades, our nation allowed socialized violence through racial terrorism,” Daniels continued, “and that violence was largely permitted not just by local officials but by federal government, and that communities that participated in this violence did not just do so with impunity but they did so in ways that created legacies of trauma that we haven’t fully healed from.”
As attendees split into groups to begin just that discussion — accompanied by student researchers who helped compile the report — JCMP coalition member Myeisha Hutchinson instructed participants to foster a “safe space” for a “painful discussion,” and pointed to two counselors on hand for any who may need their services.
“No question or remark is to be judged,” Hutchinson said. “We want this to be open because we really want your feedback.”
Telling Their Stories
The report was written by the JCMP’s fellows, 21 college and graduate students from the county’s six colleges and universities: Birmingham-Southern College, Jefferson State Community College, Lawson State Community College, Miles College, Samford University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
As part of the project, those students received training on archival and primary source research and spent time at Birmingham’s Linn-Henley Research Library poring over contemporary newspaper reports and genealogy databases in efforts to piece together victims’ stories.
Schneider said some difficulty came from a “lack of documentation” of racial violence in Jefferson County. “We quickly realized that this research hadn’t been properly or comprehensively done before,” she said.
Most of the reports from contemporary newspapers were written from the perspective of white newspapers, many of which depicted the killings “in a way that condoned them and made them seem like it was a rough-justice act, like this (victim) deserved this,” Schneider said. “These articles usually focused very much on the alleged crime (used as a pretext for killing the victims) rather than the fact that this was a mob of white men publicly murdering someone. Additionally, they would refer to these men as ‘savages’ and ‘brutes’ and other incredibly dehumanizing and racist words.”
Madelyn Lisette Cantu, a UAB student and JCMP fellow, said that her research hit close to home, both geographically and emotionally. At one point while researching a victim at the library, she realized that he had been killed right outside, in Linn Park. “I just kind of sat there and stared at the screen, like, ‘Oh, god!’” she said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it happened in the 1880s, so it’s too far removed to really care about.’ But when you’re sitting and researching someone for weeks on end and realize that you’re feet away from where it happened, it doesn’t feel distant at all.”
Tammy Blue, another JCMP fellow from UAB, teared up while discussing Elizabeth Lawrence, a lynching victim she was assigned to research. “I took it very personally,” she said, her voice breaking. “I wanted Elizabeth to be someone I could speak for, because she couldn’t speak for herself anymore. I get emotional.”
In many ways, Schneider said, that’s the goal of the report. “A lot of people want to say that this is in the past and isn’t connected to us today,” she said. “But I think once you learn that these events occurred at Linn Park, outside of the Bright Star in Bessemer, public places that are still part of our geographic landscape and visited all the time, it really starts to remind people that this was a real system of oppression that greatly affected the entire African-American and black community and is not something that goes away easily. It’s directly connected to issues of mass incarceration and racial injustice that still exist today. It’s making these stories feel connected to the present.”
Leading the Way
Tony Bingham, a professor at Miles College who served as an adviser for the project, said he’s been “inspired” by the work and hopes it “might provide a template for other counties to do the same thing.”
The EJI has not yet established a process for counties to reclaim their monuments from the Montgomery memorial — but EJI founder Bryan Stevenson has described the JCMP as “modeling the kind of response we are looking for.”
Schneider said she expects Jefferson County to reclaim its monument “sometime in 2019,” and there are tentative plans to place the monument in Linn Park.
JCMP has more plans for the coming months, as well. “We do want to emphasize that this is only sort of a first round,” Schneider said. “There’s so much more that we need to uncover about these stories and lives, and we encourage others to go to libraries and archives and figure out what they can about these individuals.”
Public education efforts will continue this year through a four-part art exhibit at UAB’s AEIVA, the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Studio 2500.
Wednesday’s release of the report will begin “a conversation campaign,” Schneider said. “Now that we have this report, how do we want to engage dialogue with it, and how can we have these meaningful conversations about racial violence in this county and how it connects to issues of racial injustice today.”
Read more stories about the project:
Researching Birmingham’s Lynchings was Disturbing, Eye-Opening for College Students Who Took on the Project
How They Did It: College Students Were Trained in Research Techniques to Tell the Stories of Jefferson County’s Lynching Victims
Jefferson County’s 30 Victims and Their Stories
Read the Jefferson County Memorial Project’s Inaugural Report, “Jefferson County’s 30 Residents”
List of the JCMP Fellows and Advisers for the Jefferson County’s 30 Residents Report