Researching Lynchings was Disturbing, Eye-Opening for Students Who Took on the Project

Birmingham-area college students were recruited to work on the Jefferson County Memorial Project’s report on lynchings. They spent a lot of their time at the Linn-Henley Research Library looking for documents and reports about the county’s 30 victims. (Source: Michael Clemmer)

“My whole life, I knew there was segregation,” Jimena Ortiz-Perez said. “I knew (lynching) happened. But I only knew the surface.”

Ortiz-Perez, a student at Lawson State Community College,  is one of 21 college and graduate student fellows who wrote the Jefferson County Memorial Project’s “30 Victims” report, which provides an in-depth look at each of the county’s lynching victims from 1883 to 1940. It was a process that students said was equally harrowing and revelatory.

“Just the things that happened here in Birmingham, not too far from where I currently live, it’s like, ‘Whoa, this actually happened?’” Ortiz-Perez said. “It makes you look at the progress we have made, but at the same time, have we actually progressed enough? … It’s like a wake-up call for me.”

Recruiting Researchers

As the JCMP began its work on the report, it reached out to all six colleges in Jefferson County — Birmingham-Southern College, Jefferson State Community College, Lawson State Community College, Miles College, Samford University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham — for student volunteers.

“We were really intentional about making sure that this was an intergenerational, interfaith, interracial organization, because that’s really important, we think, to changing the historical memory of a county and having the grassroots cohesiveness to really advocate for change,” project director Abigail Schneider said.

To be considered for a role as a researcher, students were required to provide resumés and short statements explaining their interest in the project’s mission.

Some students say they joined the project because they were already interested in studying inequality. Amber Somma, a biology major at UAB, said she found out about the project through a mass email mistakenly sent to her department — but she found herself drawn to help anyway.

“I’m someone who is into these social justice-type things,” she said. “I’m a person for the people. I want to help whoever I can in whatever way that I can, so that’s why I decided to do this. I just wanted to get that story out.”

Katie Fagan, who also studies at UAB, said the project “already lined up with some of my interests” as part of the college’s anthropology of peace and human rights graduate program. “And in general, I’ve been trying to learn about Birmingham,” she said. “I just feel like my education here did not teach me more than just broad strokes what happened and what’s been going on, so I felt like this would be a really good opportunity to just delve in and learn more myself.”

Hard Truths

Many JCMP fellows were disturbed by what their research uncovered. “I started (working with the JCMP) because I thought it’d be fun and something to put on my resumé,” said Becca Glass, a student at Jefferson State Community College. “But as you get into it, you learn things that absolutely blow your mind. Like, this portion of history’s kind of covered up by high school studies, so you’re really learning something.”

Isaac Sours, a political science student at Samford University, said he had taken a class about lynching, so he was already familiar with the subject matter. But the sheer scale of what he saw left him “emotionally disturbed.”

Hana Presley, who attends Jefferson State Community College,  said she was shocked by the nonchalance demonstrated by the public at the time, particularly by the practice of sending lynching postcards, which included photos of crowds reveling around victims’ bodies.

“I came across a lynching postcard from Marietta, Georgia, and this is something that nobody would hide their face on,” she said. “They would send them to their families and be like, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ I took my glasses off and I broke down.”

White JCMP fellows also found themselves facing a history they felt they could only partially understand. “These (victims) are ancestors of people (alive today),” said Somma. “This is a personal history for some people, and I think that’s overwhelming for me. It might not be my personal history, and I know that I will never feel the feelings that some people have. I think that is the biggest part of this project, for the people that aren’t family members or descendants of these people, knowing that you will never fully understand what happened. All that you can do is try to be understanding.”

For Presley, the research meant reassessing her own ancestry. “I am almost ashamed to be white sometimes, these are the things that my grandfather had done, that people in my family had done back in the day and it’s embarrassing,” she said. “It hurts. I’ve had people ask me, ‘You’re white, why are you doing this?’ And I tell them, It’s the smallest thing that I can do to give back.”

Undré Phillips, a student at UAB, believes that the disconcerting parts of the report are what make it essential. “I think sometimes we have to be uncomfortable to have breakthroughs in life, and I believe history and the rich context of what we’ve been learning throughout this entire six or seven months have been exactly that,” he said.

“We often forget that history is living. Some of our victims, they were buried in Birmingham. One specifically was buried in Red Mountain Cemetery, which is under the Birmingham Zoo right now. Things like that are hard to take in.”

Adding Voices to the Conversation

For many JCMP fellows, working on the “30 Victims” report gave them the ability to engage in a dialogue about racial violence and injustice — and encouraged them to include others as well.

“The project gave me a voice,” said Ashley Pates, a UAB student. “I do tell people about (the research), whereas before I didn’t really voice my opinion on it. Now, I make sure to let people know. I want people to ask me why I’m doing this so that they can learn more.”

Several students said the project had changed their plans for the future, leading them to consider new lanes of study and even new careers.

“It got me thinking, once I get done with my nursing degree, I want to go back to school and study law or something, because I want to be a voice for people who aren’t able to have a voice,” said Ortiz-Perez. “I feel like this project confirmed to me that I need to go and do something. I can’t just stand there.”

The project led to a similar change of plans for Madelyn Lisette Cantu, a UAB student. “Earlier on, I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just do corporate law or something pretty vanilla,’” she said. “(Now) I definitely know that I want to do in the future some sort of legal advocacy to help minorities that are in the incarceration system or on death row … . I wanted to do something more involved, where I could actually help people.”

Tammy Blue, a graduate history student at UAB, said the project made her feel “a personal responsibility, for some reason … . I just felt like this work is just too important to just be a one-time project thing. In fact, I’ve already decided that my master’s thesis is going to be on the spectacle of lynching. It’s one thing to research the acts of violence, but I’m also concerned about the people who stood by and watched, who encouraged it or did nothing. I feel a lot of that repeating in our world today, and I feel like we’re walking on a very dangerous road. I think that if we don’t acknowledge the things that have happened and have the ugly talks, then it’s never going to stop.”

Fagan also emphasized pushing those “ugly talks” to the forefront.

“Oppression works by letting people avoid discomfort, avoid conversations that could be deemed uncomfortable, especially when you come from a place of privilege in this society,” she said. “And being a little uncomfortable … is not a lot to give up to move the conversation and society forward.”

Phillips said he sees the project’s impact as part of a larger narrative, one of racial reconciliation. It’s a problem, he said, that can’t just be addressed by quick, “microwave answer(s).”

“Being an African American, the fact that I even think about the diversity of the group that’s worked on the JCMP, that’s inspired me and let me know that there are other people fighting this battle as well that don’t look like me, or don’t fit the same demographic of some of the victims.

“There are going to be people, and even myself, that are ignorant to certain things, but it’s all about how you have those conversations,” he said. “It goes back to how we acknowledge the past. If we start pointing fingers, that’s where it gets really gritty. But we haven’t done that… It’s more about, ‘Let’s talk about the people who are gone, that didn’t get the chance to live out their lives.’ We’re focusing on them.”