Never Forget

A new memorial to lynching victims forces America to confront its painful past

The ground surrounding the memorial was strewn with installations. A few steps from the entrance was the unsparing display of life-sized bronze statues of black men, women and children in shackles. Courtesy Equal Justice Initiative / Human Pictures
31 October, 2018

On 30 August 1887, in the town of Brunswick, Tennessee, a black mill worker named James Eastman came out victorious in a fight his white employer had started. On 1 April 1892, an unidentified black man—reported to be the only black man in the county—was “standing around” in a white neighbourhood in Millersburg, Ohio.According to the Aurora Daily Express, it was “alleged that he ‘sneaked around town,’ that he ‘stared at people,’ and committed several grave misdemeanors against the people and dignity of the state. But it [did] not appear that he perpetrated any crime.” On 23 July 1926, a farmer’s daughter in Wythe County, Virginia, gave birth to a child whose father was Raymond Bird, a black farmhand. All three men were lynched.

Hazel Turner was lynched in Lowndes County, Georgia on 18 May 1918. He was one of at least eleven black people murdered by mobs after the killing of a white farmer. His wife, Mary, who was eight months pregnant, maintained his innocence and swore to bring his killers to justice. The following day, she too was lynched. As documented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Turner was still alive when a member of the mob split her abdomen open with a knife and her unborn child fell on the ground. The baby was stomped and crushed … Turner’s body was riddled with hundreds of bullets.”

The lynching of thousands of black people counts among the least recognised atrocities in the United States. They revealed unspeakable cruelty and apathy— victims were left hanging for days, severed fingers were passed around, picnics were organised to watch lynchings and postcards were made with the victims’ photographs. Most incidents remained uninvestigated, blamed on parties unknown.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened on 26 April this year in Montgomery, Alabama, seeks to correct this by documenting over four thousand lynchings that occurred between 1877 and 1950. According to Derryn Moten, a professor of history at Alabama State University, the memorial reminds us that the victims “did not die at the hands of parties unknown.”

“Lynchings were racial terrorism used by a vindictive South, unremorseful over its vanquishing in the Civil War and resentful of its occupation by northern troops during reconstruction,” Moten told me. The Reconstruction era that followed the abolition of slavery in 1865, during which black Americans made significant progress towards political equality, witnessed a white backlash in the form of segregationist Jim Crow laws and a reign of terror through shadowy organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Even at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, Moten said, the cars of many Alabama state troopers still displayed bumper stickers that read, “Hell no, we won’t forget!”—a popular slogan referring to the erstwhile Confederacy.

Located on a six-acre site overlooking the state capitol, the memorial is close to a number of markers of the city’s contradictory historical narratives. Barely a mile away is the place where Rosa Parks challenged the state’s segregation laws in 1955 by refusing to give up her seat at the front of a bus. Her subsequent arrest led to the historic Montgomery bus boycott, one of the first major actions of the Civil Rights movement. Also within walking distance is the first White House of the Confederacy, which lauds the achievements of the “renowned American patriot” Jefferson Davis—the president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War—without mentioning the slaves his family owned.

The memorial is a reckoning of this conflicted history. It seeks to start a conversation, however belated, in memory of those who suffered in silence. It is a forceful reminder of the significance of memorialising history, even its darkest episodes.

The ground surrounding the memorial was strewn with installations. A few steps from the entrance was the unsparing display of life-sized bronze statues of black men, women and children in shackles—a recreation of a typical slave market by the Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. The black bodies are barely clothed and on their faces are expressions of terror and anguish.

A short pathway led me up a hill to a pavilion that had around eight hundred steel columns suspended from the roof. Each column represented one county, with the names of lynching victims in the county etched upon them. Moten told me he likes the fact that the design enumerates victims by state and county, since it underscores the specificity of the crimes committed and the complicity of local communities, which allowed this criminality to exist with impunity for decades.

The columns were initially at eye level, but the floor gradually sloped downward. As in the American architect Maya Lin’s design of the Vietnam Veterans memorial, which lists every American casualty in that conflict on a granite wall sunk into the ground, this made the dead loom ever larger. It was hard to miss the imagery of the columns hanging from the ceiling, as if they were black bodies.

There were around eight hundred steel columns, each column representing one county, with the names of lynching victims in the county etched upon them. Courtesy Equal Justice Initiative / Human Pictures

I asked Moten about the memorial’s focus on the black body and the sexualised nature of racial terrorism. “I do believe there is an element of voyeurism with lynchings,” he said, “signifying the fear and fascination in the white psyche over the sexualisation of black bodies, where black women are portrayed as vamps or mammies and men are caricatured as sexual beasts fixated with an insatiable lust for white women.” Along with the nearby Legacy Museum, which was opened on the same day and seeks to display the history of slavery and racism in America, the National memorial was built by the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based legal-advocacy nonprofit founded in 1994 by the lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson. A team of dedicated researchers combed through archives, court records and local newspapers and consulted historians and relatives of victims to historicise thousands of undocumented lynchings. Despite their thorough research, however, many victims could not be documented because there were no records of their lynching. A gentle stream of water ran down a wall on one side of the memorial with a plaque promising that these lives would not be forgotten, even if the names remain unknown.

There were a number of replicas of the columns in the lawns surrounding the memorial. The EJI has invited “counties across the country to claim their monuments and install them in their permanent homes in the counties they represent. Eventually, this process will change the built environment of the Deep South and beyond to more honestly reflect our history.” Kelly Kennington, a professor of history at Auburn University, told me that a group of her students was already studying the lynchings that took place in Lee County, Alabama, in which the university is located. They might bring the replica for their county to Auburn and put it up as a public monument, she said.

Kennington took six students with her to visit the memorial on its opening weekend. She recalled some of them being moved to tears. As a historian of slavery, Kennington is used to difficult moments in class. She teaches her students to trust and respect one another, and reminds them of this when conversations around race get particularly contentious. She expressed her hope for more such monuments to America’s “painful past.”

Having grown up in a white family in the northern state of Ohio, Kennington told me that she did not remember reading about lynchings in school. Neither did Jody Allen, a professor of African-American history at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Allen, who is black and grew up in the South, said she heard about lynching from her grandparents, who always drew the blinds at their home just before dark. They did this, Allen’s grandfather told her, because otherwise “people can see if they want to shoot you.”

For Allen, the memorial is important because it is already encouraging, even forcing, conversations on a topic that has been covered up for generations. “This was a time in US history when terrorism reigned, and it must be addressed,” she told me. “The US does not get to address terrorism in other countries without acknowledging that terrorism took place—and is still taking place—in this country. As scholars, we do not get to pick and choose which stories get told, and this is one that must be told. If nothing else, the study of history shows us what human beings are capable of.”