By Bob Gibson
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Bryan Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice ties every known lynching of a black American to the very county in which they were terrorized and slain.
Stevenson, founder of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy,” created a monument that challenges people to think about the history of racial injustice and brilliantly creates links to community-based efforts to tell individual stories that can heal racial divisions.
A visit to the six-acre memorial on a hill overlooking the downtown of this state capital evokes memories of emotional visits to the Holocaust museums in Berlin and Washington, the former of which Stevenson said served as one palpable model for its architectural design.
As visitors enter the Montgomery memorial they walk along paths through grassy areas containing bronze images of six enslaved adults and a baby, standing, kneeling, shackled with chains.
Up the hill in the memorial’s central installation, rows of hundreds of rust-colored steel monuments stand starkly — hanging like coffins in a cemetery rising to the sky.
More than 800 American counties, including nearly two dozen localities across Virginia, have names and dates of racial terror lynchings etched into the coffin-like hanging metal objects.
I was not prepared for how powerful the steel images become as visitors take a downward path inside the installation, creating an effect of slowly rising lines of coffins naming people and counties gliding upward.
Two of the human-sized rectangular metal objects are on display in different places for each county. One hangs like the metal echo of a lynched body along with lines and rows of other metal boxes, and the other lies prone on a grassy hillside outside the memorial’s main structure.
Those second steel coffins lie in grounded rows and wait. Eventually, groups and residents of the county named on the metal frames may claim them and take them back to wherever the lynchings happened for new conversations about history and healing.
Soil from the site of a community’s known lynchings is placed in bell jars and stored at the memorial for further linking of each individual lynching and each culpable community.
The bell jars of soil brought from lynching sites are stacked and stored on shelves and contain the names, places and dates of each local act of historical racial terror.
The soil, with its warm colors and textures, speaks of the present time and the community residents who have dug and saved it in acts of remembrance. They embrace faith that filling in the truth of history can help heal.
Visitors read descriptions along the monument walls of flimsy pretexts for cruel violence in reaction to even the slightest violations of the racial order of white supremacy.
“General Lee was lynched in Reevesville, South Carolina, in 1904 for knocking on a white woman’s front door,” one placard reads. In some lynchings, thousands would form the white mobs in state after state, many beyond the South. How much have we changed?
Three Virginia communities — Albemarle, Charles City and Loudoun counties — are taking the lead among 22 Old Dominion cities and counties with known lynchings in recognizing those crimes. The three counties and Charlottesville are among the state’s first communities engaged in the symbolic sharing of soil from those sites and displaying historic markers of their local lynchings.
Virginia, a state that loves its history, is more practiced showing off its 20th Century love for the Confederacy.
Seventy-five Virginia cities and counties display monuments to Confederate soldiers around their courthouses — monuments erected in the first half of the 1900s during the Jim Crow segregation era to cast a one-sided and white supremacist stamp on history, said Andrea Douglas.
Douglas, executive director of Charlottesville’s Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, said changing the narrative of a community’s public spaces is vital to telling true history and furthering the cause of justice.
A new historical marker about a local lynching unveiled July 12 tells a horrific story about mob violence. Douglas said it is important to tell that story “at the very site where justice is to be considered, (and where) the symbols of the space are overwhelmingly against the vast majority of those people being brought to that site for justice to be meted out.”
Douglas presided at a well-attended ceremony on Charlottesville’s Court Square where the EJI historical marker for Albemarle was unveiled. It tells the story of how 121 years ago last week John Henry James was lynched along railroad tracks near what is today the entrance to Farmington Country Club off U.S. 250.
The racial terror meant to subjugate local black residents is spelled out in graphic terms on the marker. “An armed mob of 150 white men stopped the train at Wood’s Crossing in Albemarle County, and seized Mr. James” from the custody of Albemarle’s sheriff and Charlottesville’s police chief.
“The white mob threw a rope over Mr. James’s neck and dragged him about 40 yards away to a small locust tree,” the marker states. “Despite his protest of innocence, the mob hanged Mr. James and riddled his body with dozens of bullets.”
As his body remained hung “for many hours, hundreds more white people streamed by, cutting off pieces of his clothing, body, and the locust tree to carry away as souvenirs.” No one was ever charged with his murder.
Three bell jars of Albemarle soil were collected from the lynching site last year. One rests in Montgomery and two are circulating in Central Virginia as local residents discuss the terror of the lynching and paths to racial healing.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said the markers are signs of hope and progress as Virginians discuss ways to improve their communities in light of more truthful telling of their history.
“We cannot understand who we are as a people if we do not fully understand our complete history,” McClellan said.
“Many of the inequities we see today in education, housing, healthcare, and the criminal justice system have their roots in decisions made in the past,” she said. “And many of our divisions are rooted in trauma and oppression inflicted by one group of people on another. That trauma and those divisions cannot heal without a full discussion and understanding of what happened.”
Lynchings did not take place in a historical vacuum. They were acts of terror that evolved from slavery, and its demise, as citizens with white privilege attempted to reimpose white nationalism.
The genius of Stevenson’s national monument, and the nearby “Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” is the inspiration provided people through many links to, as he says, “stand with us as we try to create a just nation more committed to fairness and equity.”
Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Cooper Center.