Peace and Justice
I recently toured with my wife, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Legacy Museum, in Montgomery Alabama. They both tell a heart wrenching story on the history of slavery and how its roots have evolved and continue to impact our society today. Both the Memorial and the Museum opened in 2018 as companion projects by the Equal Justice Initiative.
The Memorial is dedicated to those African Americans that were lynched in the United States after the Civil War. Inscribed on the wall inside are these words: “For the hanged and beaten. For the shot, drowned, and burned. For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized. For those abandoned by the rule of law. We will remember. With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. With courage because peace requires bravery. With persistence because justice is a constant struggle. With faith because we shall overcome.”
I have toured the Memorial twice during the past year, and was surprised to find that lynchings have occurred in every county I have lived in across the south.
The Equal Justice Initiative was founded in 1989 as a non-profit organization based in Montgomery Alabama. Their attorneys and employees are dedicated to providing legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes, juveniles sentenced to life in prison, and in particular to death row inmates, where Alabama is the only state that does not provide them with free legal representation. The founder and director is Bryan Stevenson.
Bryan Stevenson was born in 1959 in Milton Delaware. He studied at the Eastern University in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, and Harvard University in Boston Massachusetts, and is active as a lawyer, educator, and activist.
Wall of History
Once inside on the Memorial grounds you find a Wall of History with this sculpture at the beginning titled Nkyinkyim, 2018, by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. Nkyinkyim means “twisted” from a Ghanaian proverb that says “life is a twisted journey”.
Kwame Akoto-Bamfo was born in 1983 in Accra Ghana, and studied in the College of Arts, at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. He is a recognized artist, educator, and activist for the memory, healing, and justice for those of African descent. His art and studio focus on the memory of Africans, African Americans, and the victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
As you pass the Nkyinkyim sculpture, the Wall of History provides a summary of the plight of African Americans that were kidnapped and sold into slavery, and then how after the Civil War, slavery evolved to sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, convict leasing, lynching, and mass incarceration. These actions from the white community, police, and legal system, has terrorized the black community for generations, some of which is still ongoing today.
Following the wall is a walk leading up to the main building known as Memorial Square. There have been over 4000 documented victims of lynchings in the United States since the Civil War. The Memorial honors their memory with over 800 columns, one for each county where a lynching occurred. They are the size and shape of coffins hanging from the roof in an open air building with an inscription listing each victims name and date of death.
The memorial was designed by the MASS Design Group, a large architectural firm from Boston Massachusetts, with offices in several other locations in and outside of the United States. They specialize in, and advocate for projects and designs that speak to human justice and dignity.
As a part of the memorial, there is the Community Remembrance Project, where families and communities are encouraged to collect soil from lynching sites to further a memorial to their lives and the grounds where they died. Some of that soil is here in this glass case, but most are in individual glass containers inside the Legacy Museum.
Beyond Memorial Square is Monuments Park where a duplicate of each column can be found, one hanging inside the Memorial to evoke the image of a racist hanging, and the second, out on the grounds laid flat like a tomb, in alphabetical order by state and county. It was here that I found all six counties in the five states I have lived in so far. The intent is for the people of each county to claim the history of their victims and erect their own memorial for each.
Orleans Parish, Louisiana.
I was born in New Orleans and lived there for about four years while my father attended seminary and my mother taught school. Pictures of my mother’s classes, and mine, show all white children, so in the late 50s and early 60s, these schools in Louisiana were still segregated.
Lynchings in the Orleans Parish Louisiana included: William Fisher in 1893; Henry James, Jules Calic Carreri, Leonard Maliard, William Camilell, and two Unknowns in 1895; Alina Mabry, August Thomas, Baptiste Tilean, Louis Taylor, and two Unknowns in 1900; and Fred Johnson in 1917.
Norfolk County, Virginia.
We moved from New Orleans to Norfolk Virginia where I attended classes from kindergarten through the third grade in an all white private school. My mother taught at a public school where integration had been implemented, so there were several black children in her classes. My father was a music minister in a church where we attended classes and services.
Lynchings in Norfolk County included: George Blount in 1904.
Hinds County, Mississippi.
We moved from Norfolk Virginia to Jackson Mississippi where for the first time I realized that race was an issue. I attended public schools from the fourth through about half of the eighth grade. There were very few, and usually no black children in my classes. My mother taught at a local public school, also segregated. Segregation was prevalent throughout Jackson, and the integration of schools was being resisted by local officials. There were black employees that worked in food service and custodial positions, but few black students, and no black teachers or administrators.
Our neighborhood had a creek at the end of our street that acted as a dividing line between white and black areas. We did not go over the creek, out of fear I guess, and blacks rarely came through our area, also out of fear I would imagine.
My father had a music ministry position at the church we attended. About a year before we left Jackson our pastor left and a new pastor was brought in by the church. He and my father did not see things the same way. The new pastor, along with some of the deacons, immediately started working on plans to move the church out of the inner city and into the suburbs. they believed our neighborhood was transitioning from white to black, and they did not want blacks in our church. One of the new pastor’s teachings caught my attention because it misused Genesis 11, and the Tower of Babel, to justify segregation. Unfortunately many pastors, churches, and religions, have a history of misusing biblical text to suit there own prejudices.
Finally in the eighth grade the courts shut down the schools in the middle of the school year to force integration. My father had already been looking for a new church home because of his disagreements with the new pastor. He was successful in finding a new church position, and my mother a new teaching position, and me, a public school where both classes and staff were already integrated.
Jackson, and Hinds County, Mississippi, have the most documented lynchings of any place I have lived.
Lynchings in Hinds County Mississippi included: Granville Harrell in 1880; George Gaddis, James King, and Albert Thomas in 1883; Bob Broome, and Curtis Shortney in 1888; Doc Davis in 1892; Henry Smith, and William James in 1894; Theodore Puckett, and Unknown in 1895; Gene Wilson in 1896; Horace Daniels, and Jesse Evans in 1897; Charles West, and James Martin in 1899; Henry McAfeee in 1900; Charles Hollingsworth, and Jody Bell in 1901; Tamp Sims in 1906; Joe Beeman in 1912; and James Sanders in 1934.
I’ve been back to Jackson a few times over the years. Some areas look like a war zone. My house burned and is now a vacant over-grown lot, and our old church building is boarded up with part of it used as a mission for the homeless. Sadly, our neighborhood and much of Jackson has never recovered.
Madison County, Alabama.
We moved from Jackson Mississippi, to Madison County Alabama, where I attended Junior High and High School in the county schools, and some college in Huntsville. All of the schools were integrated. This is where I actually met and became friends with other African American students. In reflecting back on my education, I remember little discussion about slavery and lynching. Lynching came up briefly in an Alabama History class from Junior High School, and slavery in general came up in both American history and World history classes from high school and college. Not much detail, and no discussion as to its possible impacts on our present society. I also had my first black teachers in high school; they were excellent.
Lynchings in Madison County included: Ben Evans, and Ephraim Hall in 1878; Wes Brown in 1883; Robert Mosely in 1890; Amanda Franks, and Mollie Smith in 1897; Elijah Clark in 1900; Horace Maples in 1904; and Herman Deeley in 1915.
Lee County, Alabama.
I moved to Auburn in Lee County Alabama where I lived for about five years to complete my undergraduate education, and part of my graduate studies. An issue that may still exist is that there is a historically black university nearby where most of the African American students attend for the same curriculum I was in. There were black students attending my university, but none in my major classes. In retrospect, I think we could have benefitted from more interaction and exchanges with the other school and their curriculum.
Lynchings in Lee County included: John Hart in 1886; George Hart in 1887; Charles Humphries in 1900; and Samuel Harris in 1902.
Harris County, Texas.
Later, I completed my graduate studies in Houston, Harris County, Texas. My recollection is that the program and the university was multicultural with many foreign students, but the number of African Americans seemed small. Also, I don’t recall having any black professors at any of the universities I attended in Huntsville, Auburn, or Houston.
Lynchings in Harris County Texas included: John Walton in 1890; Burt Smith in 1917; John White in 1919; and Robert Powell in 1928.
Beyond the Monuments Park you are met by this sculpture Guided by Justice, 2018, by Dana King. It is representative of the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and memorializes the thousands that participated in the boycott and made it a success.
Dana King, was born in 1960, and is a broadcast journalist, and sculptor. She was born in Cleveland Ohio, and studied at Ferris State University in Big Rapids Missouri, and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco California.
Today, slavery has evolved to include many issues surrounding the mass incarceration of blacks in our prisons across the country. The sculpture Raise Up, 2016, by Hank Willis Thomas, is a depiction of policing in America, where Blacks are often presumed guilty, and encounters with law enforcement can be lethal. Statistically the African American population has a much higher percentage of arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations in the United States as compared with other races.
Hank Willis Thomas, was born in 1976 in Plainfield New Jersey, and is an artist in Brooklyn New York. He studied at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington DC, New York University Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, and the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
The last section is for Community Reckoning with the sculpture Arise, 2022, by Branly Cadet. The sculpture is dedicated to the thousands of people across the country, that are working toward community remembrance of those victims of lynching violence, and the terror it has caused to the families, and the the black community.
Branly Cadet, was born in 1964, in New York City. He studied at Cornell University in Ithaca New York, the New York Academy of Art in New York City, and at the Vaugel Sculpture Studio, and L’Ecole Albert Defois, in France.
The Community Reckoning section has duplicate markers from those counties that have responded with historical markers in their community. From my home counties I found three; one from New Orleans where I was born and lived for about four years, and two from Lee County Alabama where I lived for about five years while attending college.
Here is the text on the marker for the Mass Lynching in New Orleans Louisiana.
MASS LYNCHING IN NEW ORLEANS
New Orleans, Louisiana
July 24 to 27, 1900, white mobs unleashed a campaign of racial terror throughout the city of New Orleans that resulted in the lynching of at least seven Black people. Violence began after police tried to arrest Robert Charles, a 35 year old Black man. During this era, Black people carried a heavy presumption of guilt and faced hostile suspicion, whether evidence implicated them or not. On July 23, white policemen confronted Mr. Charles while he was seated peacefully on a doorstep. Mr. Charles objected , struggled, and ultimately fled after multiple exchanges of gunfire, leaving two officers dead on July 24. In response thousands of armed white people shouting “kill the negroes,” gathered at (once) Tobert E. Lee Circle, seeking to attack Black people. Over several days, white mobs shot, beat, and killed Black people in a terror crusade to maintain white supremacy. In the first 48 hours of the attack, police failed to intervene as the mobs abducted, killed and maimed Black people, and destroyed the Thomy Lafon School leaving no public education for Black children in New Orleans after the fifth grade for nearly 20 years. On July 27, policemen and deputized civilian militia discovered Mr. Charles at 1208 Saratoga Street and brutally killed him after hours of gunfire exchange. In the four day massacre, white mobs lynched several Black people, including Hannah Mabry, a wife and mother. No one was ever convicted for their deaths.
Orleans Parish, Louisiana, 2020.
And here is the text on the markers for the lynchings in Lee County Alabama.
LYNCHING IN LEE COUNTY
Aftr the Civil War, the ideology of white supremacy led to violent resistance to equal rights for Black people. Lynching emerged to enforce racial hierarchy through arbitrary and deadly violence that terrorized all Black people. Thousands of African Americans were lynched, often by large crowds, and their corpses were left on display for hours or days. On November 3, 1902, an armed white mob seized Samuel Harris, a Black man who was picking cotton in a field when two white women reported a robbery and assault nearby in Salem. Mere hours later, with no evidence implicating Mr. Harris, over 235 men shot him to death. His pregnant wife, Beatrice, was arrested as an accomplice. News papers did not report what happened to Mrs. Harris after her arrest. On March 17, 1900, a white teenager reported being startled when she saw Charles Humphries, a young Black employee of her father, in her room. The next morning a mob of white men went to his home near Phenix City and shot him over 40 times. During this era, white people’s fears of interracial sex extended to any action by a Black man that could be arbitrarily interpreted as seeking contact with a white woman. White communities were often supportive of violence against Black people, and the lynchings of many victims were not recorded and remain unknown. Lynching inflicted lasting traumatic wounds for Black people in the South and thousands fled the region as refugees of racial terrorism.
Lee County, Alabama, 2021.
LYNCHING IN LEE COUNTY
Between 1877 and 1950, white mobs lynched at least 361 African Americans in Alabama, including several in Lee County. During this era, Black people faced a presumption of guilt that made them vulnerable to accusations of crime and mob violence, often without investigation. In 1886, cousins John Moss and George Hart were part of the search party that found the body of a missing white man in Waverly. Hearing that a lynch mob accused them of the murder, the cousins attempted to get to safety. On November 3, the white mob kidnapped Mr Moss. Despite his pleas of innocence, the mob tortured him, hanged him and burned his body. Mr Hart was seized in a “citizen’s arrest” and taken to the Montgomery Jail to avoid mob violence. On November 1, 1887, he returned to Opelika for trial. News soon broke that the evidence against Mr Hart was not strong enough for a conviction. On November 5, over 60 armed white men kidnapped him from the Lee County Jail. Although legally required to protect people in their custody, police were often indifferent or ineffective at protecting Black people. The white mob hanged Mr Hart from the same tree as John Moss and pinned a placard to his back to terrorize the Black community. It said “this negro was hung by 100 determined men; whoever cuts him down will suffer his fate.” Local officials were complicit in each of these lynchings, including local law enforcement. No one was ever held accountable.
Lee County Alabama 2021
I do not think there are historical markers for any of the other counties I have lived in, but there should be. The horror of these events has been kept silent for generations, never discussed in my family, and barely discussed in the schools I attended. I have read that fear has left even the black community silent for generations. I think it is through confronting the truth of our past that we begin to understand the plight of African Americans today, and how we can bring about meaningful change, reconciliation, and a brighter future for everyone.
Part 2 of this story continues at the Legacy Museum.
Across the street from the Memorial is the Peace and Justice Memorial Center. It was not open when I visited, but it does host community education events and other programs on a regular basis.
The Memorial Center was designed by Dorsey Architects, Birmingham Alabama. The principal of the firm, Clay R. Dorsey, studied architecture at the Tuskegee University in Tuskegee Alabama.
On my way from the Memorial to the Legacy Museum I passed this sculpture at the Five Points roundabout. It is part of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. The sculpture is titled Marching On, 2015, by artists Jon Cook, Barrett Bailey, Robert Minervini, and Chuck Parkinson.
There is a bus service between the Memorial and the Museum that runs every 15 minutes, so that is a good option if you visit with a group, or traffic is heavy. My visits were during the week, traffic was light, and parking was easy to find, at both the Memorial and the Museum.
Notes and References
Story and photographs by David Smitherman with site visits made in September and October 2023.
Historical data collected from brochures, onsite inscriptions, Wikipedia, and Google Maps.
The book, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, by the Equal Justice Initiative, 2022; and the websites linked to the text in this story.