Lynching in Our Own Backyard

By Kirsten Kinsley

Driving to work one morning I shared with my son that I was writing a blog post about the history of lynching in America. We discussed white guilt, limitations of school history books to illuminate the reality of racism in this country, and the fear of exposing our ignorance to the effects of racial violence and terror on our black brothers and sisters in this nation’s history.

Twice now in the past year, the horror of the history of lynchings in the United States has been brought to my attention and consciousness. First, during a 60 Minutes episode where Oprah Winfrey visits the the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the new memorial in Alabama dedicated to the thousands of African-Americans lynched in the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War (Winfrey, 2018). I haven’t been to visit it, but the design of the memorial includes 800, six foot blocks hung from an outdoor structure with names of individuals killed in over 12 states, representing lynchings that occurred in 805 counties. The rows of blocks represent figures of cruelty and hatred, as they literally hang from the ceiling. Even though I was only seeing this on television, I was struck by the compelling images.

The second time this blight on our country’s history was brought to my mind was on a ride to work. I think it was an NPR story on the lynchings that occured in our own community, right down the street from where we work — on Gaines between Gadsden and Meridian streets at a now majestic oak that belies the “past injustice” of hangings that occurred there (Ensley, 2012).

Beyond momentary remembrance and horror, what can I do? It wasn’t until, during a meeting of the FSU Library’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, that I was given the opportunity to explore this again as it is lurking in the back of my mind. What do I do after the solemn pause? Consciously acknowledging this happened and exposing the horror that all of us humans are capable of in a mob mentality is not enough. To realize that this happened in our own backyard: Mike Morris (1897), Pierce Taylor (1909), Ernest Ponder and Richard Hawkins (1937), were lynched here in Leon County (Hassanein, 2018). To realize that the crowds that surrounded and supported the acts of vigilante injustice, were everyday people, like you and me, accusing a fellow human who wasn’t given a fair trial.  It happened here and none of those crimes were ever brought to justice. (It still happens today, same story, but with a different means of injustice. Remember Brandon McClelland in Paris, Texas?) Where do we go from here?

The movement toward racial equality in the U.S. is not a road of steady progress. Rather, it is pockmarked with resistance to change, engrained institutional racism, and community-sponsored terror. The ‘spectacular secret’ of lynching in America grabs national attention, yet remains hidden from public spotlight, traditional history, and contemporary discourse (Goldsby 2006 as cited in Fitchett et al., 2012). Exposing the “secret” has the potential to challenge individuals’ understanding of race in the United States. (248)

Exposing the truth once again in my own world, I hope to begin to understand how hatred and injustice in small ways can grow into the collective terrors of an entire race. Our current culture runs the risk of leaving future generations with unexamined hearts and minds that don’t remember.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

MAYA ANGELOU, ON THE PULSE OF MORNING (as cited in Equal Justice Initiative, 2017)

During that aforementioned conversation with my son on a morning car ride, he ended the chat by quoting from Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (1967, p.104),

“Mistakes can be profited by Man [People], when I was young I showed my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been hoed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.”

I am willing to admit that I am ignorant, but I am ready to listen and to learn? “Avoiding honest conversation about this history has undermined our ability to build a nation where racial justice can be achieved” (Equal Justice Initiative, 2017, para. 3). How and where do we start the honest conversation?

References

Angelou, M. (1993). On the pulse of morning. Retrieved February 17, 2019, from https://genius.com/Maya-angelou-on-the-pulse-of-morning-annotated

Bradbury, R. (1967). Fahrenheit 451. New York : Simon and Schuster.

Equal Justice Initiative (2017). Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. Retrieved February 1, 2019, from https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/

Ensley, G. (2018, June 7). Tallahassee hanging tree symbolizes past injustice Tallahassee Democrat. Retrieved January 31, 2019, from https://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2018/06/07/tree-symbolizes-past-injustice-gerald-ensley/657484002/

Fitchett, P. G., Merriweather, L., & Coffey, H. (2015). “It’s not a pretty picture”: How pre-service history teachers make meaning of America’s racialized past through lynching imagery. History Teacher, 48(2), 245–269.

Goldsby, J. D. (2006). A spectacular secret  : lynching in American life and literature. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Hassanein, N. (2018, June 7). “Painful history”: Remembering Leon County’s lynching victims: A recently open memorial in Montgomery captures a dark chapter of Tallahassee history. Tallahassee Democrat. Retrieved January 31, 2019, from https://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2018/06/07/painful-history-remembering-leon-countys-lynching-victims/640199002/

Hassanein, N.(2018, June 7). St. John’s Episcopal Church plans remembrance project for Leon lynching victims. Tallahassee Democrat. Retrieved January 31, 2019, from https://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2018/06/07/st-johns-episcopal-church-plans-remembrance-project-leon-lynching-victims/644046002/

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2019, from http://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial

Winfrey, O. (2018, April 27). Inside the memorial to victims of lynching. CBS News: 60 Minutes. Retrieved February 1, 2019, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/inside-the-memorial-to-victims-of-lynching-60-minutes-oprah-winfrey/

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