A Harvest of Healing: How a community remembers victims of lynching

Every jar of Alabama soil is listed with the identity of a victim printed on it's face.

(WIAT) — Whether it’s the red clay of North Alabama, the rich soil in Central Alabama’s Black Belt Region, or the dark brown grayish clay to the south. Alabama’s history is tied to the soil.

The rich history of Alabama’s soil makes the Equal Justice Initiative’s “Lynching in America: A Community Remembrance Project” and its accompanying collection of jars of soil from lynching sites in across the country so powerful and meaningful in Alabama.

Bryan Stevenson is the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and he believes that the soil tells an important story about not only the state’s dark past, but also its potential for healing.

“I think there is a story in this land. Alabama is an agrarian place for agriculture. Our history, our formation is shaped around the land, around the soil,” Stevenson said. “This rich fertile soil that we have in the Black Belt. The soil that was so dense with these minerals and materials that became the coal mines and the steel mills. That’s the history of this state. And I think in that soil is a story, that soil contains the sweat of those enslaved people who labored so hard to create an economic infrastructure. That soil contains the blood of the people who died during this period of racial terrorism simply trying to be free and human. That soil contains the tears of all those people who were humiliated during the time of segregation. But in that soil is also the potential for life. It can still grow things. We can still create something beautiful, something that can feed us something that can allow us to become a healthy place.”

Stevenson and his team at EJI are using this soil to plant truth across this country about a horrific part of America’s history.

“I really do believe the great evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to legitimate it. Slave owners wanted to feel moral and just and Christian while they owned other people. So they said, ‘Black people are different than white people’,” Stevenson said. “That narrative didn’t end with the 13th Amendment. It continued and that’s why we had decades of terrorism and lynching.”

The organization has documented more than 4,000 lynchings in America. Through their Community Remembrance project, EJI plans to place markers in the locations where those lynchings happened. The first one was placed in Brighton, Alabama, a city in Jefferson County which had more documented lynchings than any other county in the state.

When EJI places a marker in Tuscaloosa County to remember victims of lynching on March 6, a group of students from the University of Alabama will be among those participating in the Community Remembrance Event.

The students have spent the last semester learning about victims of lynching in Tuscaloosa County. Among those lost are: Andy Burke, Bud Wilson, Charles McKelton, John Johnson, Sidney Johnson, John Durrett, Cicero Cage, A.T. Hardin and Dan Pippen Jr.

The students are part of a University of Alabama Associate Professor Dr. John Giggie “Southern Memory: Lynching in the South” history class which Dr. Giggie said tracked, “down as much information as we can trying to reconstruct the lives of these 8 individuals who were lynched in the late 19th early 20th centuries.”

“There are people who don’t like to talk about this history because that’s their own history,” Stevemson said. “We’ve now practiced silence in the question of lynching for over a hundred years, we’ve now practiced the silence for over 150 years in the question of slavery.”

The Community Remembrance Project is breaking that silence in a respectful way to victims, families and communities who share the painful history of Lynching in America.

According to EJI, the group will unveil its first ever historical marker to “memorialize the lives of eight African American men lynched in Tuscaloosa County in separate incidents between 1884 and 1933.”

The marker will be unveiled at 4:45 on Monday, March 6 at 2803 6th St. in front of the Old Tuscaloosa Jail. A short program commemorating the significance of the marker will be held at the First African Baptist Church located at 2621 Stillman Boulevard beginning at 5:30.

For more information, visit the EJI’s site here, and more can be found on the lynching memorial here. More information can be found on Giggie’s class here.

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