Most don’t call themselves activists. But in rural towns and big cities across the South, teachers, retirees, groundskeepers, pastors, women and men, young and old—the sorts of people who make a town run—are honoring victims of lynching. Their methods vary, as does their volume. But together, in ways that work because they’re highly relevant to each individual community, the people I met at lynching sites are providing lessons to fellow Southerners in how to grapple with our ugly past. Together, they’re demonstrating how to keep memory alive.
My husband Lance and I got a chance to meet some of these remarkable people while producing “An Outrage,” our new documentary film about lynching. We drove 3,200 miles across the South, along the way meeting women and men who led us to lynching sites and told us about the victims. We learned the victims’ names. We heard of their family ties, and the other bonds that defined them. George had fought for his country in Europe during the Second World War. Mae was pregnant. So were Maggie and Alma. Hateful mobs and individual men destroyed them; fellow white Southerners kept silent. The people we met honored their humanity.
We met Thelma Dangerfield in Paris, a small East Texas town hours from anywhere. At the time of our visit, the town was heavily advertising a tourism campaign commemorating the 100th anniversary of Paris’ revival following a devastating fire. Banners and billboards all over town urged residents and visitors to remember this resilience, and “Smile!”
Thelma, a descendant of enslaved people, grew up near Paris with brothers and sisters, all of whom moved away as adults to places with more jobs and more safety. She was the only one who moved back, retiring to Paris in 1993. She decided to get involved in the local genealogy library, helping fellow residents trace their ancestry, finding birth and death certificates, deeds of sale, and baptism records from older generations of east Texans.
Thelma also looked at records that most visitors ignored—newspaper articles and court records that reveal the African American history of Paris. She learned about three lynchings that had occurred in her hometown. One, a torture and murder of a mentally disabled man named Henry Smith, took place in 1893 atop a two-story-high wooden platform with one word painted on its side: “JUSTICE.” Thousands, of white men, women, and children joined in watching and cheering the spectacle of fellow community members mutilating and burning Henry Smith.
Thelma quietly, insistently treated this information like other episodes from local history: she documented it, described it, and included it in the “black room” of the Lamar County history museum. The story of Henry Smith’s lynching is now presented in the space dedicated to African American history, as is the story of the lynchings of two brothers at the county fairgrounds 27 years later.
Thelma wants this history taught in schools. She wants it recognized. But she doesn’t think a marker is necessarily the right way to memorialize Henry Smith. “You can move as many statues, as many flags as you want, off of buildings,” she said, “but until the hate goes—until you clean the heart out, it’s not going anyplace.” She does her part to ensure the lynching of Henry Smith isn’t forgotten, preserving this story in the most official capacity available.
In the tiny eastern Mississippi town of Shubuta, McArthur “Sonny” Gray certainly wouldn’t call himself an activist. But he maintains a grassy path that leads to the unmarked graves of two African American boys, Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, who were lynched on the town’s “Hanging Bridge” in 1942. When the public road leading to the bridge was blocked off last year, he could understand why—and like other black residents of Shubuta, he wasn’t inclined to protest. “You know, in this day and time everybody’s trying to get along,” he said. Young folks in this town would rather not rock the boat. “They really don’t even want to bring it up.” Sonny doesn’t want to bring it up, either. But he maintains that path just the same.
Dr. Fostenia Baker left the South a long time ago. But she doesn’t want to forget the past she knew there—as painful as it is. Her great uncle, Frazier B. Baker, and his infant daughter Julia were lynched in 1898. Frazier had been appointed postmaster of Lake City, South Carolina by President William McKinley. White residents, threatened by his high station, harassed and eventually killed him. His widow received no pension and ended up living in New York and Boston, moving from tenement to tenement with her five children, all of whom died young. Dr. Baker, a retired science professor, has written a book about Frazier, and she’s advocating for a nearby post office to be renamed in his honor.
In their own ways, with their differing but mutually strong motivations, Fostenia, Sonny, and Thelma keep the human stories behind lynching alive. By researching, writing, and documenting, and by caring for the sites where these unpunished murders took place, they honor victims of racial terror and preserve memory of them for the next generation. They demonstrate the types of actions that many of us could take to ensure that a life destroyed is not a life forgotten. And they’re building on a legacy of African American journalists, oral historians, and family members who have long preserved and exposed the components of history that a white mainstream narrative would rather hide.
There are larger efforts, too, worth examining. Reverend Hattie Lawson and a group of volunteers stage an annual reenactment of lynchings that occurred in Monroe, Georgia, an hour east of Atlanta. Every July, volunteer actors—white and black—recreate the murders that took the lives of two couples, George and Mae Murray Dorsey and Dorothy and Roger Malcom, in 1946. A white mob intercepted the Dorseys and Malcoms while they were traveling home by car, dragging them to a ravine and shooting them. There’s a marker describing the events on a busy stretch of highway a mile away, but a marker doesn’t get the same crowds or media attention as a reenactment.
Five hundred miles west, the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis formed after a group of retired professors heard Bryan Stevenson talk about the work of the Equal Justice Initiative to research and document lynchings. The Project has brought together members of multiple faith communities, university professors, and retirees, all committing themselves to educating Memphis residents about the history of racial terror in the city and surrounding Shelby County. They’ve organized prayer services at the sites of lynchings, speaking the names of victims and honoring their spirits. They’ve collaborated with a local theater and ballet to stage productions to help expose the history of lynching to new audiences. They’ve collaborated with a local teacher to help her students conduct research on lynchings. They’re installing markers. Perhaps most importantly, they’re gathering community members together to mourn the people whose lives were once deemed to have no value.
The work of these individuals and groups demonstrates that remembering racial terror can, and should, take many forms. It doesn’t necessarily involve a complex organizational structure, though it can. It doesn’t necessarily require public events, though many have proven useful. It may involve digging into archives, conducting oral history interviews, writing an article, maintaining a cemetery, organizing a prayer service. Remembering is both a personal and a collective act. It starts with individuals, informed by local history, and can grow to speak truth and draw together families, communities—a region.
Without these efforts, the history of lynching could be buried under the weight of forgetfulness—which, as historian Jonathan Holloway notes in “An Outrage,” is “a luxury that whites can afford, but blacks can’t.” Remembering is critical, now more than ever. The rate of killings of unarmed African American men, women, and children is similar to the rate of killings at the height of the lynching era. Hate groups are gathering strength, using threats and acts of violence to instill fear in communities of color. Remembering is necessary for progress. Remembering is resistance.
See “An Outrage” Sunday at Indie Grits Festival at the Nickelodeon Theater in Columbia, SC, at 1:30pm and later at 4:pm at the Seibels House, a screening sponsored by the South Carolina Progressive Network.
All photos provided by Hannah Ayers