A page not meant for turning: We must confront the legacy of lynching

For at least a quarter of a century, The Enterprise has written about a once little-known neighborhood on Rapp Road that residents call The Promised Land. It was settled by African Americans who had lived in Shubuta, Mississippi. As part of the Great Migration in the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s, they moved north in search of a better life.

The escape route was paved by the Reverend Louis Parsons who brought them first to Albany. But many of them disliked city life and, with the help of Reverend William Tolliver, they moved to land in the Pine Bush, between Gipp Road and Washington Avenue.

“At that time, there was nothing here. There were tall pines, land that looked just the way it did where they had come from in Shubuta,” Emma Dickson told us two decades ago. Her parents had settled there and she pushed for the neighborhood to be preserved and recognized.

We pushed, too. The Rapp Road District was named to both the state and national Registers of Historic Places. Later, we editorialized against encroachment as development threatened the unique houses built by hand with care and love. We wrote, too, about a book that told the neighborhood’s history. We wrote when a road was named in honor of Dickson.

And earlier this year, we sat in the charming home of Beverly Bardequez, a resident of the neighborhood, as she shared for a podcast her memories of growing up there.

Over all those years and with all those stories, we were missing an important part of the truth. We wrote about “difficulties” African-Americans had faced in Shubuta. We mentioned things like sharecroppers not getting a fair deal.

What we hadn’t reported — because we didn’t know about it, although we should have — were the lynchings.

Bardequez called us recently to invite us to attend a lecture by Jason Morgan Ward, an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University who had written a book called “Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century.”

Guilderland reporter Elizabeth Floyd Mair went to the lecture; her story is on page one. She brought the book into our newsroom.The titular “Hanging Bridge” is in Shubuta, Mississippi, spanning the Chickasawhay River. Locals call it the Hanging Bridge or Hangman’s Bridge. Four African Americans — two brothers and two pregnant sisters — were hanged there in 1918. Then in 1942, two boys — ages 14 and 15 — were lynched there.

As we paged through the book, our hands shaking, we saw a flier that pictured the two boys, nooses still around their necks, dead in the back of a wagon. The flier, to encourage membership in the NAACP, said, “They can not join! But you can!”

None of the white people in the mobs who had done the lynching were prosecuted. None of them.

Ward has used the lens of Shubuta to look at three pivotal moments in American history — the first and second world wars and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Through copious research, looking at contemporary documents, Ward shows that, as African Americans were becoming more mobile and more influential, they were kept in their place by these acts of terrorism.

We had naively thought of lynching as not related to us, to our neighbors, or to our current society. We can now see that it is. If atrocities are buried, they fester. We need to acknowledge the past so that we don’t repeat it.

We believe it is important, indeed essential, to recognize such acts of terrorism. Not to do so allows a symbol like the Hanging Bridge to perpetuate fear and violence.

In 1998, Martha Minow of Harvard Law School took a clear-eyed look at societies trying to recover from the legacies of violent pasts in her book “Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence.” Considering atrocities ranging from the Holocaust to apartheid, Minow notes, “There are no tidy endings.” But she warns that the impulse to “turn the page” can be as dangerous as seeking vengeance.

We must look at our history — document it the way that Ward has to understand how past violence leads to current problems. We must see what was there and grapple with it.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a not-for-profit group in Montgomery, Alabama, produced a report in 2015, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” that showed between Reconstruction and World War II, there were 4,075 racial terror lynchings of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

This year, the EJI released further research, beyond the South, documenting lynchings is other states, most commonly in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

Its report shows that lynching was “a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation. Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.”

Many of the black Americans who were lynched, the report says, were never accused of any crime but “were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity.”

In her research, Floyd Mair came across a picture of two African Americans — a man and a woman — hanging from a bridge in Oklahoma while smiling white people, dressed in their Sunday best, posed, standing across the bridge above the hanging bodies. Ward said that a rowboat was used — all planned ahead — to document the atrocity.

Postcards were printed, picturing lynchings, and sent as souvenirs. A book by John Littlefield and James Allen, “Without Sanctuary,” prints some of these postcards. We wondered who would send such horrible scenes. Then we saw one of a badly burned back man hanging from a utility pole, surrounded by white men, looking at the camera. On the back, in cursive writing, it said, “This is the barbecue we had last night/ my picture is to the left with a cross over it/ your son Joe.”

How can one human being think of another in that way? And how can a society accept and even condone it?

The lynched man was Jesse Washington. He was burned and hanged in Robinson, Texas on May 16, 1916. “Studying these photos has engendered in me a caution of whites, of the majority, of the young, of religion, of the accepted,” writes James Allen.

“Lynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today,” the EJI report says. This is a problem that belongs to all Americans, no matter where we live, no matter what color our skin is.

EJI is planning to build, in Montgomery, Alabama, a memorial to the victims of lynching and hopes to open it next year. At first, we found this startling: Why have a monument to something so horrible?

But then we remembered Minow’s words and realized turning the page isn’t the answer. We must, as a society, confront the legacy of lynching. Much in the way Germany has kept Nazi death camps as the acknowledgment of a painful truth so must we, in the United States, face the truth of our own history.

Not acknowledging the truth of the atrocities makes it worse for the victims; as Minow writes, it says that society believes their pain does not matter.

The pain our Rapp Road neighbors and their forebears suffered does matter. We are acknowledging it on our front page. We can’t go back and undo the horrors of history. But we can recognize the past — all of it — so that we may improve the future.

 

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