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  • Writer's pictureKaren Herbert

Meaningful Lessons Learned at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

My friend Lydia and I were passing through Alabama in the summer of 2019, and we took the opportunity to visit the National Monument to Peace and Justice in the city of Montgomery. Opened to the public in April 2018, it is the only memorial to free Black people terrorized by lynching. The memorial was created by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a private, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded by Bryan Stevenson, a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer and best-selling author of Just Mercy.

(Author photo) National Monument to Peace and Justice

Before this visit, I didn’t know very much about the history of lynchings in this country. Lynchings were not taught in my history classes; the only exposure I had growing up was fictional, and that, was only a threatened one. To Kill a Mockingbird, standard reading in middle schools across the country, contains a scene where white men are coming to lynch Tom Robinson, the Black man accused of rape. Atticus Finch, anticipating this action, is waiting for the mob in front of the jail. The words of his daughter, Scout, disperse the mob.

Now it was time to learn more about this terrible part of our country's past.

Staggering Number

Beginning across from the memorial in Legacy Pavilion, we learned about the staggering number of lynchings that occurred in our country. The report, "Lynching in America," is available here.

EJI has documented 4084 racial terror lynchings in twelve Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, which is at least 800 more lynchings in these states than previously reported. EJI has also documented more than 300 racial terror lynchings in other states during this time period.

The memorial is situated on a six-acre site, and after entering, we followed a path leading upward. Perhaps the long path was meant to symbolize in a small way the journey of the captured Africans. Partway up the path is a haunting sculpture portraying the terror and pain of the people arriving at our shores against their will. We paused to take in a man, defiant and proud, a woman with a baby at her breast, another woman squatting, her belly hinting at pregnancy, and her face showing her confusion and fear. The sculpture is stunning in its realism of what these enslaved Africans faced.

sculpture, enslaved Africans, Kwame Akoto-Bamfo,Jonathon Kelso, EJI, National Monument for Peace and Justice
Sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. Photo: Jonathon Kelso The New York Times

We continued on the path and soon entered the monument, discovering six feet tall steel monoliths, each representing one of the 800 counties where the terror lynchings occurred and engraved with the names of the victims in that county. At first, the monoliths are resting on the ground. As we moved through, the monoliths began to rise from the ground, eventually high over our heads. Stories of victims were engraved on the walls, and they are as horrifying as you can imagine.

At the end of the individual monuments, there was a place with water softly falling down a wall. It was a place to stop and reflect on the names we had read and the many victims that remain “unknown” in many of the counties.

(Author photo) At the end of the monument, a place to reflect.

"True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice." Martin Luther King

Waiting for Reconciliation

Outside the memorial is a large open area where identical monuments are laying coffin-like on the ground. These are meant to be moved to the respective counties and installed as the culmination of EJI’s Community Remembrance Project, an effort toward a more honest recounting of this dark chapter in our history. A soft rain was falling as we contemplated the monuments, all still awaiting recognition and reconciliation.

National Monument for Peace and Justice, lynching
(Author photo) Lydia looking over the monuments waiting to be claimed.

Closer to Home

I wanted to know more about the lynchings in my own county. There were 185 lynchings in the state of South Carolina between 1877 and 1950. Nine of these occurred in Florence County. None of the names were familiar to me.

(Author photo) Florence County, South Carolina

I contacted my county library and spoke with a helpful reference librarian in the E.N. Zeigler South Carolina History Room. She immediately pointed me to the story of Frazier Baker and his daughter, Julia. In July 1897, African American Frazier Baker was appointed Postmaster of the predominantly white community of Lake City, South Carolina (then in Williamsburg County). He was harassed and complaints were made against him.

Less than a year after his appointment, on February 22, 1898, a lynch mob set fire to the post office that also doubled as the home of the Baker family. Frazier Baker was shot and killed. His daughter who was also killed by gunfire was two years old. His wife, Lavinia, and five other children survived and moved away.

The state of South Carolina declined to make any arrests, but Federal prosecutors did arrest thirteen men. After a trial with an all-white jury was deadlocked, a mistrial was declared and no one ever served any time for the two murders. Below are some scanned newspaper accounts from that day and the next. (Slide to see)

(Scans courtesy of the Florence County Library E N. Ziegler South Carolina History Room)

What about other counties? Author Harper Lee grew up in Alabama, and the town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird is based on her hometown of Monroeville. Monroe County had 17 of the 371 lynchings in the state of Alabama. This history more than likely inspired part of Lee's tale, though Scout's defusing the mob was certainly unrealistic; I learned that white children often attended lynchings. Worse still, Black children. like Julia Baker, were often victims.

I hope that one day, both the Florence County and Monroe County monuments and all the others, are installed for all citizens to pay respects to the victims of these horrific crimes.

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