MONTGOMERY — It's no secret the South accounted for the majority of the 6,500 Black people killed from lynchings between 1865 to 1950 following the abolition of slavery but lynchings also occurred throughout the U.S.
While some communities have faced that past through markers and memorials recognizing those victims and incidents, Equal Justice Initiative is pushing for more cities and counties to commemorate the victims and acknowledge their history.
EJI’s Historical Marker Project, which sponsors historical markers to participating communities, suggests that reckoning with the truth of the racial violence that has shaped communities is essential for healing.
"The number one reaction we get when people leave our sites is 'I didn't know,'" said Bryan Stevenson, director of EJI, which overseas the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. "'I didn't know about all those lynchings. I didn't know about that happened in my community.' And this history of racial injustice has shaped so many of the systems, structures and institutions in American society that we have to talk about it."
Mississippi has the highest amount of documented lynchings — approximately 655 between 1877-1950, according to EJI; 16 of those lynchings occurred in Lauderdale County. Only a couple counties have participated in EJI's lynching commemoration initiatives.
Georgia ranks second in the highest amount of reported lynchings, 593 between 1877-1950.
Four lynchings are documented in Lowndes County: Will Lowe in 1890, David Goosby I 1894, Caesar Sheffield in 1915, [unknown] Lewis in 1916.
The EJI reports that Sheffield, a husband and father in his 40s, was jailed for allegedly stealing meat from a store owned by a white man. A mob of white men took him from the jail and shot him to death.
“Although the Constitution’s presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of American criminal justice, Black Americans like Caesar Sheffield were often denied this protection or their right to a fair trial and instead were lynched by white mobs,” EJI states.
In recent years, the Lowndes community has come together to recognize the 1918 lynching of the pregnant Mary Turner, who was among more than a dozen killed in Brooks County after a series of South Georgia lynchings near the Lowndes-Brooks County line following the murder of her plantation owner.
Her death has become one of the most talked about in recent years as it demonstrates the brutality not only against Black men, but also women and children.
"They lynched her upside down and built a small fire under her head and basically smoked her so to speak," said Lee Henderson, who spent years researching Turner's death at Valdosta State University. "[A man] cut her open, the baby falls down on the ground, the baby began to scream."
A historical marker dedicated to Mary Turner and the people killed in the Brooks-Lowndes County lynchings was installed at the site of her death. It was repeatedly vandalized and moved. The vandalized marker was sent to be exhibited at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
Two lynchings were documented in Baldwin County, eight in Thomas County, and in Tift County, the lynchings of Ed Henderson in 1899, two unknown people on Jan. 29, 1900 and Charles Lokie in 1908.
An Aug. 10, 1908 newspaper report states Lokie was lynched for “making insulting remarks to a prominent white woman.” Later, several people were out viewing the corpse during the day.
An Oct. 17, 1935 edition of The Moultrie Observer reports that Bo Brinson was shot to death after trying to prevent a group from searching his house for a wanted murderer. He was one of seven reported lynchings in Colquitt County.
Five men were lynched in Whitfield County, including A.L. McCamy in 1936 who was killed in Dalton for allegedly attempting to attack a white woman. According to reports, a white mob overtook the Whitfield County Jail to get to McCamy and later hung him from a tree.
Whitfield County NAACP President Marisa Kelley said efforts are underway to launch memorials for those victims.
“We are in the process of creating a community coalition to head up the project of people who would be interested in bringing a memorial to Whitfield County,” she said. “We don’t want it to be a NAACP project, we want it to be a community project.”
Louisiana and Arkansas follow Mississippi and Georgia with the highest number of reported lynchings, 549 and 493, respectively; Alabama ranks fifth with 360 reported lynchings.
In St. Clair County, Alabama seven lynches were reported. In similar areas where fewer lynchings were reported — like Limestone County where Daniel McBride was lynched in 1878, Joe Harris in 1901 and Alex MacDonald in 1905 — Limestone County NAACP President Wilbert Woodruff agrees that history should be memorialized.
“I think we should teach a complete and correct history of this country. These people were martyrs," he said.
Limestone County Commissioner Jason Black said he was unsure if a lynching memorial would be appropriate in the county, considering those who may have been affected by the lynchings and potential protests.
“We’ve got to remember history and we’ve got to know about it so we don’t go back to it, but that’d be almost like celebrating murders. … These people were lynched probably not because of what they did, but because they were Black and what they did,” Commissioner Black said. “Anything that would draw attention to misrepresentation or something of how African Americans were treated or even Native Americans or anyone, I would be behind it 100%..but sometimes people don’t want to have to put the vision with the thought.”
Texas, Florida and Tennessee are also in the top states for reported lynchings— 336, 318 and 236, respectively according to EJI.
Several areas like Cumberland County in East Tennessee had no reported lynchings, compared to Shelby County which had the highest in the state — approximately 20.
EJI documents the lynching of three Black men who owned a grocery store in Memphis, seen as a threat by white men who ensued a violent confrontation. The men were jailed and later seized from the jail by 75 masked men who hung them in an open field.
“Tell my people to go west, there is no justice for them here,” reports EJI of one of the men’s last words.
Lynching markers have been installed by local organizations to honor some of the county's victims.
Other states with lynchings reported by EJI between 1877 and 1950 are:
South Carolina - 189
Kentucky - 169
North Carolina - 120
Virginia - 84
Oklahoma - 75
Missouri - 60
West Virginia - 37
Maryland - 29
Kansas - 18
Nebraska - 5
Colorado - 5
Wyoming - 4
Pennsylvania - 2
Utah - 2
Montana - 2
South Dakota - 1
New York - 1
New Jersey - 1
Michigan - 1
Delaware - 1
The most recent memorial was unveiled in Terre Haute, Indiana by the Facing Injustice project, which was launched by the Greater Terre Haute NAACP branch and part of the national Community Remembrance Project of the Equal Justice Initiative. The Indiana memorial honors George Ward, who was lynched by a mob that stormed the Vigo County Jail and hanged him from the Wabash River bridge, more than 120 years ago.
Other communities through the U.S. that have participated in the Remembrance Project include Brighton, Alabama; Letohatchee, Alabama; Abbeville, South Carolina; Gadsden, Alabama; LaGrange, Georgia; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Austin, Texas; Selma, Alabama; Oxford, Mississippi; Center, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; Orlando, Florida; Charlottesville, Virginia; Annapolis, Maryland; Fort Deposit, Alabama; Birmingham, Alabama; Springfield, Missouri; DeKalb County, Georgia; Athens County, Ohio; Shelby County, Alabama; Madison County, Tennessee; Tulsa County, Oklahoma; Walker County, Georgia; Duluth, Minnesota; Denver, Colorado; Hayneville, Lowndes County, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; Forsyth County, Georgia; Pinellas County, Florida; Irondale, Jefferson County, Alabama; Lithonia, DeKalb County, Georgia; Roswell, Fulton County, Georgia; and Shelby County, Kentucky.
Communities can partner with other organizations to initiate marker installations, and those interested in participating in EJI's Community Remembrance project can email email@example.com for more information.
"As a meaningful entry point, we encourage coalitions of residents from local communities to consider participating in our community soil collection and historical marker programs," EJI states. "The community education, engagement, and memorialization involved in these programs allow communities to begin to confront and recover from histories of racial injustice."