A history suppressed
Jeff Brown accidentally bumped into a white girl while trying to catch a train. Lacy Mitchell testified against a white man charged with rape. Berry Noyse was accused of killing the local sheriff and was never given due process. In each case, the person was lynched.
During a dark time in our nation’s history — between the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction and 1950 — thousands of African Americans were murdered via lynching, predominantly in the South. Two Carolina professors hope to honor these individuals by uncovering injustices that, for decades, have been systematically erased from public memory.
A 2015 report on lynching by the Equal Justice Initiative inspired American studies professor Seth Kotch and folklore and anthropology professor Glenn Hinson in different ways. Kotch and his students created “A Red Record” — an interactive map of North Carolina where visitors can click on data points to learn about individual lynchings. Hinson and his students focused on collecting the stories of the family members of victims in the Descendants Project, a collection of oral histories that will be archived at Wilson Library and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
A Red Record
Kotch introduced the lynching report in a class about the rural South. “We were reading about rural economies, how people communicated with one another, and how customs were translated generationally — and lynching is one such custom,” he says. “It’s specific to the South in the same way that some of the other traditions we were talking about were specific to the South.”
In response, the class created an interactive map, using the EJI report and Vann Newkirk’s “Lynching in North Carolina: A History 1865–1941” as starting points. For each reported lynching, they dove into online archival databases to gather information like the date and location of the murder, victims’ names and the narrative around the tragedy.
In total, the class found 181 cases of lynching in North Carolina between 1866 and 1947. Kotch suspects that is a conservative number, assuming many were either unreported or records have since been lost.
“It was kind of shocking how widespread the phenomenon was,” he says. “Just seeing these incidents laid out in this familiar map, I thought, was powerful. For a lot of students, things happened in that comfortable space that they’re not seeing.”
Subsequent classes have mapped South Carolina and Tennessee, Arkansas and Virginia. In addition, Elijah Gaddis, a former Carolina graduate student and current assistant professor at Auburn University, will map Alabama. Kotch’s goal is to map the entire former Confederacy.
A changed landscape
Mackenzie Drake, a student in Kotch’s spring 2016 semester class, took the project a step further by photographing 16 lynching sites on the Red Record map. None of the sites she visited memorialized the lynching. “It was crazy to think that probably every day, hundreds of people pass by this place and it’s not recognized at all,” she says.
Before Kotch’s class, Drake thought these murders were primarily carried out by white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan. In reality, they were normalized throughout the white Southern community and became a public spectacle.
Kotch hopes to combat this lack of understanding in future generations. “We know that students aren’t learning about what’s called ‘hard history’ often in their high school classrooms,” he says. “Hard history is history of things like enslavement, lynching — difficult stuff.”
In collaboration with the Carolina K–12 program, high school teachers from around the state will be invited to Carolina to learn how to disseminate this information to their students. Kotch is also developing free teaching materials that align with state standards and can be used as tools in the classroom. He hopes to start with North Carolina schools and eventually expand to other states.
“We need to learn about these histories because there’s no way to confront their legacies — which are real and manifest — without learning about their origins,” he explains. “Ignorance doesn’t inoculate you against the effects of what you’re trying to ignore.”
The Descendants Project
When people talk about lynchings, the narrative often ends at the moment of the murder, but that is where Hinson’s work begins.
“Our goal is not to retell a gruesome history, but to speak to histories of resilience,” he says. “There were generations of folks since then that carried that knowledge, that memory, and carried it forward through history. What happened to those families? What were those stories? And most importantly, what are the stories of those descendants now?”
Before introducing the Descendants Project to a class, Hinson wanted to see if it was viable. He searched for family members of Eugene Daniel — a 16-year-old boy killed in New Hope Township in 1921. Through online archives, a 2014 obituary and an Oxford phone book, Hinson finally found descendant
Webb didn’t know about the murder but had always suspected something may have happened. “Somebody down that [family] line suffered or had to go through worse trials and tribulations than I’m going through for me to be able to have some of the rights that I have as an African-American,” he says. “I think it’s something that needs to be known,” Webb says. “It doesn’t need to be swept up under the rug — people need to know how people really acted in those days.”
Since 2016, Hinson’s students have collected oral histories from 10 descendants of five lynching victims. The classes have attempted to find many more, but continually run into what Hinson calls “a strategic history of erasure.” Newspaper articles and even death certificates often didn’t mention family members, and census data at that time for African-Americans is fraught with inaccuracies.
“You quickly discover that white census takers cared very little for black families,” Hinson says. “You might find so many misspellings that you can’t even locate this person historically.”
Students who were able to find people and interview them, though, shared a very personal experience with the descendants. “For a lot of the members of the class, this was a profoundly transformative experience, as it has been for me, to grapple with the erasure and see how difficult it is to find
these stories,” he says.
Reconciling the past
This fall marked the start of an undergraduate research course dedicated to Hinson’s project. The students are working with Warren County community leaders to erect an EJI public memorial for 1921 double-lynching victims Plummer Bullock and Alfred Williams
Jereann King Johnson, a community activist working to preserve African-American legacies in Warren County, says this history affects residents to this day.
“That has been sort of the veil that people see the community through, particularly black people who have lived here all their lives,” she says. “I grew up in the Jim Crow South, in southwest Georgia, and heard stories of lynching and abuse of black folks by white people and it’s something you don’t forget.”
Some people may interpret discussing racial violence as provoking a troubled history, but that’s not Hinson’s aim. “It’s not about stirring up the past, it’s forcing an accounting,” he says. “Reconciliation can never occur until there is an accounting.”
This is a condensed version of a story originally published by Endeavors magazine at endeavors.unc.edu/a-history-suppressed. A story on the Descendants Project also appears at college.unc.edu/2019/01/descendants-project.
Black History Month Events
Actor and playwright Mike Wiley presents his one-man show, “The Fire of Freedom,” at 3 p.m. at the Friday Center. The play is the story of Abraham Galloway, a slave rebel and Union spy. The event is free, but pre-registration is requested. Call 919-962-3000 or email email@example.com to reserve seats.
TaKeia N. Anthony, assistant professor of history at N.C. Central University, will be a speaker at the
2019 Writer’s Discussion Series: The Universal Ethiopian Students’ Association, 1927–1948 Mobilizing Diaspora at 3:30 p.m. in the Bull’s Head Bookshop.
Ibram X. Kendi delivered the 2019 African American History Month Lecture at the Stone Center on “Racist Ideas in America: From Slavery to Black Lives Matter.” Read about his Feb. 7 speech at unc.edu.
For more Black History Month events, visit https://diversity.unc.edu/2019/02/black-history-month.