Grounds for Democracy

It’s high time to memorialize the South’s history of lynching

National News Preservation
In light of Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith's recent comments about lynching at a rally in her native Mississippi, it's time to consider why Americans look back on our Southern history of public hangings with such irreverence. Shown here: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Courtesy MASS Design Group)
In light of Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith's recent comments about lynching at a rally in her native Mississippi, it's time to consider why Americans look back on our Southern history of public hangings with such irreverence. Shown here: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Courtesy MASS Design Group)

Next Tuesday, Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith will go head to head in a runoff election against Democrat Mike Espy for Mississippi’s remaining U.S. Senate seat. Since the midterm election in which no candidate received over 50 percent of the vote, her campaign has been under major threat, and she’s been laying low due to an off-hand comment she recently made at a rally.

In praise of a local supporter in Tupelo, Mississippi, she laughingly said:

“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

After a video of the moment went viral on Twitter, her challenger, Espy, called the remark “tone deaf.” The incumbent senator is defending it now as “an exaggerated expression of regard,” claiming it was taken out of context. She’ll face Espy in a debate tonight without outside press or an audience present, reported the Jackson Free Press earlier today.

Hyde-Smith’s poor choice of words, whether meant as a joke or not, represents the irreverent and ignorant way many Americans look back on the horrific lynchings that took place in the Jim Crow South. What makes this even more deeply inappropriate is that Hyde-Smith said this in her native Mississippi, the state that notoriously conducted the most amount of public hangings on record. President Trump is set to a hold rally in support of Hyde-Smith next Monday ahead of Tuesday’s election, but Democrats appear to be reinvigorated and could pull off another upset in the South.   

Cindy Hyde-Smith and Brett Kavanaugh

Incumbent senator Cindy Hyde-Smith will face Mike Espy in a runoff election next week. Shown here with Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh (Courtesy Creative Commons)

While we as a country have worked to acknowledge our harsh history of racial tension and inequality through monuments and museums dedicated to slavery, black culture, and the civil rights movement, we’ve barely begun to take the much-needed step toward memorializing the thousands of victims tortured, murdered, and hung in 12 U.S. states from 1877 to 1950.

According to a new report by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) entitled, Landslide 2018: Grounds for Democracy, numerous lynching sites in Shelby County, Tennessee, are virtually unmarked for their historical significance. Walking by these nondescript places, no one would know that hundreds of spectators once gathered there in carnival-like fashion to witness these unforgivable acts of racial terror.

TCLF makes its case for the recognition of these places by digging into the lynchings of four African Americans in and around Memphis: Mississippi-laborer Lee Walker who was arrested and hung in 1983 for looking like a man who allegedly tried to sexually assault two white women; People’s Grocery owner Thomas Moss, and his employees Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell who all suffered fateful deaths in 1892 because a white grocer nearby instigated a rumor that the Stewart had injured him; cotton farmer Jesse Lee Bond who was shot, castrated, and drowned in 1939 because he asked for a receipt at a store; and woodcutter Ell Persons who was lynched and burned in 1917 after being accused of decapitating a 15-year-old white girl.

Lynching The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, in 1916 (Courtesy Library of Congress/The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

While there aren’t any grave markers for these victims, their deaths have continued to echo through America’s development as a 21st-century country. TCLF noted that, according to Dr. Jacova Williams of Clemson University’s Department of Economics, southern counties that held more historical lynchings have lower voter registration rates among African Americans today. This sad reality must be altered, and TCLF argues the only way to do it is by shining a light on such sites and their jarring stories. It’s key to our country’s ability to heal and move forward as a collective society, they say. 

“Our shared and fragile landscape legacy has a powerful role to play in helping us understand where we come from,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, TCLF President and CEO, in a statement, “especially in the current debates, conversations, and analyses of our national identity.”

These Shelby County sites are listed among 10 other at-risk historic sites and landscapes associated with human and civil rights in the U.S. Laid out in TCLF’s Landslide 2018 report, every site is currently in danger of being redeveloped or demolished altogether. Some simply suffer from a lack of resources, an equally foreboding issue that plagues communities and organizations trying to bring recognition to near-forgotten places around the country. Other sites, like those found in Tennessee, have long been suppressed.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Courtesy MASS Design Group)

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Courtesy MASS Design Group)

But things are changing. This summer, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama, and was dedicated to the more than 4,440 African American men, women, and children who were hanged in the South. The memorial, built by the Equal Justice Initiative and designed by MASS Design Group, has been praised by visitors and design critics alike for its beauty, timeliness, and national importance. 

Architect and speaker John Cary, who authored the 2017 book Design for Good, has toured public projects around the world. He described the National Memorial as “one of the most extraordinary memorial buildings” he’s ever seen anywhere. Others agree and are calling it the most significant memorial on U.S. soil since Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  

Lions Municipal Golf Course The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin, Texas, also tops The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s list of 10 at-risk sites. (Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

While a massive work honoring those lynched in the South is an incredible step forward, it’s still important to preserve the other places where the lynchings actually happened. TCLF placed these sites in its Landslide 2018 program to call attention to their fading history and to urge Americans and preservation groups to help keep them intact. The other at-risk sites include:

Blair Mountain Battlefield in Logan County, West Virginia, the site of a four-day uprising by over 10,000 armed coal miners fighting for basic workers’ rights; Druid Heights in Marin County, California, a bohemian enclave north of San Francisco where poet and lesbian feminist Elsa Gidlow lived among a group of LGBTQ activists; The Hall of Fame for Great Americans at Bronx Community College, a monument featuring 96 busts that honor high-achieving individuals across various fields; Hog Hammock on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, home to the last descendants of the enslaved Saltwater Geechee community; Japanese American Confinement Sites located across the West Coast where over 120,000 people were held during World War II; Lincoln Memorial Park in Miami, Florida, a 20-acre African American cemetery in Dade County housing soldiers from the Civil War to the Iraq War; Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin, Texas, the first desegregated course in the South; Princeville, North Carolina, the first U.S. town incorporated by African Americans; and Susan B. Anthony’s Childhood Home in Battenville, New York.

All of these landscapes have played a critical role in America’s growth and continue to shape how we interact with one another, as well as how we fight and vote for a less violent, more equitable future.

Get the full story behind these historic sites and why they’re in danger here.

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