Mary Turner’s Family Tree: Research for History Unscripted, Ep. 121

Detail, Warrick Fuller's Mary Turner memorial

Mary Turner’s life ended 19 May 1918 in Lowndes County, Georgia at the hands of a lynch mob, as a result of vowing to hold those responsible for killing her husband, Hazel Turner. She was arrested once she spoke for justice, and the town leaders retaliated. Mary Turner declared that Hazel Turner’s killing “..was unjust and if she knew the names of the persons who were in the mob who lynched her husband, she would have warrants sworn out against them and have them punished in the courts. This news determined the mob to “teach her a lesson”…” [Walter F White,“The Work of a Mob.” The Crisis, NAACP, Sept 1918, 221-223’]

Walter F. White’s published investigation of the racial terror in Brooks & Lowdnes County. White, “The Work of a Mob”, The Crisis, Sept 1918

What followed was her lynching and that of her unborn child on the Folsom Bridge that connects Brooks and Lowndes Counties. Its important to know that the area wasn’t immune from violence. Some twenty-four years earlier, in Christmas 1894, five African American men were lynched by local whites in what was called the ‘Brooks County Race War.

Also lost in May 1918 were the lives of 16 other persons, including her husband, Hayes Turner, who died the day before. That she and her unborn child were executed was held up as some kind of boundary violation, obscures the fact that three times the number of enslaved Black women were executed in antebellum slavery as in colonial slavery. While far fewer women were executed during Reconstruction, mostly in the South, terrorizing communities was a means of control used in many locations across the US after the Civil War. [ Meyers 2006, p5] Ten women were lynched in Georgia between 1880-1930 [Meyers 2006 224]

What is notable is the participation of the white business community and law enforcement in these series of murders. According to a witness, those who participated in the mob were led by Samuel E McGowan, an undertaker and William Whipple, a cotton broker and merchandise dealer, both of Quitman. Ordley Yates, post office clerk, Frank Purvis, employee of Griffin Furniture Company, Fulton DeVane,  agent for Standard Oil Company, Brown Sherill, worked for Whipple, George B Vann, barber from Quitman, the farmers Chalmers, Lee Sherrill, Richard DeVane, Ross DeVane, Jim Dickson, Dixon Smith (father of Hampton Smith) Will Smith (brother of Hampton Smith) and two other brothers of the victims all participated. [Meyers 2006 221; Walter F White, 1918]

Their names are known because of the investigation undertaken by Walter F White, on behalf of the NAACP, and the testimony of George U. Spratling, an African American man who was an assistant to the undertaker McGowan. Spratling was forced by McGowan to go to the lynching, where none wore masks to evade identification.

Eighteen people total died between that Friday and Saturday. Hayes Turner was caught on Saturday, captured and taken to the Brooks County Jail in Quitman, then transported to Moultrie, where Sheriff  Wade and Roland Knight, clerk of the county court were waylaid. Turner was taken by the mob and murdered.

NAACP: Intervention, Investigation & Recommendations

Governor Dorsey ordered militia troops to the area, but it was too little, too late. He questioned his authority to arrest those involved. However, aware that the African American migration out of the state had begun with some 500 people departing Lowndes County shortly after the mass lynching occurred, the state was set to lose workers as the Great Migration intensified. Among those able to leave the state were members of the Turner family.

Dorsey’s reply to the NAACP letter notifying him of the events in Lowdnes is reprehensible. He basically blames Black people for the lynching rampage: “I believe that if the negroes would assert their ultimate influence with the original element of their race and stop rapes that it would go a long way towards stopping lynchings.”

Governor Dorsey’s response to NAACP, 18 Nov 1918. Mary Turner Project, http://www.maryturner.org/images/Dorsey.pdf

The NAACP made the Turner case a central concern and pursued investigating the event soon after. They made an offer to assist George Spratling with relocating to the North,  help with gaining employment there and support him until the hearing was completed and he was able to go to work. But he couldn’t just leave- he had 5 young children to care for along with a wife and an elderly lady, and ‘a great many relatives (aunts uncles and first and second cousins)’ in and around Quitman. [Letter from Walter White to NAACP Secretary concerning lynching witness George Spratling, November 12, 1918 (from NAACP Papers Collection)

Walter White to NAACP Sec. describing George Spratling's situation
Excerpt -Letter from Walter White to NAACP Secretary concerning lynching witness George Spratling, November 12, 1918 (from NAACP Papers Collection

White notes that “since May eight people were either lynched or went missing; they committed no crime but were relatives of some of the victims of May.” Clearly, racial terrorism was a tool that the NAACP focused on dismantling or at the least, ameliorating its spread by revealing its inner workings and demystifying the feeble excuses offered by local and federal government to a broader public through its publications and newspaper articles. 

NAACP, Letter to President Woodrow Wilson requesting support in matter of Turner & other lynchings, 25 July 1918. Mary Turner Project http://www.maryturner.org/images/WhiteHouseLetter.pdf

The organization wrote to President Woodrow Wilson to urge him to act and spelled out why this should be a concern:

“8. The loyal response of the Negroes of the nation to every opportunity to serve as contrasted with the failure of local authorities to act when Negroes are lynched by mob. 

9. The opinion of the Attorney General that the federal courts have no jurisdiction to deal with ordinary cases of lynching, and he opinion generally accepted by competent legal authorities that federal anti-lynching legislation under the Fourteenth Amendment is or is likely to be regarded by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. 

10. The ardent desire of  great masses of Americans white and colored, that the stigma of lynching be removed from America. 

11. The heightened prestige at home and abroad which American institutions would receive if energetic efforts were made really to stop the lynching of Negroes. “

What is interesting is the insistence that this event and other incidents of terrorism is not America- ‘this is not who we are’.  Essentiality it is a failure to live up to the expectations by citizens and the world, right after participating in the first World War. 

White sent the investigation on to President Wilson, who basically did nothing to stop the perpetrators.

After the lynching of Claude Neal in Florida in 1934 [Ep. 83], the NAACP circulated the story of Mary Turner, complete with an illustration of the lynching, in the NY Amsterdam News and Philadelphia Inquirer

Economics, Kin, Networks

The Turners labored incessantly and suffered beatings as part of being in a debt peonage system.  Hampton Smith (whose death marked the start of what was called a ‘holocaust of lynchings), was the owner of the large plantation in Brooks County that they and others worked on, had a terrible reputation for violence and terrorizing his workers.  As a result, he had difficulty securing workers, and went to the courts and whenever a Black man “was convicted and unable to pay his fine or was sentenced to serve a period on the chain gang, Smith would secure his release” and put them to work on his plantation, until the amount in question was paid off. [White, “The Work of a Mob.,” 1918, 1] Apparently workers never made enough to satisfy the debt and according to accounts suffered beatings at his hands, and one young man resisted and decided to kill him. 

The issue of debt peonage was never addressed, and was a huge problem across sites in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. 

The disruptive effects of this mass lynching impacted the future of the families. If they could, they moved to other counties or across the state line to start over. 

Aside from this, each family had female headed households that helped their children survive the transition from enslavement to emancipation. By design, there were insufficient resources to keep people laboring rather than able to pursue their own path, and sadly, some family members were unable to escape the trap of debt peonage and the prison convict system. 

Mary Turner- Mary Hattie Graham (1884-1918)

Mary Turner’s full maiden name was Mary Hattie Graham, daughter of Perry W. Graham and Betty Johnson (1872). 

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, “Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence.” (1919) Wikipedia.

 Her story inspired artist Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller to create Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence.  This is an early anti-lynching memorial, which also incorporates genteel standards of womanhood of the time. Still, this is a figure beset by trouble, her face almost hidden and body that tries to keep to itself. Hands appear on the lower third, with a face sunk into the crowd, which suggests more horror as one spends time with the work. 

Faces & hands, base of Warrick Fuller’s Mary Turner memorial, detail.

Mary Hattie Graham was born in Quitman, Brooks County in Dec 1884 to Perry Graham and Betty Johnson Graham. Her father’s mother was born in Virginia, according to the 1910 census. By that time Perry Graham and Betty Johnson Graham were married for 29 years; they married in Lowndes County on 18 Nov 1880.

By 1910, her brother, Perry J Graham had set up his own household alongside their parents in Briggs, Brooks County, GA.  With Dora Stoker, he had 16 children. By 1930, both generations lived together in Briggs. As their family was large, mobility was limited, and the next generation would migrate out of the state. I haven’t yet found them in the 1920 census, which may mean they avoided the enumerator or changed names to stay safe. 

By 1940 at least one son of Perry and Dora, Melvin J Briggs b. 1908 had moved to Miami, Dade County, Florida from Valdosta after 1935. He worked as a bell hop in a hotel, rooming with a group of people who also came from Georgia.  While he may not have traveled north, he was part of a larger migration out of state by African Americans who sought self determination.

Betsey or Betty Johnson

Turner’s mother, Betsey or Betty Johnson b. 18 first appears in the 1880 census, in the home of her mother, Phoebe Briggs, b. 1848.  At that time Ms. Johnson is working as a servant, and has a daughter, Viola Washington. She is 21, older than listed in later census,  born about 1859.  If the dates are correct, Phoebe had her very young-  she is 31 while her daughter is 21. The household comprises three generations.

In 1880 Phoebe Briggs works as a farm laborer, and one of her young sons, Richard Stephens works as a laborer at 11 years of age; there is no occupation listed for his brother Washington Stephens age 8. Different states are listed for their fathers, which raises questions about the difficulties of Briggs’ situation with her partners post-Reconstruction 1869-1872 in the Valdosta district of Lowndes, Georgia. Also in the household is her 2 year old granddaughter from Betsey, Viola Washington and her grandson, Samuel Green, just a month old. 

1880 US Federal Census, Valdosta District 668, Lowdnes County, GA. 28 Jun 1880 p72D. FS.org Note the associated Johnson family members living in close proximity to the Briggs household on Line 5.

What is important to note, are the other Johnson females who live in adjacent homes— Harriet age 17 [Line 4] a lodger in the next house to Phoebe Briggs, and two doors down, Fate Johnson 13 [Line 21], lodger. There’s a Millie Johnson 24 [Line 36], and a Fannie Green 41, b.VA [Line 43], Mother in law to the McKays (in fact much of her family is lodging in the home of her daughter Josephine’s husband).  It seems reasonable that the month old son may be tied to this family. They work as farm laborers, and some are close enough in age to be Betsey Johnson’s sisters, if not kin.  This raises a few questions as to their relationship to Phoebe Briggs and her daughter, Betsey Johnson, and whether they are kin or blood relatives from the same community in this area of Valdosta. Just a few months later, in November 1880, Betsey Johnson married Perry Graham.

I was unable to locate  Phoebe Briggs in the 1870 census.  However, the 1860 Federal Population Census and Slave Schedule for Lowndes, GA- right at the start of Valdosta, shows a Henry Briggs with 13 enslaved people, including a 10 year old female, who could potentially be Phoebe Briggs. 

1850 US Federal Census, Slave Schedule, Henry Briggs, Troupville, Lowdnes County, GA – Line 14 – 10 year old enslaved female listed

The location of his plantation was at the end of Troupville, and Valdosta is the next town that starts just a few lines down. Additional probate and insurance documents can help identify the people he held in bondage, and confirm whether this number, is indeed Phoebe Briggs. 

A page on the early history of Troupville also reveals a history of a settlement that begins with bloodshed as the new arrivals sought to displace the Creeks from their territory. Native peoples had lived in the region for 11,000 years, and during the early 1800s, many were farmers, and among the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ depended on enslaved labor before displacement in a series of Indian wars that culminated in the Trail of Tears. A Dr. Henry Briggs was among the early settlers of the town, which benefited from its location on the border with Florida. This was historically part of a Native American trade network that extended north to present day Savannah. Settler colonialism is an important part of the larger context of this history.

Conclusion

It’s over a century since the deaths of Mary Turner, her husband Hazel Turner and 16 others.   Extrajudicial murders continue with 20,000 dying at the hands of the police in the last two decades. The EJI notes that the dehumanizing myth of racial bias needs to be confronted, and reveals it as part of a continuum: “This belief in racial hierarchy survived slavery’s abolition, fueled racial terror lynchings, demanded legally codified segregation, and spawned our mass incarceration crisis.”   https://eji.org/racial-justice/ This is incredibly toxic stuff. 

Lynching shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions that African Americans experience today. Critically, racial terror lynching reinforced the belief that Black people are inherently guilty and dangerous. That belief underlies the racial inequality in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive and disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.

NAACP, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918 Apr 1919

What stood out most was the continued disruption of lives because of racist terror, and the way the system worked to extract as much value from these people without acknowledging  their humanity and a right to access justice, fairness and the ability to live without attack. They were forced to repeatedly start over, and their survival is a testimony to their resilience.  To get beyond the narratives of their deaths to their family histories isn’t easy. 

Since the 2000s, there has been a sustained effort by the community to shed light on these events, to come to a reckoning so that this terrorism can end. The Mary Turner Project succeeded in placing a historic marker that names the victims, maintains a website that continues to pull together newspaper articles past and present that documents a long process of healing. 

Restoring the visibility of these families helps in understanding the dynamics that sought to constrain the lives of millions, all hidden beneath a thin veneer of American exceptionalism. 

Update: 11 September 2020. The Mary Turner Project had to remove the historical marker because of the damage it sustained from being repeatedly shot to the point the metal was stressed so much it cracked. Regardless of this vandalism, that still doesn’t change the need to remember this event as part of our national history.

Read more:

https://www.wtoc.com/2020/10/11/mary-turner-lynching-marker-removed-after-recent-vandalism/

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/georgia/articles/2020-10-12/georgia-lynching-marker-removed-after-recent-vandalism

I want to express deep gratitude for The Mary Turner Project’s efforts on keeping this history current, providing resources on events and for their work on racial justice and healing on both a local and national level. And thanks to Nicka Smith for the opportunity to participate in Ep 121 of History Unscripted: Profiles in Racial Justice, Part 1.

References

The Mary Turner Project, http://www.maryturner.org/mtp.htm

The Mary Turner Project, Documents http://www.maryturner.org/documents.htm

Kerry Seagrave, Lynchings of Women in the US: the Recorded Cases 1851-1946. McFarland & Co, 2010. 

Walter F. White, “The Work of a Mob.” The Crisis, NAACP. 221-223

Christopher C Meyer, ”Killing Them by the Wholesale”: A Lynching Rampage in South Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 90:2 (Summer 2006) 214-235. 

Letter to President Woodrow Wilson, July 25, 1918. NAACP http://www.maryturner.org/images/WhiteHouseLetter.pdf

“Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller”, Wikipedia. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Meta_Vaux_Warrick_Fuller

NAACP, “History of Lynchings.” https://www.naacp.org/history-of-lynchings/

EJI, Racial Justice. https://eji.org/racial-justice/

A Bonilla Family Tree: Context, Resistance & Reading Indigeneity

Barrios of Yauco: Red indicates Barrios where Bonillas were based

My latest blog post, is a Guest Post: A Bonilla Family Tree, is about the reading the larger context of Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo’s life and family. This is one of my prima Teresa Vega’s ancestors, who was lynched in Yauco in 1890. Radiant Roots Boricua Branches is her blog. Appreciate this opportunity to delve into her Boricua branches!

Please read both posts at: Decolonizing My Family Tree: Revisting Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo

A Constant Threat of Erasure: Racial Terror, Civil Rights and Family Histories – Pt. 1: Della McDuffie

Sitting with the Legacy of Jim Crow

Ep 83a: Stories from the National Memorial for Peace & Justice pt. 1

These last eight weeks, Black ProGen Live panelists are researching the genealogies of people who died by lynching. Among the cases  is that of Mrs Della McDuffie, who died almost 66 years to the day on 23 April 1953. Witnesses state that this resulted after being beaten to death with a length of industrial hose by Sheriff Percy Columbus ‘Lummie’ Jenkins and his staff during a raid of the small cafe she owned with her husband William McDuffie in Wilcox County, Alabama.[1]  She died within the hour. The supposed crime was playing music after midnight on the Sabbath.[2]

The Trouble I’ve Seen

The Trouble I’ve Seen is a film produced at Northeastern University that includes interviews on three cold cases, the first, being that of Mrs. Della McDuffie.

In the film, Mrs. McDuffie’s nephew,  JC Varner’s gives an account of the event:

“J.C. VARNER, Nephew: So he walked in and hit her told her get up old lady, go to bed. So she told him she couldn’t get up so he hit her across her arm on her knees, then he hit her on the head. And he shot down by her feet a couple of times, at her feet.

“WILLIAM MCDUFFIE: Doctor seen him striking at one person and another with a hose-like weapon. I saw a number hit with the weapon in Sheriff Jenkins hand.
BOND: But Dr. Robert E. Dixon’s statement reads…
DR. DIXON: I can definitely state that the cause of death was not brought on by any injury to the head, such as a blow.
FIDDIMAN: This case essentially was a cover up and it never went to court.
BOND: A year into the investigation, her husband William was found dead by his 2 grandchildren. WILLIAMS: I found my grandfather and it had appeared that he had been killed by way of drowning. They killed him because of the intensity of this investigation. They tried to get him to change his mind and change his statements like everyone else did. He refused to do that. And they took care of it. “[3]T

The High Cost of Inequality

Sharecropping Family on the Pettway Plantation, Gee’s Bend, AL. Arthur Rothstein, WPA photograph

Wilcox County is one of the poorest counties in the country, beset by  “high unemployment, poor access to education and medical care, substandard housing and high rates of crime.” [1] Despite a population comprised of African Americans in the majority, voter suppression tactics facilitated a continued disenfranchisement. That is not to say there is no strength and beauty in the resilient lives there. The spaces for these ancestors opens as their stories are written back into history.

Location of Wilcox County, AL. Encyclopedia of Alabama.

It’s a largely rural county, with cotton farming shaping its history within the state’s Black Belt. Rather than state or interstate highways, a network of county roads connect the county to  other areas.  You may have heard of Wilcox County, as it’s also home to Gee’s Bend, home of the women’s quilting collective. [3] Its legacy of slavery, sharecropping and tenant farming is a testament to extractive economies that leaves next to nothing for the majority of the population that made its fortunes. That same dynamic bleeds into the present.

Today, Alabama’s Black Belt is home to toxic landfill sites that dot these predominantly African American counties,  continuing the disregard for the descendants of those who tilled that land in cotton cultivation before and after the Civil War. 

RW Harrison, Six Generations of Women, Alabama. LOC.

The Why: Restorative Justice

Beyond the civil rights stolen from Mrs. McDuffie, there is a need to see more than this moment, and so we bring our skills to expand their family trees and tell other stories about those who came before them. I’ll bring together some of what I learned about her ancestors, before turning to contemporary issues involving the threat of erasure.

An issue with lynching is the potential for the carnage to occlude recognition of this violence as not only systemic, but ingrained into a community’s institutions. Is there a recognition that there’s a parallel between this past and the people who were accounted for under Congress’ Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013? [4]

Is there a recognition of the parallels between now and Reconstruction in the sweeping attempts at voter suppression across several states? Can laws that disproportionately affect those living in poverty help rather than set people up for prison in a system that is the 21st century version of a debt peonage system? How do we heal from this— on a familial, interpersonal, social and institutional levels? With 2.4 million prisoners in the US means a high chance this is part of your family history too. These accounts are part of the process of restorative justice.

 Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project

One important way to do this work is through newspaper research, seeking coverage that can supply details for the initial steps of genealogical records search. Thankfully, there are the case files by Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project  led by Professor Margaret Durham.  The video, The Trouble I’ve Seen, includes the law student, Bayliss Fiddiman, who worked on the McDuffie case and family members speaking to their experiences. 

These cases, available on the Northeastern University website, are basically the cold case files that law students research and compile to begin a process of restoration and recognition. Through them, the families are contacted, files requested from Federal and state agencies and a review of the material conducted towards a process of restorative justice.  How this outcome manifests depends on the community’s needs and resources marshaled for address and memorialization. 

Ultimately this recognition serves to confirm and establish the events of racial terror that happened, a counter to the silence and denial that surrounds acts of lynching.  What happened to the McDuffie family happened to almost five thousand people in this country who died at the hands of white lynch mobs. 

The denial of events was buttressed by the denial of civil rights and the ability to vote.  A decade after Mrs. McDuffie’s death in 1953, not a single African American was registered to vote in Wilcox County Alabama, despite being in the majority of the population there. When Civil Rights groups peacefully marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Sheriff Lummie Jenkins was there to turn the marchers back as police attacked with dogs, tear gas and smoke bombs. [5]

An Active Erasure: 1953-2019

“FBI Probe Murder of Ala. Woman.” The New York Age, 25 Jul 1953.

A search on Newspapers .com gives 184 results for Sheriff or PC Lummie Jenkins, yet there are no search results for Mrs. Della McDuffie, the woman he allegedly beat to death in 1953, or her husband, William McDuffie. According to the article’s prominent headline in The New York Age, the FBI was investigating the case.  

Yet the divide that splits into acknowledgement and disregard during those years also has its resonance in the failure to index her name into their database.  Perhaps this is most starkly illustrated by screenshots of the article shown here. 

Search Results: 1 of 2 for “Lummie Jenkins”. The New York Age, 25 Jul 1953. Note the location of names highlighted and a line below.

The results are starkly different when searching for “Della McDuffie”:

Search Results: 0 for “Della McDuffie”. The New York Age, 25 Jul 1953.

In these articles, the Sheriff’s name appears just one line above hers, yet there is not a single search result for Della McDuffie- despite the headline “FBI Probe Murder of Ala. Woman” — which specifically references McDuffie’s murder.  As these two images show, a page search brings up one name, yet not the other.  A year later, her husband was drowned and left lying across the doorway of their home, having refused to change his story about how his wife died from the beating given during the raid.  The indignity is compounded by their death certificates, which read that they died from cerebral hemorrhage. 

How exactly are newspapers indexed? Is this an algorithm, and if so, what are the parameters?

If we have ancestors who suffered injustice, how then, is one supposed to find that information on this site? 

 It seems much like the US itself,  Newspapers.com is in need of revisiting such events and address how they are indexed, especially as we are tasked to find and write our ancestors and families back into history. 

Continued: A Certain Threat of Erasure, Pt 2: Towards a History of the Varner Family

References

  1. Sheriff Jenkins has a long history in Wilcox County, serving as Sheriff from 1939-1971, using racial terror as power. One memory of Jenkins suggests what kind of person he was: “When I ask Lola Pettway, 77, if she remembers Lummie Jenkins, she recoils and shudders. She shares a memory of Sheriff Lummie standing at the edge of a field, watching her family pick cotton. Nancy Pettway, 83, tells me about how, just before she was married, her fiancé shot a dog that had attacked him. Mr. Lummie, she said, came to the Bend, arrested her fiancé, and threw him in jail for killing the dog….he was not an anomaly in the Jim Crow South, where sheriffs were considered more powerful than the American president. ” See Alexandra Marvar’s “The Two Faces of Lummie Jenkins”. Topic Magazinehttps://www.topic.com/the-two-faces-of-lummie-jenkins
  2. “The Trouble I’ve Seen” Campus Perspectives, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 01/22/2013. Accessed Sat May 30 2015 from NBC Learn: https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=65676 
  3. For a brief history of Wilcox County, see Donna J. Siebenthaler, Auburn University “Wilcox County.”, Encyclopedia of Alabama: http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1294 ; Wilcox County Map, http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/m-6162
  4. “Public Law 113-242, Dec 14, 2014. The Death in Custody Reporting Act ” https://www.congress.gov/113/plaws/publ242/PLAW-113publ242.pdf  Also see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_in_Custody_Reporting_Act_of_2013; The Counted. “Killings by US police logged at previous rate under new federal system.” The Guardian, 15 Dec 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/15/us-police-killings-department-of-justice-program
  5. “Gee’s Bend residents also remember Dr. King’s visits in 1965, the rallies in Camden, and the march on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. They remember marching to Camden as children and teenagers, being blockaded by Lummie and Mayor F. R. Albritton at the town’s edge, being pummeled with tear gas and smoke bombs, getting arrested, reaching the courthouse, kneeling in the street, and refusing to leave. They remember the songs they sang. Some remember what happened to David Colston, what happened to Della McDuffie. Some would rather not remember that time at all.” Marvar, “The Two Faces of Lummie Jenkins.” Topic Magazine, https://www.topic.com/the-two-faces-of-lummie-jenkins

Paul Rucker: Stories from the Trees

This morning I sit with the work of Paul Rucker, who manifests the realities behind terminology, and the coercive, body destroying violence that is a part of the legacy of white supremacy. His strategic use of sound and image in a multi-disciplinary performance reanimates imagery to memorialize the nearly 4800 African Americans lynched between 1882-1968. While people from different ethnicities were also lynched, African Americans were disproportionately targeted.

The video  begins with his electronic score for revealing the rate of prison building in America, to one a day. Lights begin to appear, color coded to time periods in which areas rapidly spread and merge. This is a parasitic system on the body politic, something that continues to suck lifeblood as the system of penalties keeps removing access to education, housing, food out of reach while providing a captive labor force with wages under $2 an hour. This violence is slow moving, constraining millions of people from the ability to define themselves, their families and their lives. It’s enshrined in the 13th Amendment.

Evolution

Yet many are unable to grasp just how high the social cost of imprisonment actually is, and that the US holds over 2.1 million people in prison, a disproportionately black population that continues to grow.

As genealogists & family historians, this growth means that working with records of incarceration will become a requirement as we close towards a present where generations are being shaped more by incarceration and deportation than schools, families and communities. And last week, we saw the plans for indefinite incarceration of brown people escaping violence and seeking asylum, and this weekend, people march against the policy, with over 750 locations across the country. That sinking feeling returns, yet knowing we are witnessing another round of the 1870s and 1890s gives me hope that this country can do better than inspire last century’s racist vision of purity. We have been here before.

There’s a close connection to the economy and the logic of targeting the poor as the reason, rather than the structural inequality of wealth produced in the US . The Great Depression was not caused by Americans living in poverty. That the GDP for Puerto Rico is half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, was not caused by the people of Puerto Rico. Let us turn further back.

For hundreds of years, slavery removed or hampered access to equality for millions of people. Colorism (which is with us in myriad forms) then refined that access further. Both are legacies that need to be grappled with in the building of family trees and the acceptance of DNA results. The legal structures that made those issues possible are still present today, and continue to shape inequality. How to tell those stories differs, and different formats help to convey different facets of experience. I want to share the work of artists who communicate a complex story visually, to provide a visceral understanding for difficult historical and contemporary moments.

Rucker’s work transforms the news of lynching into dangling figures that remind us of the human toll, a legacy that cannot be denied or forgotten. Numbers serve to abstract realities , and when humans are represented by numbers, their lives can sink into definitions that render them unremarkable and disposable. We write against this tide.

“…when humans are represented by numbers, their lives can sink into definitions that render them unremarkable and disposable. We write against this tide.”

This ongoing work of restoring humanity to our ancestors continues. QEPD, May they Rest In Peace, may we realize a long term vision for a world with restorative justice. To seek an end to inequality, racial terror and trauma is the task of every generation, just as it is urgently ours today.

Learn more:

Report on Racial Terror & Lynching:  https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/

Equal Justice Initiative: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration:

Interview with filmmaker Ava DuVernay on her film, 13th (2016):

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