My K-12 education did not adequately show me the magnitude of slavery.
I didn’t realize this until January, when I moved to North Carolina. Last semester, I walked to my internship every morning through a cemetery where the first settlers of Charlotte were laid to rest. Charlotte was actually the first city in the United States to declare independence from the crown. Living in a place with such a long and rich history has brought my history nerd-self out of hiding.
I’ve been relearning American history. Turns out, AP U.S. History is really just about passing an exam, and not about really learning what happened. The most glaring omission was the true impact of slavery.
This could maybe be attributed to the geography. When Washington state — my home — was a territory, there was some slavery. However, by the time Washington became a state, slavery was long over.
The South is really far away, too. Many of my classmates hadn’t even been out of the country, let alone across the Mississippi River. So even in my advanced history courses, slavery was something that happened — then it was over, and that was it.
But that wasn’t it. There was segregation, and people drank out of separate water fountains and used different bathrooms. It was appalling, disgusting and awful.
There were also lynchings.
A lynching is an extrajudicial punishment carried out by a group that is not associated with the justice system. The best way I’ve heard lynchings described is, as black people got jobs, bought homes and did other domestic things, while white people were uncomfortable. Not all white people, but many of them, got so uncomfortable they resorted to violence, and lynched people. A lynching was punishment for black people moving up in the world. Hanging was the most popular method of lynching someone.
To this day, there are hundreds of memorials and markers for Civil War-era events, many honoring Confederate leaders and people who perpetuated racial violence. My hometown even has Robert E. Lee Elementary School. The markers are everywhere, but especially in the South. In Montgomery, Alabama, there are 59 monuments and memorials to the Confederacy.
Recently, people have fought to have these replaced or removed. While I think it is important to acknowledge this great fight our country experienced, I also think we can do it in a way that provides context, perspective and presents historical figures as people, not grand war heroes.
The Equal Justice Initiative has documented over 4,000 lynchings of black people between 1877 and 1950. Racial terror impacted the entire country, spurring millions of citizens fleeing to the North and West from racial violence.
There are no memorials, monuments or public spaces dedicated to commemorate the victims lynching and violence. The ELJ is attempting to fix this.
The private nonprofit is committed to ending mass incarceration, excessive punishment and challenging racial and economic injustice in America. The organization has purchased land in Montgomery for a national lynching memorial. It will consist of 800 columns, one for each county where EJI has found history of racial terror lynchings. Visitors enter the memorial and the ground drop, shifting perception. The columns aren’t holding the structure up — they’re hanging from the ceiling. The name of over 4,000 victims are inscribed on the columns.
The garden surrounding the memorial will be full of identical columns for each county. EJI will invite these counties to retrieve the column and place it in the county where lynchings occurred. Over time, the memorial will show the places that have started confronting the truth.
By ignoring the past and shoving the discomfort deep inside us, the message to victims is: your pain and experience doesn’t matter. That’s not right.
In countries that have experienced genocide, like Rwanda, South Africa and Germany, there are memorials. The dark history is acknowledged. People know what happened and are reminded frequently. America needs to do the same with our dark moments.
Racial injustice and violence is a long and dark part of our history. It’s uncomfortable and painful, especially in the South, where many have family ties to both sides of the Civil War. As society changes and forges forward, it is more important than ever to talk about the role that racial violence had in society, and how we can change in the future. This monument is a step in the right direction. Let’s keep moving forward.
Tess Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tesstakesphotos