A dark time in our nation’s history, the period between Reconstruction and 1950 saw thousands of African Americans murdered via lynching – predominantly in the South. Two UNC professors hope to honor these individuals by uncovering injustices that, for decades, have been systematically erased from public memory.
Seth Kotch talks to high school teachers about his research project, A Red Record. Kotch and students created an interactive map of lynchings in the South, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas. In North Carolina alone, his class has found 181 lynchings, but 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. “If you look at the map itself and get rid of the cartesian lines it still looks like a map or North Carolina.”
High school teachers listen as Seth Kotch talks about disseminating information about lynchings to their students. He is also developing free teaching materials that align with state standards and can be used as tools in the classroom. “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.
With the Descendants Project, Glenn Hinson and undergraduate students are tracing the family lineage of lynching victims and gathering oral histories of descendants. “Our goal is not to retell a gruesome history, but to speak to histories of resilience,” he says. He is also working with community members of Warrenton, NC, to erect an Equal Justice Initiative memorial in memory of local lynching victims .
Jereann King Johnson, a community activist working to preserve African American legacies in Warren County, says the area’s racial history affects residents to this day. Warren County was the site of an infamous 1921 double-lynching in which Matthew Bullock, the intended victim, fled to Canada and a failed extradition ensued. With Bullock gone, the mob instead lynched his brother and cousin. Another local story is that of Soul City – a town that emphasized providing opportunities for minorities and the poor. The project fell through, and part of the site became a federal prison. It was also the start of the environmental justice movement in 1973 with a lawsuit against Ward Transformers Company for dumping thousands of gallons of chemicals on the roadside of mostly low-income, black communities. The case brought national attention to the issue of institutionalized environmental racism. “That has been sort of the veil that people see the community through,” she says, “Particularly black people who have lived here all their lives.”