Lynched: An Alabama County Confronts the Horrors of Its Past

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A restaurant in Bessemer, in the Birmingham Metro region, now occupies one of the sites where African Americans were murdered by lynch mobs between 1883 and 1940. Photo by Michael Clemmer/BirminghamWatch.

On Nov 24, 1883, a mob of 150 pistol-toting men broke into the Birmingham, Ala., jail, and grabbed Lewis Houston from his cell.

A day earlier, Houston, a Birmingham resident, had been arrested at his workplace and accused of assaulting a white woman. The mob didn’t wait for a trial. They dragged him to a pine tree in a public park in nearby Bessemer, now part of the Birmingham metropolitan region, and demanded he confess.

“Gentleman, before God, I didn’t do it,” he replied, as a rope was tightened around his neck. Moments later, he was dead.

Houston was one of 30 people lynched in Alabama’s Jefferson County between 1883 and 1940—victims of racial terror in the segregated, post-Civil War South.

Their stories have largely been forgotten or concealed. But a new report prepared by 21 college students at educational institutions in Jefferson County has brought them to light, in an effort to foster dialogue about racial violence and its connection to present-day injustice.

The “Jefferson County’s 30 Residents” report was compiled by the Jefferson County Memorial Project (JCMP), a citizen-led cooperative working to spark conversation around the county’s history of racial violence.

The project was sparked by the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, in April with the goal of placing America face-to-face with its history of injustice.

JCMP organizers said that their report will place Jefferson County at the forefront of a national movement sparked by the Equal Justice Initiative’s monument, making the county a model for others looking to create a dialogue and advocate for change.

For the researchers themselves, the journey into the county’s ugly past hit home.

Madelyn Lisette Cantu, a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, recalls that while researching Houston’s story, she realized that he had been killed in the park right outside the library where she was researching the case.

“I just kind of sat there and stared at the screen, like, ‘Oh, God!’” she said.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it happened in the 1880s, so it’s too far removed to really care about.’

“But when you’re sitting and researching someone for weeks on end and realize that you’re feet away from where it happened, it doesn’t feel distant at all.”

Project Director Abigail Schneider said that’s the goal of the report.

“A lot of people want to say that this is in the past and isn’t connected to us today,” she said.

“But I think once you learn that these events occurred at Linn Park, outside of the Bright Star in Bessemer, public places that are still part of our geographic landscape and visited all the time, it really starts to remind people that this was a real system of oppression that greatly affected the entire African-American and black community and is not something that goes away easily.

“It’s directly connected to issues of mass incarceration and racial injustice that still exist today. It’s making these stories feel connected to the present.”

The EJI’s memorial is centered on 805 steel monoliths suspended in midair, each of which represents a county in which a lynching was documented.

Replicas of each of those monuments surround the memorial, to be claimed and taken to their respective counties as satellite memorials.

The JCMP’s report is Jefferson County’s first step toward that reclamation, said Schneider.

“We think historically of how Birmingham has been a leader in issues around racial injustice, and we can continue to be for this national conversation,” she said.

The 30 African Americans whose lynchings were chronicled in the report were all killed as an act of racial terrorism by white mobs of at least three or more people, whether they were killed by hanging, burning, mutilating, shooting or other forms of assault.

“This report will be hard to read,” Schneider warned.

Organizers also warned it would be hard to talk about.

As part of the project, those students received training on archival and primary source research and spent time at Birmingham’s Linn-Henley Research Library poring over contemporary newspaper reports and genealogy databases in efforts to piece together victims’ stories.

Schneider said some difficulty came from a “lack of documentation” of racial violence in Jefferson County.

“We quickly realized that this research hadn’t been properly or comprehensively done before,” she said.

Most of the reports from contemporary newspapers were written from the perspective of white newspapers, many of which depicted the killings “in a way that condoned them and made them seem like it was a rough-justice act, like this (victim) deserved this,” Schneider said.

“These articles usually focused very much on the alleged crime (used as a pretext for killing the victims) rather than the fact that this was a mob of white men publicly murdering someone.

“Additionally, they would refer to these men as ‘savages’ and ‘brutes’ and other incredibly dehumanizing and racist words.”

Houston’s murder was an example.

Dragging him to a public space for his lynching was intended to send a message to Birmingham’s black community not to challenge white supremacy, the report said.

“The goal was to systematically repress the black community socially, politically, and economically,” said the researchers.

Following the lynching, a black lawyer, James A. Scott, tried to gather the black community to protest Mr. Houston’s lynching.

But the mayor at the time requested the help of local militia, who patrolled the city through the night on horse and on foot. They apparently succeeded in frightening off any protest.

A newspaper article at the time noted that “not a dozen” black people were seen on the street after 10 p.m., nor were they congregating where they typically did on Sundays.

The Crime Report is pleased to publish this report by BirminghamWatch, the Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism, a collaborating partner in the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN). The full report, including studies of the 30 victims can be read here.

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