After two years following a recipe, one Mobile cultural outfit is closer to ringing the dinner bell on the dish they’re adding to our historic smorgasbord. The course is hoped to last for generations.
For the Mobile County Community Remembrance Project, the next step will take more hands in the kitchen. The eventual goal: memorializing the county’s long-ignored and mostly forgotten lynching victims.
Appropriately enough, the Remembrance Project launched their latest phase — a county-wide essay contest for public high school students — on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Jan. 18. At stake are prizes totaling $5,000.
Students are asked to look at our nation’s troubled racial history and legacy, then pen their reflections. Length is limited to 800-1,000 words. The contest is open to both public high school students and those who might be home-schooled but taking classes in public schools. The contest closes April 5.
It’s part of a process prescribed by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the organization that opened Montgomery’s Legacy Museum and widely ballyhooed National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018. Counties nationwide have worked with EJI to establish their own nods to these historic injustices, part of which is heightening awareness of the dark roads humanity sometimes travels in hopes of guarding against it.
“We had a webinar, Zoom meeting earlier in January and the teachers on there were really excited,” essay contest committee co-chair Gigi Armbrecht said.
By Armbrecht’s account, other web meetings will take place soon — “We’re not sure yet; maybe in March” — for students and teachers on things like picking subject matters and polishing essays.
“Eleanor Baker, who teaches creative writing at St. Paul’s, has offered to teach a free class she usually charges for to the students involved in the contest on how to write a college application essay,” Armbrecht said.
University of South Alabama history professor David Messenger is co-chair with Armbrecht and has fashioned a brochure available through a link on the Remembrance Project’s Facebook page. Students can peruse a wealth of possible specific subjects, analyzing historic matters like enslavement, racial terror, redlining or Jim Crow and tracing its downstream effects to current reality. Other information should be available on the EJI website as well.
In addition to the prize, the contest winner will be asked to read their essay at a Community Remembrance Project event. Students shouldn’t wait for teachers’ prompting. If their interest is piqued, go online or ask instructors.
This follows similar efforts across the state. Baldwin, Dallas, Etowah, Jefferson, Lee, Lowndes and Shelby counties in Alabama are on the same path. Neighboring Escambia County, Fla., is already several steps ahead.
Another key step of measuring and mixing begins at month’s end when the Remembrance Project begins collection of soil samples from the sites where six victims were lynched from 1891 to 1913. Five occurred in Whistler, Prichard and Plateau, while another was in the heart of Mobile. The soil collection ceremony at noon on Jan. 30 will be live-streamed on the group’s Facebook page.
What finally emerges from the oven will be a series of historical plaques at each one of the locales, detailing the tales of Zachariah Graham, Will Thompson, Richard Robinson, Moses Dossett, Richard Robertson and James Lewis. Thompson and Robinson were murdered in tandem by a mob of around 50 of Mobile’s “leading businessmen,” per the masked leader’s self-description. Thousands of sightseeing Mobilians streamed from the city core to view the dangling men, some snatching souvenirs from the displayed bodies. Accounts of the crime made newspapers as far away as New York.
Since the completion of the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail in 2009, Mobile has moved toward a better embrace of its complex history, but it’s been incomplete. For too long, we’ve taken a pinch of the city’s earliest Creole years, whipped it with John LeFlore’s struggles and lathered the resulting meringue across a more problematic reality.
Even LeFlore said in 1970, “We believe the matter of Mobile being unsurpassed … in good race relations is a myth.” He thanked federal powers and efforts upstate, which “eased our situation” and created “a favorable sort of climate that would not have otherwise existed.”
In 2018, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project brought attention to Mobile’s forgotten victims of race-based violence in the 1940s. A street renaming, historic plaque and museum exhibit nodded to them.
With Africatown efforts hitting full stride, timing is perfect. Remembrance Project markers can complete a feast for history buffs and an honest assessment for all.
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