Open acceptance of shameful local history took a vital initial step with a Jan. 28 meeting discussing a marker for Mobile County lynching victims from 1877 to 1950. Nearly three dozen residents answered Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood’s invitation to midtown’s Via Health, Fitness and Enrichment Center (1717 Dauphin St.).
The marker is part of Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, commonly called the National Lynching Memorial and founded by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). The internationally famous monument commemorates more than 4,000 race-based, extralegal murders between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the civil rights era.
Every county in the U.S. where a lynching took place is represented in the memorial by a steel slab — around 800 total — bearing the names and death dates of the county’s victims. EJI created twin markers for each: one for the site and the others to be claimed and displayed in each county. As stated in Lagniappe’s July 3, 2018, cover story on the Mobile victims, EJI hopes to spur dialogue and full acknowledgement of crimes often ignored during their time and marginalized since then.
Ludgood’s husband, Carlos Williams, serves on the EJI board of directors, so she was attuned to the effort when the memorial opened in April 2018. Ludgood quietly began efforts on behalf of Mobile County and was informed “three or four others” had done the same.
A handful of meeting attendees were affiliated with the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail, including both trail board members along with the namesake’s family. Other attendees bore affiliations with city government and various educational institutions.
“For now, we are a loose confederation of like-minded people,” Ludgood said. “It will take some talking to try and get through attitudes that this will be divisive.”
She invited two guests with advice from nearby efforts. Brunnie Emmanuel was part of Pensacola’s push for the Escambia County, Florida, marker. They followed a course of action advised by EJI, finding sites, collecting commemorative soil samples and other community projects.
Two Pensacola victims were murdered in downtown’s Plaza Ferdinand, the city’s version of Mobile’s Bienville Square. One was Leander Shaw, accused of raping and murdering Lillie Davis, a 21-year-old white woman. He was arrested in 1908, then dragged from the county jail by a 1,000-member mob, hanged from an electric light post and shot 500 times.
A year later, David Alexander was accused of killing a white police officer, dragged from jail, then hanged from the same light post. Coincidentally, their circumstances echo the details of some Mobile County lynching deaths.
The Pensacola Remembrance Project enlisted University of West Florida archaeological personnel, who dug to the period-specific soil layer for ritual collection in memoriam. Roughly 150 to 200 attendees were present for the formal event.
A pair of Lillie Davis’ descendants also came. They lit candles and loudly proclaimed Leander Shaw a “rapist, murderer and a thief.”
Others in the assembly reminded Davis’ kin no one was proclaiming Shaw or Alexander’s guilt or innocence but merely standing for the rule of law.
Mary Mullins said Baldwin County’s memorial project began in 2017 and quickly gathered a “cross section of political persuasions” before they suffered attrition from pushback.
“We’re having to go back and do the harder work now so don’t get overexcited at first,” Mullins said. She noted Tuscaloosa County “took a step back to cool resistance” to similar reaction.
“You want to think about your memorial’s spot,” Mullins advised. “Though historically accurate, remote locations don’t serve the ongoing community engagement.”
Ludgood brought handouts with synopses of Mobile’s seven lynching deaths and objectives spelled out by EJI. Broad coalitions from each county are needed.
Another step is a countywide high-school essay contest with EJI supplying funds for winners. They have handed out $5,000 in prizes in other counties.
Attendees brainstormed for other agencies and individuals who might be interested or prove instrumental in the effort. Media personnel, youth organizations, bar groups, historic groups, academicians, educational organizations and other suggestions flowed from the assembly.
Ludgood set March 18, 6 p.m., for the next meeting date — “after Mardi Gras” — hopeful for three or more times the attendance. She’s aiming for the same building but a much bigger room.
“We successfully lived our collective ideal to get our egos out of the way and get it done for the greater good,” Emmanuel said. “You have to be patient. Like [EJI founder] Bryan Stevenson says, ‘Truth and reconciliation are sequential.’”
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