A series of lynchings more than a century ago took the lives of five Chatham County residents, along with any hope Black people might have had at the time that they could be treated fairly under the law.
Saturday, the community gathered to acknowledge those losses and pray for continued progress toward racial equity here and in the world outside.
About 100 people attended a two-hour service organized by local NAACP branches with support from the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based in Montgomery, Alabama. The group has encouraged researchers across the country to gather and share information about lynchings that happened in their communities and consider the lasting effects of that violence.
According to the EJI, researchers have documented 123 “terror lynchings” of African Americans in North Carolina between 1877 and 1950. Those were among 4,084 that have been documented in Southern states during that time. The group distinguishes “terror lynchings” as “racial killings carried out with impunity, sometimes in broad daylight, often on the courthouse lawn,” outside of the criminal justice system and often sparked by nothing more than rumors or perceived social missteps.
“I think it says something about us as people when we allow these stories to be silenced,” Karen Howard, chair of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, said after the service.
Reinforcing white supremacy
Saturday’s service honored the memories of Harriet Finch, Jerry Finch, John Pattishall and Lee Tyson, who were lynched in 1885, and Henry Jones, lynched in 1899.
Community members held a service last year in memory of Eugene Daniel, lynched in 1921.
After the emancipation of slaves, through Reconstruction and into the era of Jim Crow, lynchings of Black people accused of crimes or social slights served to intimidate families and communities and reinforce White supremacy, the EJI says.
Sometimes advertised in advance, public lynchings could draw thousands of spectators who sometimes watched victims be tortured for hours before their deaths. Afterward, members of the crowd often collected gruesome souvenirs from the victims’ bodies.
While such grotesque events were recorded in newspapers and memorialized in photos and postcards by whites, surviving Black family members were careful with whom they talked about killings, if they talked about them at all.
Speakers at Saturday’s service said the truth of lynchings — that the victims often were innocent, that they never had a day in court, that their killers usually weren’t named and rarely were prosecuted — has caused anger and grief and has contributed to a distrust of law enforcement that lingers today.
Even if some of the lynching victims had been guilty of misdeeds, Howard said, “Vigilantism is not how we serve justice in this country, and there have been broad ramifications of that.”
A kind of healing
Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson opened the event. A troupe of the Chatham County Dance Connection performed to the John Legend song, “Glory,” from the movie “Selma.”
A series of readers recounted the events leading up to the lynchings while another group of volunteers scooped Chatham County dirt into jars on behalf of each of the victims. The dirt, symbolizing the places where the lynchings took place, is part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s effort to memorialize lynchings across the country.
Ernie Parker read from Toni Morrison’s book “Beloved” a passage in which the author admonishes Black people to love and value themselves because others don’t.
Afterward, Howard said the service felt like a kind of healing.
“I feel a sense of relief,” she said, exhaling. “Those spirits can go free. That hurt, that anger, that code of silence around it, has dissipated.”
This story was originally published May 14, 2022 5:22 PM.