by Ted Evanoff
A new generation has set out to remember the murder and mayhem endured by African Americans for decades after the war ended slavery. Today's gulf between American ideals and reality fuel the effort.
Lynched by a mob, Wash Henley was a black man all but forgotten to history until he was memorialized Saturday morning in Memphis.
Henley's death in 1869 was commemorated by the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis with a historical plaque unveiled inside Collins Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church at 678 Washington Ave.
Nearly 150 years after the U.S. Army decimated the armed forces of 11 slave-holding states in a brutal civil war that took 600,000 lives, a modern generation has set out to remember the murder and mayhem endured by African Americans for decades after the war ended slavery.
"We are here to tell the truth that has been hidden for too long," John Ashworth, executive director of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, said from the pulpit of Collins Chapel, considered the city's oldest church founded by African Americans. "We are here because we believe to tell the truth of the shared violence is an important step toward... (creating) a community of reconciliation and respect."
Reckon with American past
In Memphis and America, grassroots organizers have created museums, erected historical plaques marking lynchings and recounted the mayhem. Just why this emphasis on past tragedies is occurring now, historians say, reflects the broad rise of African Americans over the last half century into the mainstream of American society.
"It’s a reckoning with America's past,'’ University of Memphis historian Aram Goudsouzian said in an interview. "People lived in a society where a form of terrorism existed to keep our own citizens down. If we want to create a genuine democracy, an honest reckoning with our past is an absolute necessity."
African Americans "have now acquired sufficient political and economic heft in American life to demand greater attention be paid to their history," said Princeton University historian Allen C. Guelzo.
"What happened in (present-day) Iraq is a direct echo of what happened in Reconstruction, which is to say, that we had no coherent plan in mind for what to do when the shooting stopped," said Guelzo, author of the 2018 book, "Reconstruction: A Concise History."
Reconstruction refers to the years following the Civil War, which ended in 1865. Rather than make sure freed slaves found their way into the larger society, the U.S. government balked. Post-war leaders and white citizens, particularly in the old Confederacy, imposed legal barriers on blacks and were supported in federal courts. This coincided with recurring bursts of violence against blacks, including an estimated 4,400 mob lynchings without benefit of legal proceedings between 1877 and 1950.
"Reconstruction has long meant embarrassment for whites," Guelzo wrote in an email. "It has long meant rage for blacks, at such an enormously botched opportunity, and they are now in a place in American life where they can demand that attention be paid to it. I don't think what we're seeing is a renewed attention to civil rights. What we are seeing is attention to civil rights from a community which now has the power to force attention."
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was widely seen as an initiative by the U.S. Congress to make up for the failings of Reconstruction in the 19th century. With poverty still widespread today in African-American neighborhoods throughout the nation, the new focus on lynchings has been described as part of the larger civil rights initiative to stamp out poverty and racism.
'My Country Tis of Thee'
In Memphis, the solemn procedure inside Collins Chapel was led off by a Boy Scouts of America color guard marching between the sanctuary's aisles of oak pews and white columns to the pulpit, where the LeMoyne-Owen College choir sang "My Country Tis of Thee" to an audience of about 75 people.
Among the speakers on hand for the event, the Rev. Bethel Harris, pastor of Collins Chapel, and the Rev. Tom Momberg each told the audience in different ways that taking note of the violent past can help unify white and black Americans and act to repel new acts of violence.
Henley’s plaque and another for an anonymous victim of an 1851 lynching in Memphis both were unveiled during the ceremony. The plaques, which carry white lettering on a green background, eventually will be posted at sites near the lynching spots. Researchers estimate 36 lynchings occurred in Memphis and Shelby County, including 7 white people.
Lynching Sites of Memphis plans on installing plaques commemorating them all. The group also bottles soil collected from the lynching site in memory of the victim.
Researchers identified victims and the places where they died through court documents, family records, newspaper accounts and information shared by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that last year opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Alabama museum is among the array of new civil rights museums, including museums opened recently at Atlanta; Jackson, Mississippi; Charleston, South Carolina; and Washington, where the $750 million Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture joins the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis as a leader in describing tribulation and progress in American society. The Memphis museum opened in 1991 to commemorate the assassination in 1968 of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Gulf between 'ideals and reality'
Modern efforts to describe the black experience in America contrasts to the late 19th century focus on the old Confederacy. Earlier generations of white families festooned Memphis and other Southern cities with historical artifacts recalling the exploits of the Confederate Army.
Over the last decade, many of those artifacts have been rolled back in the cities of the old Confederacy, including Memphis, where Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s statue of him astride a horse has been taken down. The park once named for him has been renamed Health Sciences Park. A prominent place in the Medical District, the park fronts the classroom buildings of the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center.
Goudsouzian, the U of M historian, said he thinks the emphasis on the African American experiences traces to several recent factors including the 2008 election of President Barrack Obama as the nation's first black president.
"I think it's definitely tied to a generation of Americans largely in the Obama years who were moved to racial equality and awakened to the limitations of racial inequality, especially in jobs and neighborhoods," said Goudsouzian, author of the 2014 book, "Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear."
"The second factor is the idea of progress in the narrative of the classic liberal idea that things will get better,'' Goudsouzian said. "People realized this didn’t seem to be a factor any more and that boiled over in (the 2014 riot in the St. Louis suburb of) Ferguson. It is this gulf between ideals and reality that people are talking about today."