Schoolteacher Elizabeth Lawrence was lynched in 1933 in Jefferson County, Alabama, after scolding white children who threw rocks at her; 17-year-old Henry Smith was brutally tortured and then burned alive in Paris, Texas, in 1893 — the suspicion that he killed a white girl being enough to form a posse and sentence him to death. No memorial stands at the places where they were murdered, and no major monument exists for the over 4,000 black individuals who were lynched between Civil War and World War II.
Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror was launched this week by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) with support from Google. The online interactive was developed from years of research and an in-depth report into how this violence is still visible in the United States, even if it is under-acknowledged. “We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” EJI Director Bryan Stevenson stated in the release. “The geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed. Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching’s legacy.”
EJI is planning to open a national memorial to victims of lynching and the From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018, supported in part by grant money from Google, which has totaled $2 million since 2015. The online interactive acts as a portal to more dialogue and understanding ahead of those major projects, with audio stories, a film called Uprooted about a family’s return to the South a century after one of their relatives was lynched, and maps. One of these plots lynching data by county across 20 states. It is not limited to the South, with lynchings mapped in Ohio, Indiana, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, and other states less associated with this racially motivated violence. Individual stories, such as those of Elizabeth Lawrence and Henry Smith, can be activated by clicking on their counties. A map of the Great Migration further visualizes how fleeing this terror sparked the relocation of millions of African Americans. For instance, the EJI stats show how Huntsville, Alabama’s black population went from 43.5% of the city in 1910 to 12.1% in 1970, while Chicago’s went from 2% in 1910 to 32.7% in 1970.
As the Lynching in America site states, lynchings were “public acts of racial terrorism, intended to instill fear in entire black communities,” and were often blindly allowed by local governments. At a moment when Confederate monuments are just now being removed from sites of prominence in American cities like New Orleans and St. Louis, it is important to recognize and publicly remember this past.
Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror is available online through the Equal Justice Initiative and Google.