In the 1990s I was called before a state legislative committee to explain my efforts to welcome diverse students into the California colleges that were part of a district in Orange County for which I was responsible. Employees and I were carrying out a plethora of activities and programs to send clear messages to the Hispanic American, Asian American, and African American communities in our service area that they were welcome in our colleges.
The recent chants of “Send her back” have made me think that it’s time, again, to take a public stand against racism. Sending people “back” is not new to me as since childhood I have heard on occasion, “Send them back to Africa.” And some of those who have said that have no knowledge of the Republic of Liberia on the west coast of Africa which was a place in the 1800s where, what we call African Americans today, traveled to escape the strictures which were suffocating them, killing them, in our country.
Some with hatred of those they deem “others” used lynching as a strategy outside the law to punish what they deemed affronts, real or imagined. Hanging was the most popular approach as it provided an opportunity for a crowd to gather, take photographs, socialize and even sell body parts of the deceased as momentos. No race was spared from lynching although the majority of the victims were people of color.
Retired Edison State professor Jane Kretschmann, author and Alabama native, saw photos of lynching when she was a child but says, “I didn’t look closely, because I thought it was somehow obscene.”
In April of 2018 there was media attention with the opening of the lynching museum in Montgomery, Alabama, The National Museum for Peace and Justice. The museum features 805 hanging steel rectangles in the shape of coffins which represent the U.S. counties where documented lynching of African Americans took place between 1877 and 1950. Kretchmann’s interest was piqued and she began to research lynchings in Alabama. Her research was given a special impetus by her discovery of the murder of Jesse Thornton.
Kretschmann says, “I’m a poet, not a historian, so I began to use this research to write persona poems, dramatic monologues, as a way to give voice to a number of these human beings, murdered by ignorance and hatred and fear.“
Different sources report different numbers, but approximately 360 in Alabama were lynched during the specified time period, and Kretschmann is working on a chapbook to give voice to some of these victims.
In a poem entitled “Alabama Before,” Kretschmann catalogues the names of civil rights workers. She then identifies the methods used to destroy those murdered: “Some shot, some burned, some beat, some drowned, most hanged.” They were “Accused of testifying against a white man,/ poisoning mules, making unruly remarks/ rape, attempted rape, murder, setting fires,/refusing to run an errand for a white woman,/wearing a military uniform in town, trying to/prevent a lynching, protesting a lynching,/ scolding white children who were throwing rocks,/ paying attention to a white girl./Or accused of nothing.”
Kretschmann tells the story of well-to-do farmer, John Brown, of Childersburg, Alabama, who on Sept. 28, 1891, was taken from his home by masked white men “on the pretext that they were officers and had a warrant for his arrest.” Later, according to her research, “‘Brown’s body was found in a creek with a rope/ around his neck. He had been hanged from a bridge, and when dead/ the body had been cut down and thrown in the water.’” Brown had served as a witness against two white men charged with burning a farm.
And then there’s the account of the lynching of Bush Withers on Oct. 3, 1910, in Sanford, Alabama. Withers was sent by a prison warden to a farmhouse to get water for convicts, something “same as usual./ Well, the farm wife said he beat her up. More’n likely it was her/ husband when he found out she’d helped a black man get water/ from their well to bring us convicts dying a’ thirst.” Withers was burned to death and the persona in the poem, another prisoner, reports, “What I heard is that upwards of 400 come to see Bush burned up./ Surprised they didn’t bring supper to eat while they gawked.”
Luverne, Alabama, was the site of the lynching of Jesse Thornton on June 21, 1940. Kretschmann uses the persona of Thornton’s mother to tell his story: “It was jest horrible what they done to my baby boy./He was with some friends minding his own business,/waiting outside the barbershop for a haircut.”
Thornton was jailed, escaped, and was pelted with bullets, rocks and bricks before he was thrown in a truck and taken to a swamp. Days later he was found on the banks of Patsaliga Creek, and buzzards had picked at his body. His “crime”: He failed to use “Mister” when he was talking about a policeman. His mother asks, “Did anyone ever say Mister Thornton when talkin’ ‘bout my son?”
Guilt, shame, there is more than enough to go around. Some might say it’s a part of our history that’s regrettable but is the past. As the 20th century came to a close, three white supremacists murdered James Byrd, Jr., on June 7, 1998. They beat him, urinated and defecated on him and then dragged his body behind their truck for 1.5 miles before they hit a culvert, severing his head and his arm. They continued for 1.5 more miles before dumping his torso at a black cemetery.
We must assume responsibility to take a stand against behaviors that dehumanize all of us. As an adult poet Kretschmann is now looking closely at these lynchings and through the power of her research and language, is asking us to consider the racism of the past and the present which dehumanizes all of us. Will you take a stand against racism, or do you plan to turn your head and say, “It’s regrettable”?
Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College, and to work with veterans. Reach her at 937-778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.