In 1886, Eliza Woods, a black woman, was dragged into the street by an angry mob of Jackson residents who robbed her of due process and fairness. Accused of committing a crime for which she never had an opportunity to stand trial, she was beaten, hanged and shot in front of the courthouse downtown.
She was one of three documented lynchings of African Americans in Madison County. John Brown died in 1891, and Frank Ballard died 1894, all murdered because of the color of their skin. Between 1877 and 1950, there were 233 documented lynchings in Tennessee and more than 4,000 throughout the South.
To honor the victims and remember the past, Jackson State Community College is serving as an anchor institution for the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit advocate of racial justice. On Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. in Ayers Auditorium, the school will host a public ceremony with community leaders from different backgrounds to memorialize the victims.
Sponsors include the Madison County Chapter of the NAACP, the Lane College Chapter of the NAACP and the Equal Justice Initiative. Bob Raines, Jackson State Professor of Psychology and co-organizer for the event, added that Madison County NAACP President Harrell Carter and Lane College Historian Ameera Graves were great partners to work with while planning the ceremony.
“We need to take an honest, unflinching look at a disturbing and painful part of our history,” said Raines. “This history shapes our present; it is our cultural inheritance. I just don’t think as a society that we have ever fully owned the anguish, humiliation and damage caused by institutionalized racism.”
Similar ceremonies have been held in Brownsville, Alamo and cities throughout the South. They are opportunities for communities to heal and rally around shared values of equality and justice. Raines attended the event in Alamo, which was organized by attorney Jim Emison and served as a catalyst for Jackson’s ceremony, and he said it was a powerful moment that brought everyone to tears.
“While the purpose of the ceremony was to expose and face a horrific act of violence and injustice, its ultimate impact, I think, was positive and hopeful,” Raines said. “I witnessed first-hand the potential healing power of people coming together to openly confront this kind of injustice. During that brief moment in time, racial, political and ideological differences between the people in that space seemed to melt away.”
The events are part of a greater effort by the Equal Justice Initiative to remember the past via the Memorial to Lynching Victims in Montgomery, Ala. The memorial is collecting soil samples in jars from the location of each lynching as a profound display of the violence and injustice that thrived long after slavery ended.
“We are all burdened by this history,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. “Lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America. You can’t have reconciliation without empathy, and you can’t have empathy unless people learn, know and understand the past pain that informs our present and hobbles our future.”
Raines said that parts of the history of Madison County are antithetical to some of the community’s core principles, such as equality, liberty, fairness, honesty and justice. As coordinator of Jackson State’s Honors Program, he reached out to the Equal Justice Initiative to invite a representative to campus to speak about the history of lynchings. The organization responded by asking Jackson State to become an anchor institution and co-sponsor a ceremony.
“Our ceremony will be an opportunity to reassert our commitment to these values as a community,” Raines said. “In spite of the reason for the ceremony, we think it will be a positive, healing experience and hopefully inspire a greater sense of community.”
Community Remembrance: A Memorial for the Lynching Victims of Madison County will include speakers, such as Carter, Attorney General Jody Pickens, and various historians, professors, and pastors. James Mayo composed a piece of original music for the event, which he will perform on guitar, and Esther Gray-Lemus will direct Innovation, Jackson State’s choral ensemble. James Cherry will also read a poem that he wrote specifically for the event.
“We hope to create a space for honest dialogue,” Raines said. “It is through ceremonies like these that we can acknowledge and tell the whole truth about our social and cultural inheritance and honor the memory of people who were victims of injustice. The three victims from Madison County – Eliza Woods, John Brown and Frank Ballard – deserve a time and space for sober reflection, where we state unequivocally that what happened to them was wrong.”
For more information about the Equal Justice Initiative, visit www.eji.org.