In a moving ceremony marked by sadness, disbelief and other emotions, the Jackson community remembered the lives and tragic deaths of Madison County’s three documented lynching victims: Eliza Woods, John Brown and Frank Ballard.
They were among more than 4,000 documented mob lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950.
The event was hosted by Jackson State Community College in its Ayers Auditorium and sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative, Jackson State Honors Program, Jackson-Madison County Branch of the NAACP and the Lane College Chapter of the NAACP.
The purpose of the event was to remember the three lynching victims and dedicate a jar of soil taken from their lynching sites that will become part of a national memorial in Montgomery, Ala.
“We are here to own this history and honor these three victims,” said Bob Raines, a Jackson State professor who organized the event after attending a similar one for lynching victims in Crockett County.
“We are here – less we forget,” said the Rev. Daryll Coleman, pastor of Mother Liberty CME Church, in his powerful voice. “I come to dedicate the soil in the name of Eliza Woods – less we forget. I come to dedicate the soil in the name of John Brown – less we forget. I come to dedicate the soil in the name of Frank Ballard – less we forget.”
Little is known about what led to the deaths of John Brown and Frank Ballard, who were lynched in Madison County in 1891 and 1894, respectively. The lynching of Eliza Woods in 1886, however, was vividly documented in the West Tennessee Whig on Aug. 21, 1886, three days after she died.
Woods, a cook, was accused by her employer of poisoning and killing his wife. At an agreed-upon time, a mob of men rushed the jail and pulled her into the court yard. She continued to declare her innocence. A rope was put around her neck, her clothes were stripped off and she was hung from an elm tree near the north door of the courthouse.
“The mob grew impatient,” the newspaper reported. “The cry to hang her was renewed while others contended that she should be burned. … The rope was thrown over a limb and she was swung into eternity with a least a thousand spectators looking on.”
In 1899, the husband admitted that he poisoned his wife, said Ameera Graves, Lane College historian, as she spoke about Woods’ lynching.
Lynchings across the country, documented by the Equal Justice Initiative, were often more violent with victims being tortured before large crowds of onlookers. The violence and ensuing terror helped suppress black people. It was also one of the reasons why many moved from the south to northern cities and to the west coast in what has been called the great migration.
The Equal Justice Initiative is helping people to finally declare war on racism and bigotry, said Mary Anne Poe, Dean of the School of Social Work at Union University. “It has taken much too long. “I cannot know the terror, but I can try to understand.”
Others on the program were …
- Kiara Boone, deputy program manager of the Equal Justice Initiative, who talked about the victims of “racial terror lynchings,” and explained how the soil collection project will help spread awareness of what happened. “The silence has been so loud,” she said.
- Jackson State Professor James Mayo played his original composition, “Elegy for Five,” on the guitar. He wrote in the program, “How is one to compose a piece of music offered in tribute to victims of one of the most inhumane methods of murder humankind has invented?”
- Local poet James Cherry read aloud a poem he wrote in memory of Woods. It begins, “Most nights, you can find Eliza Wood(s) downtown, sitting on the base of the monument to the Confederate Dead, digging into the dirt under the moonlight, excavating the earth for a relic of justice.”
- Harrell Carter, president of the local NAACP Chapter, saw the event as an opportunity to recognize the issues of the past “so we can move forward.”
- Lane College student Ericka Webster talked about Ida B. Wells, a Memphis journalist and activist who started two newspapers and campaigned against lynchings across the country.
- Jody Pickens, state Attorney General for the 26th Judicial District, told the group that “the stain of lynching” repudiates the right of a fair trial as set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Some people would say that talking about the lynchings is living in the past, he said. “But I would say to them, you never move past something until you first acknowledge it.”
- Attorney Richard Donnell emphasized the importance of remembering the victims by all parts of the community.
- Shannon Johnson, a Jackson State graduate and Lane student, gave an emotional reading of “Strange Fruit,” a song written by Abel Meeropol and made famous by singer Billie Holiday.
- State Rep. Johnnie Turner from Memphis talked about efforts in the state legislature to create a special commission that will investigate unsolved civil rights crimes.
- Jackson State’s Innovation Vocal Ensemble, led by Esther Gray Lemus, performed at the event.
“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.”
For more information about the Equal Justice Initiative, visit www.eji.org.