Reflections

Stuart Bristow

As a recent graduate, I take great pride in my time spent at the capstone. I was exposed to various subjects that challenged my young mind and my perception of the world around me. Rather than any economics or finance course, it was Dr. Giggie’s course that molded my mind with valuable insight that went far beyond a grade in a college course. Dr. Giggie’s Southern Memory course was one that promoted an intellectual curiosity of the troubling past our county has gone through. I am much better not only as a student, but as a person after taking this course and I cannot recommend this course enough to my peers.

One may say; “This history is just that, history. Racial violence isn’t as prevalent in our country anymore and lynching’s have not occurred in a long time, why have a course dedicated to this?” Quite frankly, I was one of those people to ask the similar question. As the semester progressed, the answer to that question was right in front of me. We live in a society where physical lynching’s may not occur anymore, but there is still a clear unjust systematic persecution of African Americans in the courtroom. We may not be stripping African Americans of their lives through the outlet of lynching’s, we now have chosen to do so in the courtroom and change needs to happen.

This past semester was an opportunity for me to work with bright individuals from all sorts of diverse backgrounds. We collectively sought to commemorate the memory of lynching victims in Pickens County, Alabama, but in order to do this research in an effective manner, it was important to have an understanding of why the research itself was important. We saw the importance of our research by taking a look at various pieces of literature that addressed the racial prejudice’s that have challenged our country’s past. We also saw the importance of our research when we had the opportunity of taking a trip to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. We knew what the EJI stood for prior to the trip based on our research of its founder, Bryan Stevenson. It was when we walked through the doors at EJI where our understanding of their endeavors was validated. EJI has demonstrated a clear determination of addressing the problems that have constrained African Americans from living life to their greatest potential. In the auditorium, EJI has over 200 jars of soil that were collected at each location of gruesome lynching’s that occurred centuries ago. It was when I saw the jar of my specific lynching victim, Will Archer, where my appreciation for this research was vindicated. I then saw how important it is for myself to conduct meaningful research, not only to address an issue of the past, but to help be a voice to prevent the same issues to trouble our present generation.

Like Will Archer, many of the lynching victims that were represented by the jars in EJI were subject to the racist rhetoric of white southerners in the community and in the courtroom. It was in my research where I found that this troubling event could have been avoided, yet there were no efforts from judicial leaders to help. This is a problem that needs to be further analyzed to prevent this phenomenon from continuing in our court system today. By taking a course like Dr. Giggie’s Southern Memory, we can be more aware of the problem and the correct steps to eradicate systematic mishandlings of African American cases in the courtroom.

As academics, it is our responsibility to do this research. It is our responsibility to look at the past events that trouble our society and see what went wrong. We clearly saw racial violence has occurred, and now it is our responsibility to prevent it from happening again. We have consistently sought to seek justice for Americans, but it is up to us to ensure that justice is served in the same manner for all Americans, regardless of the color of your skin. I chose to study this complex issue because of my clear cut passion for justice. As a law school hopeful, this course was perfect for me to get my foot in the legal door. As the semester progressed, I found myself working tirelessly not for a good grade in the course, but to memorialize the victims of clear racism in society and in the courtroom. Perhaps this sentiment as well as the others from my colleagues can spread awareness on the issues that may not have ever been thought of before, and if awareness is spread, we know that we are off to a good start.

Riley Taylor

When family members and friends asked what classes I would be taking in the fall 2017 semester, I would begin listing them off and when I would mention that I was taking a course about lynchings in the American South they would always ask what the course was about and what made me decide to take it.  In the beginning, I could only truly give an answer to one of the questions — which was why I took the course and that was because being from the Midwest I want to fully dive into the history of the South to really get an understanding of where I was living and going to school.

David William was one of many lynchings that occurred in Pickens County and throughout the American South and it was my job to revive his story. While trying to dig up the past throughout the semester I learned how to use many academic websites and how to do real in-depth research. Learning how to do so has been the most useful tool I have acquired in all the courses I have taken so far.

Throughout the semester we talked, discussed, and learned about an era of American history that is often not discussed or sometimes deliberately overlooked, the Era of Racial Terror. In this class, we learned how the legacies that go along with lynching did not stop when the lynchings did and how they are still alive and prevalent in today’s society. We learned how these legacies have affected the mass incarceration of African Americans today.

Peyton McDonough

Since I have been able to reflect upon my time spent researching lynching and how it connects to our own lives, I have realized that this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my undergraduate career. This is in large part due to the implications that this project has on our society today. Racial marginalization impacts so many different aspects of society, from education, to housing, social status and economic class. If we can begin to understand this, then we can begin to improve the lives of our citizens in countless ways. These changes take time, but they are tangible steps that can be taken in order to improve the nation, and it all comes from studying our own history.

We owe it to ourselves in order to begin the healing process that is necessary after a time of such terror and division. Countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, and Germany, for example, have been able to begin the process of reconciliation and repair after acts of mass racial genocide and terror were committed. The people in those countries understood that they needed to acknowledge these events, to discuss them, and to make a concerted effort to understand what happened, why it happened, and how to ensure it would not happen again. We have not yet begun this process in the United States, and the way our society operates shows it. We prefer to remain in guilt-free ignorance. In order to combat this trend, we need to begin the conversation. It is great that we as a class decided to educate ourselves on topics such as these, but in order for our knowledge to have an impact, we must share it with other people. We must be the ones to initiate the conversation, because if we do not, it is unlikely that other people will. We learned this after going to Montgomery to tour the Equal Justice Initiative, and it was during this trip when I experienced a turning point in my personal understanding of lynching, and racism in general. On the way down to Montgomery, one classmate was shocked to see an area on the side of the highway that was marked by several Confederate flags. He, being from up North, made a comment about it, explaining his surprise. At this moment, I realized that if I had been driving by myself and had seen this, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. It is something that I have grown so used to seeing that I almost don’t notice these types of displays anymore. This is one of the effects that growing up in the South has had on me. At this point in time, I decided to try to go into this trip with the mindset of someone who was not from the South. I wanted to understand how a foreigner or even someone from a different region might feel when they saw relics such as these. I think that, for me, this was one of the most important moments in the class because, on a large scale, this class about differing perspectives. It is about attempting to understand things that you might not have personally experienced, but that impact you and your society nonetheless.

With the realization of trends that have continued since the time of lynchings, the research of our lynching victims became very real to me. I have never worked on a school assignment with this strong of a connection to the material. At times it was overwhelming, but I found it rewarding to remember the importance of the work that we were doing. If I can make this relatively small sacrifice of doing research in order to piece together the lives of these individuals, then I can begin to repay society’s debt to them. It does not and will not make up for the terrible things that happened to these people, but I believe that it shows their families, and Americans in general, that these individuals were important, and that they should not be forgotten. The stories that come from the lives of the four thousand individuals who were lynched provide insight into one side of history that is rarely told. If we allow ourselves to forget about these people, then we are not telling a complete, or truthful account of history. In other words, if we believe that it is okay to display Confederate monuments, or that we should continue to run Confederate museums, then it is equally important to erect monuments and museums for the people who lost their lives to racial terror.

Owen Mattox

Before this course, I had knowledge about the end of Reconstruction in the South, how the south had essentially been ruled under martial law, and of how black men and women had continued to be discriminated against after federal troops had pulled out of Southern states. Since I am from Alabama, I figured that most of the information in this course would be “nothing incredibly new”. However, I learned too well that I was not at all familiar with what the lives of African Americans were like following the end of Reconstruction. Bitterness over the ravaged infrastructure in the Southern landscape, the outcome of the Civil War, and the enfranchisement of African Americans were all factors that converged to cultivate animosity between whites and blacks in the American South, resulting in the systemic killing of thousands of African Americans. In this course, we worked to uncover these killings through in-depth research so that we might be able to offer an unbiased account of what may have actually happened. Many of the lynchings we researched were not simply the execution of a man or woman guilty of a crime. Lynchings would often be motivated by other events in the community that would create the need to have some sort of feral catharsis, disguised as simply “making an example of someone”. These lynchings, aside from being an expression of angst over any number of issues, became sociopolitical tools that sought to reassert the racial hierarchy that stood before the Civil War. They became part of a concerted effort to return to the Antebellum South. Studying and examining this era provides us insight about where we are presently in society. They show us how far we have come, but also how much farther we have to go. We are playing a part in making social progress, in educating our community about monumental events that for all we know could have happened across the street from our apartments. This course is another way to start difficult dialogue between students with different backgrounds. Using this dialogue, we can learn about contrasting views, educate ourselves about how we can better communicate our own opinions, and ultimately help move the needle in the right direction, towards progress. With this knowledge, we can attempt to break down racial barriers and educate those who are not conscious of the repercussions of this Era of Racial Terror. That last fact is why this course proved so eye opening. I would confidently say that this course was a life changing experience for myself. This era, the Era of Racial Terror, should be recognized alongside the other monumental eras documenting the black struggle in America. It is my hope that Dr. Giggie will continue to expand the scope of the research done in this course so that it will continue to educate students of all backgrounds and beliefs about the importance of lynching in America, and why these tragedies should not remain undocumented or unheard.

 

Natalie Liutkus

I did not know what to expect enrolling in a class named “Southern Memory and Lynching in Alabama.” Before, I understood the purpose of lynching and the historical context in which most occurred, but I never fully grasped the impact it had on communities then or even now. Before this class, I thought lynching was limited to hanging. However, through my research, I found these lynchings often included multiple gunshot wounds, bodily mutilation, burning, and hanging as well. Sometimes bodies were beaten and mutilated beyond recognition. Those mutilated bodies were sometimes then hanged or left in streets for the community to see. These details burned themselves in my memory and made me view our history differently. How could someone do this to another human being? How could these murders draw such big crowds, but no resistance? How could adults bring their children to picnic and witness a brutal murder as if it were like watching Sunday cartoons? These are thoughts I struggled with throughout the semester, and never really found the answers.

The research itself was very disheartening. I was assigned two victims with very little information available. Searching through newspaper databases, local archives, and a slew of other resources, my partner and I found only a handful of useful information for our victims. This was very difficult for me to cope with, as I felt, and still feel that I am responsible for sharing their stories and giving them the remembrance they deserve. Most people tend to think these atrocities happened in the past and stayed there, however, I now know that is simply not true. And although I was unable to fully uncover the lives of Will Roberts and John Merritt, I am glad I was able to raise some awareness of this issue that is often forgotten today.

On the first day of class, I learned about a lynching that took place five minutes away from the university. This was a scary thought and something I still carry with me. I quickly began to notice traces of the “Old South” everywhere on campus and in town after the class started. Shops a few blocks away from campus sell t-shirts with plantation homes, cotton plants, and oak trees on them in an attempt to preserve “southern tradition” (words also frequently found on shirts). Students display Confederate flags in their apartments and in their windows. On campus, buildings are mostly antebellum style, reminiscent of plantation homes. Classroom buildings are named after Confederate supporters and slave owners. I never realized the impact these unavoidable but seemingly small details had on my fellow classmates until this class. The African-American students in my class explained the discomfort they feel every time they walk into a building on campus or drive past fraternity row. These are things I never even realized being white, but now it is hard for me not to notice.

Overall, this class taught me why racism still exists today. It is because we sweep our past under the rug and avoid it. We must confront history and our wrongdoings in order to move forward. Schools should spend as much time learning and discussing slavery and lynching as much as they do with the Holocaust, for example. (Some even call the 4,000-plus lynchings as the “black Holocaust”). I believe that racism is founded on ignorance, and I believe that if people knew everything I learned in this class they would not hold such incomprehensible hate in their hearts.

Matthew McDavid

Before I took this class I really had no true understanding of the impact of racial violence in the American South. Of course, I was familiar with lynching as a crime that happened but I was unaware of its massive presence within the South and its effects on racial politics today. By researching a specific victim of a lynching I achieved an even more personal connection with this issue. I have always been passionate about social justice in America and this class’s research-heavy model helped me build a foundation to back my beliefs about social inequality in America. Whether it be visiting the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery or studying the Lost Cause ideology my eyes were opened to the racial prejudice that is still so prevalent in the American South. In my previous education I had been led to believe that lynching was over. In this class I learned that the effects of lynching still linger and that lynching itself has not disappeared, but rather it has just changed forms.

Jerome Cargill

For an entire semester, roughly four months, I got the opportunity to become an investigator. I felt like Indiana Jones, without the whip and fun music playing in the background. On the first day of class, my mind completely blanked on what this class was about. I walked into Dr. Giggie’s class with a smile on my sweaty face and anticipation to learn about African-American studies. Unbeknownst to me, it was a class that focused on lynching. Dr. Giggie said, “Welcome to African American Studies 413, where you will be learning about and researching lynching victims.” My eyes bulged. My heart sank. My hands felt clammy. I forgot what this class entailed, and I knew I was in for a wild ride.

Being a young, black man from small town Mississippi, this class was much different that the run-of-the-mill history classes that I sat through in high school. I actually had to think and do work in this class. I wasn’t memorizing generic facts or writing papers on war generals. I was digging around and actually getting a hands-on approach on the people that history books tend to leave out. We may discuss slavery for a couple days during Black History Month, but Dr. Giggie’s class was in an entirely different league. We were historians. We had to make sure that the lynching victims were remembered. We put a name to a plot. We made sure these people weren’t forgotten, and we made sure they didn’t die twice.

When Dr. Giggie continuously stated, “These people essentially died twice,” something in me wanted to help. That always stuck in the back of my mind because it made me think, “What if that was me? What if one of these victims was a family member of mine? I’d want people to know who they were.” That really motivated me to want to go the extra mile to find hidden information, use my free time to rifle through endless databases, and use ancestry.com to my advantage.

Studying racial violence and lynching and racial terror is important to our history as Americans. This isn’t just African-American history. This is simply American history because numerous people were affected, and this race war seems to be never-ending. I honestly never thought too much about racial violence until taking this class. It’s important that more people take classes like this and actually take the time to learn about this horrible moment in history because if we don’t learn from our past, we are doomed to struggle with racial tensions with little relief. There is a huge connection between then and now, white supremacy and black lives, standing by and actually doing something. This class really put some things in perspective. It opened my eyes to a whole new chapter of history that I want to know more about. It made me care, and that’s something more people should do. We should care.

The research was time consuming. There were times where I spent hours exhausting search engines just to end up back at the drawing board; but, the times when I did find something, it was like a lightbulb went off. It’s more than just a class; we’re putting a name to lost life that was supposed to remain a mystery. It’s as if we’re trying to fill in the gaps of history’s unfinished painting.

David Loar

Coming into this class I was very closed minded on the subject of African American history. I grew up in northern Florida which leans far to the right politically. Although the schools did cover topics like slavery, the Jim Crow era, racism, etc, my schools never really went any further into the subject than what the textbook covered. The classes in high school would never really have discussions on the topics, in hopes that it would deter from the controversy of the subject. When I first signed up for this class I didn’t do it because I was interested in learning about black history, I did it because I believed the class was going to be one of those anti-white radical classes you hear about every so often in the news. I wanted to make sure my voice and opinions were included in the class discussion to prevent any unwarranted or unjustified criticism of white people that may or may not have happened. However, after the first few weeks in the classroom, I quickly realized that I had been mistaken in my judgment of the class topic. I was still very defensive in most discussions, but I was also able to hear firsthand experiences and opinions of the African American students in the class. One thing my textbooks and community had never exposed me to was the personal stories and experiences of racism against people who I had known. I had heard countless times about the stories of racism against African Americans in the era of slavery or the Jim Crow era, but those were just stories, nothing real to me. Hearing and physically seeing the other students in the class tell their experiences of racism added a new perspective to my thinking.

After about two weeks we finally got down to the research portion of the class. Me and my partner were both assigned two names of people who were lynched in the early 1900’s. Like before, I saw this research as a formality of the class. I didn’t expect any sort of emotional connection to arise out of the research. The results for my group came the fastest and were probably some of the most detailed results out of any of the groups. We had a plethora of information on our two victims. However, even though results started to come in fast we still spent the entire semester researching and trying to find additional information. Over these few months of research I, unlike other groups, still never developed a very strong emotional connection with the victims we were researching, but I did develop a strong appreciation for their stories and the extreme difficulties that the Black community had to overcome. For the first time ever, I was reading actual newspapers from that time period, I was actually going to the place where the lynching took place, I went to the home towns of the perpetrator of the lynching. Seeing all of these things in person allowed me to gain a small glimpse into the perspective of the lynching victim and what they must have gone through during their life in the early 1900’s. I will never be able to understand fully what it was like for those African Americans, but I am very glad that I was given the opportunity to try and understand their situations.

I think the main thing that I took away from this class is that even though the United States is going through racial problems even today, we all have the capability to come together as a community, put aside our differences, and speak together as human beings about our problems with one another. Another thing I learned is that, recognizing the negative parts of the country’s history, or the negative things that my race or ancestors have done, doesn’t mean that I am disgracing myself or my race. The first step to making positive change is recognizing the problems of the past and making sure you don’t repeat them.

Daniya Foster

Being a young, African American woman from a small southern town in Alabama, this class is much different than any other previous history class I have had before. In earlier history courses, lynching wasn’t even a part of the vocabulary used to talk about any part of history; there wasn’t anything remotely available that would document a lynched person’s life. When you refuse to talk about a certain part of history, you are ultimately refusing to acknowledge a family’s past. When you refuse to document their lives, you erase their hurt, struggle, and pain from ever existing. There are people who can’t trace their family history due to the fact that a family member’s life was written down or talked about. I am one of those people. This class forced me to make certain connections in my life to the past that I didn’t think to do before.

Being in this class and being from a small town, there were plenty of references to the Confederacy. One of the most shocking happened when I was informed that my county was going to erect a confederate memorial. Seeing how there are people in history who were so adamant on documenting history, I saw no true reason as to why there was a need for a new Confederate statue when there are people’s lives who aren’t documented. Throughout the semester, I felt as though documenting the lives of these people was an important asset that should be prioritized. Leaving a memory and legacy of who a person was is the smallest amount of dignity that you can give a person who’s life was ended too soon.

Brie Smiley

For a semester, I researched the lives of three unknown black men who were accused of arson and lynched in Pickens County in October 1886. My partner and I found the names of these men, Harry Kirk, Ben Fort and Abram Hinton who had been lost in a vacuum of time in the small microfilm of the West Alabamian. This course will always be, for me, one of my proudest accomplishments. The course allowed for me to become a better researcher and a better intellectual.

As an African American Studies major, the contemporary issues of African Americans look almost identical to the issues of the ‘past’. This investigative research bridges a gap. Though these men were murdered over a century ago in rural Alabama, the presumption of guilt, ordinary state sponsored violence and the passivity surrounding their brutal murders is as fresh as the modern murders of African Americans and Black Immigrants.

This course also made a connection between Southern memory and White supremacy. The ritualistic nature of lynchings and as well as the creation of monuments to honor Confederate soldiers solidified for me, a more intimate understanding of the South. The forgotten histories of Black Southern Memory and the identity of Black Southerners being explored was also a valuable part of the course.

Coming to class was an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. This class was transformative and I am sure none of my classmates will ever forget what they encountered here. What we take from this class, we will all surely carry into the next.