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.