Christine Folch

Collecting Soil, Memorializing a History We Shouldn’t Forget


Soil collection as a way to memorialize a history we shouldn’t forget.

This past Saturday, I took part in a project convened by the Equal Justice Initiative to collect soil from one of 363 documented lynching sites in Alabama. More than 4000 people were lynched in the South between the end of the Civil War and the end of WWII. This untold history continues to impact us to the present—in addition to the deepIMG_3817 wounds caused by fear, this racial terror was the impetus behind the great migration of African Americans to the North and West in the early 20th century. Before giving dozens of volunteers our assignments, EJI’s executive director Bryan Stevenson (whose famous TED Talk on incarceration and the death penalty is here) told us, “Today, we’re confronting our failure to change the narrative on racial difference. We’re not interested in punishment. We’re interested in liberation.”

I personally witnessed incredible courage and lamented the stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

Lamar county sits on the Alabama border with Mississippi. It’s really beautiful: rolling tree-covered hills, small creeks everywhere, rich, loamy soil teeming with life. Here in the spring of 1897, the local KKK embarked on a brutal campaign of terrorizing the African American community that lived in Kennedy township.

IMG_3821In late May 1897, a group of klansmen seized two African American women in the night and tied them to trees to whip them until they were almost dead. Once untied, the women fled–local newspapers reported that the women were feared to be “of bad character.”

Emboldened, the KKK group hunted down a man they planned to lynch, but not finding him, they went to the house of Ike Bonner and there seized his friend John Hayden on the night of May 30, 1897. They riddled him with bullets and then lynched him. Federal prosecutors, in a rare move of determination, decided to reign in the KKK activities and brought a case against them.

IMG_3827Two courageous Kennedy township men, John and Louis Bonner–relatives of Ike–took the stand to testify against the klan. They were promised protection in exchange for their testimony; their word put several behind bars. And as soon as they returned home, the two Bonner brothers were lynched in Lamar county on December 16, 1897, promises of protection notwithstanding.

There are no words sufficient to honor their courage. The soil from Kennedy will be used in an EJI-sponsored Memorial for Peace and Justice to the victims of our nation’s narrative of racial difference. Like Germany’s memorials to the Holocaust and South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation process, marking our own past is crucial to being able to heal. Duke University’s Class of 2020 will read Bryan Stevenson’s best selling Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption together this summer and I look forward to continuing this journey together.




One comment on “Collecting Soil, Memorializing a History We Shouldn’t Forget

  1. Pingback: Whitecappers, Revenge, and Full Pitched Battles - This Week in Historical Lynchings - This Cruel War

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This entry was posted on May 9, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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