Racial lynchings in America weren’t merely broad strokes of savage violence that involved the hanging, burning and mutilation of African Americans by lawless mobs. They also were a popular pastime.
More than a few were festive affairs, with whole families in attendance, some packing picnic lunches.
Smiling spectators often would pose with the desecrated corpses ... and take pictures. Body parts of the vanquished — fingers, sexual organs, etc. — often were made into souvenirs. Some vendors sold commemorative postcards.
All told, there have been more than 4,700 lynchings in 800 counties the United States. One of them was Guilford.
On Aug. 23, 1887, a black teenager, Eugene Hairston, was arrested for allegedly assaulting a 17-year-old white girl. As the News & Record’s Jessie Pounds recounted in her Sunday story, Hairston was arrested in Colfax and then moved to the jail in Greensboro. Masked men from Kernersville broke into his cell, abducted Hairston and hanged him in front of a schoolhouse on the edge of town.
A local group is working to memorialize that tragic incident at the invitation of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, Ala. Hundreds of other groups are doing likewise in other communities. As part of its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Justice Institute has created a national memorial that pays tribute to each lynching victim with a steel slab the size of a coffin, hung from above, in somber rows, as stark reminders of the violent terror that befell each of those people. An identical twin to each slab awaits elsewhere at the site, to be claimed by the community it represents, and to be taken home for permanent display.
No local community has yet done so, but, who knows, ours might be the first.
In the meantime, the Guilford County Remembrance Project Coalition plans to take the prerequisite steps recommended by the Equal Justice Institute. This includes collecting a sample of the soil from the site of Hairston’s lynching, believed to be on the property of the present-day Church of the Covenant Presbyterian Church on South Mendenhall Street, and donate it to the national memorial in Alabama. The Justice Institute also asks that each community convene a series of educational presentations and discussions about lynchings, one of which already was held last week at Bennett College. And it encourages local historic markers.
In addition, the Guilford County group has contacted a relative of Hairston, who lives in Kernersville. The coalition would like to place the historic marker in downtown Greensboro at the site of the jail where the teenager was kidnapped by the mob. It has notified Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who has expressed her support for the initiative. So should we all.
As far as we can know, at least 100 and as many as 300 people were lynched in North Carolina from the years 1882 to 1968. The Justice Institute documents 123 such incidents in North Carolina (and, for the sake of comparison, a stunning 654 in Mississippi).
It’s important that we acknowledge not only our brightest achievements as a nation, but our darkest moments as well.
This ugliness must be remembered, so that it is never repeated.