Pam Adams and I arrived at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice on a cold, rainy day. We had a sense of urgency. This museum was the purpose of our trip from Peoria to Montgomery, Ala. On this sacred, quiet 6-acre site, there are 4,400 lives documented. Lynched. We felt a responsibility to hear from them all, but if thunder and lightning developed, the site would be forced to close.
Much of this museum is outside, with 800 corten steel columns silently hanging overhead.
Also referred to as the National Lynching Memorial, this site gives testimony to the African-American men, women and children who were lynched in this country between 1877-1950.
Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) began work on the memorial in 2010. EJI was not only interested in the lynching incidents, but in understanding the terror and trauma created by this sanctioned violence against the Black community. Six million Black people fled the South as a result of this racial reign of terror.
The word lynching by definition is an unlawful murder by an angry mob of people. It most often involved public hangings that were used primarily in the South after the end of slavery to intimidate Black people.
The memorial has 800 6-foot steel beams, one for each county where a lynching took place. Each beam is inscribed with the names of victims, date of murder and the state and county where they lived.
On the outside of the memorial is a field of 800 identical monuments. These are monuments waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. The objective is to help local communities engage with their histories in a constructive and meaningful way.
There is no monument for Peoria County, but we saw monuments for the central Illinois counties of Marshall, Fulton and Sangamon.
EJI believes that publicly confronting the truth about our history is the first step towards recovery and reconciliation. EJI Director Bryan Stevenson explains, “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
As we made our way through the memorial, I didn’t quite know how I was feeling. The chill and the rain had me slightly distracted. We were looking at names engraved on columns. Then we saw a particular slab, and it had multiple names –– all lynched on the same day. There was one like that for East St. Louis. On July 3, 1917, an outbreak of labor- and race-related violence by whites caused the deaths of 40 to 100 Black people and did approximately $400,000 in property damage in the Black community.
Then I saw documentation of a lynching that hit close to me. My family.
We saw a monument that listed the names of four individuals lynched in Pike County, Mo. Bill McDowell, Sam Young, Curtis Young and Love Rudd. All of a sudden this became extremely personal to me. I grew up in Hannibal, Mo., but my maternal grandparents were from Pikes County, Mo.
My mother is Mendill Green Farris, her father, Earl Green, and his mother, Mary Rudd Green. Mary is the daughter of Oliver Rudd, who was born in 1851 and Sara Douglas Rudd, born in 1845. Both of my great-grandparents were born during slavery.
I immediately contacted different members of my family to determine if Love Rudd could possibly be a relative. None of my research, to date, can verify the family connection. Through a first cousin, I was able to locate two newspaper accounts of Love Rudd’s murder.
The Carbondale Daily Free Press dated Sept. 11, 1915, reported no one knew the whereabouts of Love Rudd, who was taken from Constable Boismenue by a mob of masked men. He was taken into a dense wooded area, and rumors were that he was lynched. Another rumor was that he was horsewhipped and driven from the county. Love had often been accused of robbing hen roosts.
According to the Sept. 13, 1915, Chillicothe (Mo.) Constitution, Love Rudd was a robbery suspect who was taken from the constable by a mob of 30 to 40 masked men several days before. His body was found in the Mississippi River near Clarksville, Mo. Love’s hands were still bound by the constable’s handcuffs and his feet were tied to a large rock.
Bill McDowell was lynched on July 1, 1883, in Louisiana, Mo., accused of raping a white woman. The account of his murder is that 75 to 100 masked men demanded the keys to the cell he was being held in and the marshal turned the keys over.
Sam and Curtis Young were brothers. They were lynched on June 6, 1898. They were accused of killing a city marshal. A mob estimated between 200 to 300 men accosted the brothers and hung them. The brothers’ bodies were left hanging on trees. No one was ever charged or convicted for any of these murders. They were all attributed to a mob of masked men.
Writing this piece, about a month after walking through the National Lynching Museum, feels like deja vu in today’s climate. The names Eddie Russell Jr., Daniel O. El, Luis Cruz, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Emantic Bradford Jr., Jemel Roberson, Botham Jean, Melissa Williams and Timothy Russell are just a dozen names of thousands of others that could be considered modern-day lynchings — all stoking the debate about police violence.
How long will we refuse to recognize the murders of Black men and women in this country as a national crisis? How long will we allow this premature death of young Black men and women to continue? How many dreams killed are too many?