Update: Here is a link [PDF] to a list of lynchings by county.
The new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which was open to the public this past week in Montgomery, Alabama, offers history educators a unique opportunity to engage students around the ongoing debate about monuments. As many of you know this new memorial commemorates the thousands of black Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1950.
What I find most interesting about this particular memorial is that it offers each county across the country, in which a lynching took place, the opportunity to claim a piece of the site to remember and honor the victim(s).
The memorial structure on the center of the site is constructed of over 800 corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns. The memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.
Who or what will be the catalyst that begins the conversations in these communities? May I suggest that the obvious answer is our students.
We are going to see a great deal of resistance from adults over raising the discussion of whether this painful history deserves to be acknowledged on a local level. Our students can lead the way with the help of history educators who believe that how we remember history is as important as teaching it.
Students can and should…
- research the victim(s) of lynchings in their communities.
- discuss whether the monuments should be claimed by their communities.
- engage the public and local city council about why their monument should be claimed.
- discuss where in the community the monument should be placed and what kind of dedication should be held.
- put together any necessary interpretive panels to help their community understand the relevant history and purpose of the monument.
These are just a few of the questions that history educators can introduce to guide their students in this project.
This is about more than acknowledging history that has been conveniently lost. It is an act of citizenship for all involved. For students it asks them to reflect on how the past informs the present and how facing the past clarifies who we are and the values we claim to embrace today.
It asks students to take ownership and responsibility for their neighborhoods and communities and serves as a reminder that our futures are tied up in our pasts.