This story is part of The Race Issue, a special issue of National Geographic that explores how race defines, separates, and unites us. Tell us your story with #IDefineMe.
The color palette inside the jars is an array of browns. The rich, red clay found throughout Alabama, where men and women did backbreaking work from before sunrise to well past sundown. The dark fertile dirt of the black belt. The sandy soil of the Gulf Coast.
“Soil is really a powerful medium for talking about this history,” Bryan Stevenson tells me, as we walk by the jars. “In many ways, the sweat of enslaved people is buried in this soil. The blood of lynching victims is in this soil. The tears of people who were segregated and humiliated during the time of Jim Crow is in this soil.”
The soil in these jars represents the lives of countless Americans who never had a proper burial, who met unspeakably violent deaths for “serious offenses,” like arguing with a white man. These are the victims honored as part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s new Legacy Museum and memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
Stevenson is one of the most eloquent and committed people I’ve ever met. Author of the book Just Mercy and founder of the EJI, he’s made it his life’s work to seek justice for the most vulnerable, disadvantaged, and mistreated among us.
The new memorial to lynching victims will open this spring, along with a museum that will trace grim parts of the African-American experience, from slavery to mass incarceration. One exhibit will display nearly 300 jars of soil from lynching sites throughout the South.
Last year I got a preview when I walked into a room and saw 11 rows containing scores of jars, each with the name of a person who had been lynched. Most were from Alabama—men, women, and children. As I gazed at them, I silently read the names lettered simply on the jars: Jordan Corbin … Sidney Johnson … Joe Leads … Will McBride … Rufus Lesseur … Bush Withers … Lillie Cobb. I wondered about the lives they lived, and lost, and those who were left behind.
I learned the story of Elizabeth Lawrence, a schoolteacher in Birmingham who scolded a group of white children after they threw stones at her. The children told their parents. A mob came to her home, murdered her, and burned her house down. I learned the story of Thomas Miles, Sr., of Shreveport, Louisiana, a black man who was accused of writing a letter to a white woman. After a judge acquitted him, he was abducted by a mob outside the courtroom and taken to a tree where he was beaten, stabbed, shot, and hanged.
I learned the story of Mamie, who was a child in Mississippi when her father and his friend were threatened with lynching. Mamie’s family fled; her father’s friend stayed and was hanged. Mamie had not uttered the state’s name until she returned many decades later, to gather soil from the lynching site for the friend’s memorial jar. In that moment “I felt like I laid my burdens down,” said Mamie Kirkland. She was 107 years old.
Some descendants have traveled great distances to make the sad sojourn to see the place where their ancestors’ remains had long ago been absorbed by the earth. The EJI has documented more than 4,400 people lynched in 35 states—the most in Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi—between 1877 and 1950.
Lynchings occurred at any time, for many reasons: allegations of a serious crime or a casual transgression, fear of interracial sex, or desire for public spectacle. The terror it induced is impossible to describe, a burden still carried today.
We haven’t learned to talk about lynching—or the nation’s racist history —in an open and honest way. It’s difficult to face the past, to acknowledge the role of some of our ancestors in the brutality inflicted upon their fellow humans. Despite what we were taught in grade school, our collective shame does not fit neatly in the time period between the Civil War and the civil rights movement. It’s time to understand the complete picture of our history, to have the courage to go there, to absorb it.
Stevenson looked at the jars. “We can grow something with this,” he told me. “We can create something with this that has new meaning.” That’s because while soil may surround us in death, it also is the place to plant seeds of hope for a new beginning.
Katie Couric explores racism and other timely subjects in her series America Inside Out With Katie Couric, premiering April 11 at 10/9c on National Geographic.