Acknowledging Ohio’s history of lynching: The Community Remembrance Project

September 14, 2020
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For the past several years, many members of the staff and Board at The Center for Community Solutions have met regularly in ad hoc committees and held informal discussions to talk about implicit bias, police brutality and racism. We usually discuss an article that we’ve all read, or a movie we’ve watched, and that conversation often segues into a discussion about how what we’ve read or watched is connected to our lives and our work. This summer, those conversations have taken on a renewed sense of urgency and importance. After we watched the documentary True Justice, about the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), we were collectively moved by how important is it to recognize the history of racial terror, specifically lynching, in our own communities.  

As committed as we are to advocating for public policies that build racial equity and reduce racial disparities, we realize our shared history is at the root of why these issues are so pervasive today. Recognizing and honoring that history is one step communities can and should take to truly reckon with the deep legacy of racism, discrimination and prejudice in our communities.  

That brings us to EJI’s Community Remembrance Project, which works with communities in a two-prong way - to gather soil from historic lynching sites for display as a part of an exhibit, and to erect historical markers to acknowledge the violence that took place all over the country – yes, even in Ohio. In fact, in response to several lynchings in the late 1800’s, Harry Smith, a former state representative from Cuyahoga County, introduced and ultimately passed one of the country’s strictest anti-lynching laws at the time. According to EJI, there were at least 15 reported lynchings in Ohio, but some historians say that number is likely higher.  

Our goal in the coming months is to encourage communities around our region and the state to begin the process of researching their communities’ histories surrounding racial violence and lynching, and to convene around the goal of participating in the Community Remembrance Project. Are you interested in joining us? If so, let us know by filling out the form at the end of this piece.  

Below, some of our staff members share why the Community Remembrance Project is important to them; we hope these stories will resonate with you and you will consider getting involved.  

Hope Lane: Growing up, my grandmother always told me “you can’t grow if you don’t know.” While these words, like most idioms, were puzzling to me as an adolescent I now recognize she was talking about gaining wisdom from our history and using our stories to strengthen our self-identity and teach those who come after us. In these times where freedom, justice and liberty are not applied equally, now more than ever these words are relevant. Not long ago, my ancestors sought refuge in Ohio from the Jim Crow South, not recognizing how their new home also played a role in continued violence and segregation of Black people. Bringing the EJI Community Remembrance Project to Ohio will force the state to acknowledge its horrors, history and role in the fight for civil rights for Black people. Our state’s health, economic and social progress depends on it.  

Ultimately, my grandmother drank too much colored water, lived in too many colored housing projects and attended far too many colored schools for me to not commit myself to leave this country better off than I found it.  

Loren Anthes: The current moment is testing our resolve as a united nation as we continue to grapple with the 401-year legacy of slavery and the ever-present stain of racism that permeates through our institutions. It has left me angry, exhausted and doubtful. But as much frustration as I have felt -- it can never be as deep as that of our Black and brown sisters and brothers -- I also see reason for hope in the resonance of our unified voices as we call out for justice and change.  

Ohio is defined by boldness of character and dedicated monuments to this collective identity. We have looked upon burning rivers and seen opportunity. We have looked to the moon and had the gumption to take the first steps as a species beyond our planet. So when I learned about our state’s history of lynching, I didn’t just see the wounds of prejudice, I saw the potential for community healing. Ohioans should not cower in fear when faced with the necessary work and pain of growth, we should embrace it. By memorializing this history, and honoring the suffering many have experienced, we create the opportunity to change the national conversation around race and light the way.  

Taneisha Fair: I attended my first Black Lives Matter protest this past June. Hearing a chorus of people at that protest who did not look like me scream that Black lives -- MY life -- matters brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t find the voice to say those words as I marched, and perhaps in that moment I was not sure I believed it. The killing of Black bodies in the past few months left me in utter shock. That a pandemic was not enough to keep us safe, or to stop the hate that others feel for Black Americans was truly a wake-up call for me. I realized that we are not much better off than generations before us. Systems and people are just more covert, subtle and polite about oppressing and killing those who look like me. The fight for racial equity and equality is not nearly over. And as headlines continued to recount the number of Black lives lost, one thought remained in the back of my mind: I wasn’t doing enough.  

So, when my co-worker Loren Anthes suggested we work with the Equal Justice Initiative to memorialize this history here in Cuyahoga County, I felt I had no choice but to join the effort. The pandemic has introduced more people to the horrors of Black life, and many now seem more interested to understand the unadulterated racial history of our country. Knowing this history—ALL of it—and acknowledging it, is the step forward I believe we have been missing as a country, generation and a movement. This project is an opportunity for me and others to know, to acknowledge and to make history. No matter how tired, scared or frustrated I am, I couldn’t, in good conscience, say no to that.  

Will Tarter: As a staff, we had an opportunity to visit a moving exhibit “Undesign the Redline,” about the history of race in the United States. In a blog post earlier this year, I wondered what we would do with our moment in history in the battle for racial equality. The events of the past few months and years have brought that question into an even sharper focus. What the country now finds itself in, is an examination of the role that race has played and continues to play in our country’s narrative. From confederate monuments; to environmental justice concerns such as constructing lead-free homes and clean water; to criminal justice; to the trauma that Black communities continue to experience on a regular basis; our country is facing a reckoning of who we are and who we want to be. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) pushes communities to acknowledge their historical racial trauma, that many local communities do not even know happened. Similarly, minority communities continue to see the physical, emotional and mental effects of this trauma of violence, to this very day.  

Many people, including myself, feel that the mere collective acknowledgement of the role race has played in leading us to some of the policy crises that we face today, would be a huge step towards enacting policy solutions to correct these wrongs. If this project through EJI helps to advance that healing process, I am all for it.  

Kate Warren: After visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018, I felt heavy. Each of the iron cases hanging from the rafters represented a county where a lynching took place.  

Many of them were engraved with long lists of names, as well as many inscriptions that read “unknown.” The wall full of jars of soil, tenderly collected from lynching sites around the country, calls to mind the way that the history of lynching is in the very soil beneath our feet. Reflecting on this history with my colleagues, it became clear to me that we need to acknowledge this history in our community. Just as we celebrate the history of the Underground Railroad, we also need to make space for and acknowledge our history of racial violence. That reckoning must be a part of our collective work to bring about racial equity today.  

If you want to learn more about how to get involved in the Community Remembrance Project, let us know by filling out the form below.

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