EDITOR’S NOTE: Thomas Calder serves as a volunteer researcher for the Buncombe County Remembrance Project, documenting local lynchings.
Joseph Fox, vice chair of The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County, believes that when it comes to our nation’s racist past, “The true history of the United States has not really been told.” That’s a problem, he continues, because “most models for transformation say the first step in healing is acknowledgment and recognition.”
The recent police killings of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman in Louisville, Ky., and George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, Minn., “shine a spotlight on the fact that the racial violence of the past has not disappeared,” says Fox.
Addressing the country’s brutal past and confronting its present racial injustices, Fox and fellow members of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Association are leading the Buncombe County Remembrance Project, a community coalition aimed at researching racially motivated lynchings in the region and educating the public about them. Currently, there are three known Buncombe County victims: John Humphreys (1888), Hezekiah Rankin(1891) and Bob Brachett (1897).
The group’s campaign is a direct response to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery, Ala., in April 2018. The memorial features more than 800 monuments representing counties across the United States where African American men, women and children were publicly hanged, shot, burned alive or stabbed to death between 1877 and 1950 for alleged crimes ranging from murder to the use of profane language. Together, they document more than 4,400 such incidents.
The memorial also houses replicas of each of the monuments, as well as historical markers; these will be released to the counties they pertain to once those communities have established programs to engage their residents in addressing racial justice. (For more information, see “Lynching Memorial Confronts Our Country’s Past,” Aug. 31, 2018, Xpress)
Acknowledging the past
Since its formation in June 2019, the Remembrance Project has worked to meet the Equal Justice Initiative’s criteria for obtaining both the historical marker and the replica monument, though COVID-19 has delayed efforts to host planned public forums and other educational programs.
In September, the coalition opened a charitable fund at The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina with a goal of raising $80,000 over the next six months. The Community Foundation has committed to matching the first $10,000 in contributions.
The money, says Fox, will primarily support implementing virtual community-led programming, as well as sponsored group trips to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, lectures by national speakers and the creation of a YouTube channel addressing racial justice issues.
In the past, notes Fox, “When people tried to tell the true history of the United States, they were silenced through violence.” His hope for the Remembrance Project is to steer the community toward “the first step in healing — recognition.”
Hurt people hurt people
The culture, however, has actively discouraged that kind of recognition, says local activist Rob Thomas. “We’ve been raised to believe that anything that makes America look bad is not only divisive but completely un-American and should not be tolerated,” says Thomas, who was recently named named WNC’s 2020 Peacemaker by several local groups.
The problem with this approach, he maintains, is that when history is whitewashed, unresolved issues continue to manifest in the present day. People of color, he notes, still experience discrimination in the justice system, education, health care and housing.
“One of the most dividing factors that we face as a society is racism,” Thomas declares. “But how can you heal what hasn’t been revealed?”
Thomas, who considers Fox a mentor, sees the Remembrance Project as an important step in the right direction. “If you keep trying to cover things up and you want the American history to only show the good sides, you can’t really understand where people are at presently and how to move forward and to produce a better future,” he explains.
Damita Wilder, an ordained elder in the AME Zion Church, agrees. “Unless we confront this [past], I don’t think that we as a county or a city or even a nation can be completely healed,” she says.
Since the launch of the Remembrance Project, Wilder has worked as a liaison, sharing the organization’s efforts and mission with over 25 local churches.
“I believe that as a community, we can start the healing process not by pointing fingers at each other but by saying, ‘Let’s make this better,’” Wilder points out.
Otherwise, she fears, the racial problems and violence this country is currently experiencing will persist. “When I minister, I tell people this, and I see it everywhere now: ‘Hurt people hurt people.’”
Facing the past
Along with the current fundraising efforts, the Remembrance Project is actively pursuing community outreach, historical research and an awareness campaign. In addition to churches, Fox says the group has worked to maintain contacts with members of historically Black neighborhood associations, including the East End, South Side, Shiloh, Burton Street and Hillcrest.
The organization’s monthly newsletter, he continues, is another way the Remembrance Project keeps residents informed about its efforts as well as the latest news on voter registration, poll locations, COVID-19 and the 2020 census.
In the coming months, Fox says he hopes the project reaches enough people “with a conscience and an awakening of conscience to understand the inequalities that have occurred and that continue to occur. And I hope their voices — politically, socially and economically — will be heard over those voices that want to keep things as they have been.”
Thomas, meanwhile, sees the Remembrance Project’s end goal of bringing both the historical marker and replica monument to Asheville as an opportunity for deeper reflection and a chance for the community to better understand its past.
“This country has raised monuments that have been dedicated to individuals that upheld slavery,” he says. “And though a lot of those are coming down nationwide, I think it’s time to move in the opposite direction and start bringing some awareness and a little bit of gratitude to the individuals who lost their lives because of the racism that existed in America and that still exists today.”
Wilder concurs. “What we’re seeing on a broad spectrum now are triggers going off in people from years of oppression,” she says. “Even though generations change, nobody really got over the past. What happened then does affect us now.”
Nonetheless, Wilder remains hopeful that the Remembrance Project will help break the cycle of silence and denial, which she believes is the only way the country can move forward. “We can never heal as a nation until we confront the evils of the past.”
To learn more about the Buncombe County Remembrance Project, visit avl.mx/8cl.