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Alexandria plans pilgrimage to Montgomery, Ala., to honor its lynching victims

Pillars at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., symbolize and honor victims of lynching. (Equal Justice Initiative/Human Pictures)
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A national memorial in Montgomery, Ala., has been honoring the victims of lynching since 2018. Now, the city of Alexandria, Va., is planning a pilgrimage to Montgomery to recognize its place in that history, and the public is invited.

Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice features hundreds of six-foot steel pillars, one for each county in which the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit behind the memorial, has confirmed any lynchings. The names of the victims in each county are engraved on the pillars. Each county has one pillar permanently stationed in the Montgomery memorial and a second identical pillar meant to be installed in the county, if the community wishes to claim it.

Alexandria, an independent city without county affiliation, plans for about 100 people, mostly residents, to travel to Montgomery next year, and hopes to claim that second pillar and bring it home.

The Equal Justice Initiative is working with counties to conduct the “community remembrance work” they must complete before they can claim pillars. This work can include putting up historical markers where lynchings occurred, collecting soil from those sites for possible display in Montgomery, and community-led efforts to educate the public on lynchings as racial terrorism.

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The process is less about the physical work of transporting and installing a pillar than the larger pursuit of truth-telling and repair, according to the Equal Justice Initiative’s website. Alexandria put up two historical markers in 2021 to honor the two local lynching victims identified by EJI, Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas, and plans to collect soil in 2022.

McCoy grew up in the Bottoms neighborhood on South Alfred Street and performed domestic work for a local family, according to the city of Alexandria. In 1897, at age 19, he was accused of attacking three of his White employer’s children and was arrested without a warrant. A mob dragged him from his cell, shot and beat him and hanged him at Cameron and Lee streets.

In 1899, when Thomas was 16, he was accused of attempted criminal assault of a White neighbor’s 7-year-old daughter. He was arrested, dragged from his cell, beaten, shot and hanged at King and Fairfax streets.

EJI has been able to confirm only these two lynchings in Alexandria, although this does not preclude additional victims; many such crimes were not documented.

The organization documented additional lynchings in the D.C. area, two in Prince George’s County and three in Montgomery County. Both counties, which are in Maryland, have established community remembrance projects, although neither has announced a public pilgrimage. (EJI declined an interview request; in an email exchange, it did not confirm whether any pillars intended for emplacement in counties have yet been released.)

Instead of shipping its soil or sending it with a single representative, Alexandria is inviting the public on a trip to Montgomery to deliver its soil, as part of the city’s goal of claiming a pillar. The trip is tentatively scheduled for October 2022.

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“This is a visible sign that our money is where our mouth is,” said Gretchen Bulova, the director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. Her office thinks 100 participants are about as many as it can manage, and the city is working to secure discounts and partially subsidize the cost of travel and housing. Some participants may drive or fly to Montgomery, but Bulova hopes that a long bus ride might foster some important conversations about racial justice.

Most of the people expressing interest are Alexandria residents — some recent arrivals to the city and others fifth-, sixth- or even seventh-generation Alexandrians, Bulova said. There are people of various racial backgrounds among the city employees, retirees, members of faith organizations, and others who are interested in truth and reconciliation.

The trip will include curated museum tours and a reception with guest speakers, among whom may be authors, historians and civil rights activists. Next to the memorial, visitors will see EJI’s newly expanded museum, which explores the connections between slavery, the Jim Crow era that followed emancipation and Reconstruction, and mass incarceration.

Taking this trip means “a great deal” to John Chapman, a fourth-generation Alexandrian who plans to go. Chapman is a city council member and the founder of the Manumission Tour Company, which offers Black history tours in Alexandria. “It means, for me as a person and a policymaker, coming to grips with the ugly history of our city and being able to bring that back to our community and talk truthfully about it,” he said.

“For me, to sojourn down to Montgomery is to connect the dots and pay homage to my ancestors that were killed,” said McArthur Myers, who is on the steering committee for the trip. Myers is a mental health social worker who was raised in Alexandria, and he wants to make known the city’s history, the good and the bad. Once the community found out there was an Alexandria pillar in Montgomery, “the stories started being told,” he said.

The aim is to install Alexandria’s pillar in a ceremony, although the location has not been determined. But Chapman does not plan to incorporate it into his existing Black history tours. These tours deal with separate subjects, and Chapman said lynching warrants its own platform for discussion. He’s considering creating a new tour about racial violence in Alexandria, which would be larger in scope than the two lynchings that EJI was able to document.

“We’ve had some tough stories. We’ve got some poisonings, we’ve got some beheadings, some gruesome stuff that happened in Alexandria, and it’s not all pre-Civil War,” Chapman said.

Engagement in Alexandria’s Black history tours increased significantly after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, said Patricia Washington, the president and chief executive of Visit Alexandria. “People were looking for ways to get more involved,” she said. “They were looking for what books do I need to read, what historic sites do I need to visit, what actions can I take?”

But the country’s “racial reckoning” arguably didn’t last, and some Alexandrians would like to see a more sustained anti-racism effort, one that would last beyond any one trip, historical marker dedication or soil collection ceremony.

“It’s part of our long-term effort at having an unvarnished, more truthful, inclusive approach to telling our history,” Washington said. “Yes, these horrific incidents happened, and they connect to what’s happening today with George Floyd and so many other injustices, but it doesn’t have to continue.”

After the trip to Montgomery, Myers said, he will “continue to fight” and tell this history for future generations. “Put up the signs,” he said. “It’s about 200 years from now, so that young people can see the story of the African American.”