Fertile sandy loam, red clays, alluvial black silts — soils from Maryland to Mississippi, and beyond. Sealed in jars, they preserve the memories of those who were killed in ways, and for reasons, many would rather forget.
There’s a jar of soil with George Armwood’s name on it, collected by the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. The organization remembered Armwood last week on the 85th anniversary of his death. On Oct. 18, 1933, he became the last known victim of a “racial terror lynching” in the state.
That was lynching intended to traumatize an entire community. Armwood, a 21-year-old mentally ill black man, had been accused of attacking an elderly white woman. In those days, that could mean he looked in her direction instead of averting his eyes with head bowed. Everybody had to be taught a lesson in subservience.
A white mob dragged him from a jail cell in Somerset County, hanged him from a tree in a judge’s front yard, mutilated him and then burned his body at a lumberyard near the black community where he lived.
Some of those who witnessed such horror would never speak of it, let alone complain, lest they become the next one lynched. Terrified into silent acceptance of racial hierarchy.
Now the silences are being broken, lost voices being found. George Armwood and hundreds of other victims are being commemorated. Descendants are coming forward with painful but healing remembrances. Community members meet at sites once stained with blood and seared with charred remains. On hands and knees, scooping soil, saying prayers.
“Using soil helps personify the victims,” said Will Schwarz, founder of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. “Just the act of remembering their humanity helps affirm our own.”
Maryland’s efforts grow out of the Community Remembrance Project started by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Ala. The nonprofit organization has documented the racial-terror lynchings of more than 4,000 black people that occurred from 1877 to 1950.
There are an estimated 40 lynch sites in Maryland; 40 jars to fill with soil.
Virginia would need 84 jars.
No one is known to have been lynched in the District. But thousands of black people who poured into the city during the Great Migration were fleeing racial terror, some escaping by the skin of their teeth.
Critics of the lynching memorials say that dredging up the past will only create racial division. Schwarz says it only exposes animosities that have been festering for years. And the only way to heal those wounds, he contends, is to truthfully confront what happened.
“I don’t think it should be that hard to look at the history and imagine the impact that it had and continues to have — and do something about it,” Schwarz said. “You can draw a straight line from this nation’s acceptance of lynching to cops shooting blacks in the back today.”
Making the connection between systemic racial cruelties of the past and present is the mission of the Legacy Museum, which the EJI opened in Montgomery this year. Visitors can see how centuries of slavery morphed into slave labor. How Jim Crow laws led to convict-leasing. How lynching became legalized capital punishment. And how it all dehumanized and demeaned black people.
The museum looks at the historic role of violence in black-voter suppression. When closing down polling places or changing rules at the last minute didn’t work, there was always the Ku Klux Klan ready with a noose and burning cross.
By examining how racist Jim Crow-era politicians riled up white mobs and incited racial violence, you get to decide how far we’ve come and how quickly we’re turning back.
The EJI also opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which features hanging steel columns engraved with the names of lynching victims by state and county. There’s Virginia, with 84; North Carolina, 122; South Carolina, 184; Georgia, 595; Florida, 311; Alabama, 361; Mississippi, 654; Louisiana, 549; Arkansas, 492; Tennessee, 233; Kentucky, 167.
And on and on.
In no other Western nation did the end of slavery result in such a sadistic, long-lasting, state-sanctioned campaign of terror against newly freed people. An untold number of white people participated in these racial-terror lynchings — many became events for families to gather and picnic. Pictures were taken. Souvenirs — pieces of human beings — were collected as keepsakes.
It remains to be seen whether any of these new efforts — museums, memorials — will help the nation confront the truth about the barbarity of the crimes and how they fostered white supremacy.
The jars of soil are perhaps the gentlest way ever conceived to coax the nation into looking at itself.
“The soil makes me think about the communities that have been traumatized, the trajectory of upwardly mobile families that plunged because of these violent efforts to enforce racial hierarchy,” said Kiara Boone, the EJI’s deputy director of community education.
At the EJI office where Boone works, the shelves in a meeting room are lined with 361 one-gallon jars filled with Alabama soil. One for each documented lynching in the state.
“We know that many more exist in oral history and that others have been lost in memory,” she said.
But the soil remembers.
The rich, dark loam of the Black Belt, red Alabama clays, beige sands from the coast. Boone calls them “a spectrum of complexions.” The faces of those who were lynched.
Lest we forget.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.