Unearthing the History of Lynching, One Story at a Time

MONTGOMERY, AL - APRIL 20: Names and dates of lynching victims are inscribed on corten steel monuments at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice on April 20, 2018 in Montgomery, Al. More than 800 corten steel monuments are on display representing each county in the United States where a lynching took place. More than four thousand victims are honored at the memorial. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On April 26, 2018, the first national memorial to honor victims of lynchings opens in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial’s main feature is an installation of more than 800 suspended columns made of steel, one for each U.S. county where the murders occurred. The names of victims are etched into the markers — in places, the engravings simply read, “unknown.” Bryan Stevenson, whose Montgomery-based Equal Justice Institute,  compiled an official tally of burnings, hangings, shootings, and drownings of black Americans by white mobs from 1877 – 1950 and created the memorial, said he wanted to capture the “scale” of the 20th century’s racial terrorism.

The story of lynchings in the U.S can also be told on a smaller scale. Mob violence against blacks was wrought on communities, families and individual bodies. Throughout the memorial, details of some of the killings are listed along a walkway. But documentation of many of the murders is scarce: newspaper accounts are missing or unreliable, and memories of many witnesses and bystanders has been lost to silence and grief.

For New York Times magazine, journalist Vanessa Gregory unearths one story as she follows the descendants of Elwood Higginbotham, to Oxford, Mississippi, where they learn the details of the events surrounding his 1935 murder by a white mob and visit his possible burial site in an attempt to come to terms with their family history.

Higginbottom was 4 when the mob came for his father. He is now 87, with eyes set in a perpetual glaucoma squint and the strong voice of a younger man. He is the last remaining family member to have seen his father alive, and the thought of returning to Oxford was gnawing at him. The anxiety began when his daughters first proposed the trip, and it intensified that morning when he woke. And now Washington, the youngest of his six children, was peppering him with questions.

“So, who is your daddy’s mama?”

“I don’t know my grandmother on my daddy’s side,” he said.

“When did granddaddy and grandmama get married?”

“I don’t know when my parents got married.”

Higginbottom knew little because his mother and extended family fled Mississippi after the lynching. They raised E.W., the eldest, and his siblings, Flora and Willie Wade, in Forrest City, Ark., and later in Memphis. Higginbottom’s mother told the children their father had been hanged but didn’t share many details. And she almost never spoke of her dead husband’s character, habits or looks — the stories of his life. Maybe grief kept her quiet. Or fear. Either way, Higginbottom knew better than to mention his daddy. Sometimes he asked his cousins Dorothy and Olivia about him, but they told him to leave it alone. Don’t mess around in that, they said. You might get hurt.

Higginbottom had occasionally returned to Oxford when he was younger, chaperoned by uncles who wanted to visit relatives or take in a service at the family’s former church. But it had been a long time. He stared at the fields consumed by kudzu, the gravel drives, the hardwoods lush with summer growth, and saw only a foreign country. “I was trying to see something I recognized around here, but I don’t,” he said. “It don’t look like I ever lived down here.” As they sped closer to Oxford, he kept gazing out the window, scanning the landscape for even a spark of memory.

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