By Sabrina Bates
Atonement, repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness. Those four words resonated throughout the discussion of Weakley County’s painful past during a forum held Saturday morning at C.E. Weldon Public Library. The conversation shed light on the five documented county victims of lynching during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Last summer, a handful of members of Martin’s First United Methodist Church along with Robert Nunley, spent a weekend in Montgomery, Alabama, visiting the site of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, which guide visitors through America’s history of slavery and acts of racial violence, specifically racial terror lynchings. Upon their return from Alabama, they spent time reflecting on the visit and how to move forward in their own communities. One of the first steps was taken Saturday when community members were invited to a forum discussion and the reveal of the five names of lynching victims engraved on a memorial at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The Alabama visit was led by Martin FUMC pastor, Rev. Randy Cooper. He shared how he was deeply moved by the trip and shared a video with the group of concerned citizens that gathered at the downtown Martin library. Cooper said the trip made him look at the world through human weakness and the ongoing issues we face as a nation.
David Moore, who has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin, told the group his visit through UTM was one of the best learning experiences for him while at UT Martin. As a former investigator he was intrigued by the opportunity to examine cold cases.
“There is much work to be done. This is an opportunity to seek truth and equal justice,” Moore added.
Nunley asked the group what can be done here.
“There is significance of us being together today. This morning, March 9, in America, is this taking place in this country? How many conversations like this are taking place? I have never been a part of something like this before. With one person at a time, we can impact the quality of life in this community,” Nunley shared.
Dr. Michael Hinds also made the trek to Alabama last year.
“We have to get beyond our differences and learn to love each other, despite our differences and our history,” Hinds shared. The physician shared how his daughter spent some time in Germany. He spoke of how Germany, home to a mass genocide of Jewish people during the Holocaust, has taken full responsibility and fully repented for their past.
“Repentance makes forgiveness possible,” he added.
Dr. Hinds shared research findings on the local victims and their circumstances during the forum.
The five victims who were listed on the memorial as targets of racial lynchings in Weakley County include:
- Loab Landers – Accused of attempted rape by possibly walking into a room and/or looking at a white woman, killed in Dresden on July 29, 1892;
- Ira Dumas – Accused of rape by breaking into a farmhouse and standing in a room with the daughter of a farmer, killed in Gleason on June 7, 1893;
- Edgar Bell – Accused of murder after he got into a fight with someone and shot him, killed in Dresden on July 27, 1893;
- Bob Hudson – Accused of stealing a farmer’s fencepost, was reportedly beaten by the farmer who was arrested for the assault. He was taken by a group of masked men, beaten, and shot three times before he was lynched by the mob. Every member of the masked mob was acquitted. He was hung in Dresden on Oct. 8, 1893.
- Mallie Wilson – Accused of entering a hotel room where a woman was sleeping and was charged with attempted assault. He was found in a field in Greenfield and lynched on Sept. 4, 1915. The husband of the alleged “victim” refused to act as executioner.
Forum organizers reported another lynching not listed on the memorial in Alabama was that of James Harr who was hung in Gleason June 21, 1893. Harr had reportedly been arrested the night before for drinking.
He was hung the next day as a result of mistaken identity.
Hinds said many of the lynchings in the county were during the time of Sheriff S.W. Lafon’s service in Weakley County. Those accused were never given a trial, and they were executed at the hands of mobs, whose members did not face criminal punishments as a result.
Tim Hacker, a resident of Fulton County and UT Martin English professor, told the group members of the Methodist Church in Fulton, Kentucky, are undertaking a project to atone for their county’s lynchings. Hacker said after a visit to the site in Alabama, he discovered Fulton County, Kentucky, had the most documented lynchings in the state with 20 names listed on its memorial.
Part of the visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice includes an area adjacent to the open-air memorial that houses blank, identical monuments which communities can claim, engraved with a list of victims of lynchings and install in their communities. Hacker said as part of a ministry, concerned citizens are looking at erecting the memorial, but it is not a project for government.
“This is not going to be easy. This is going to take guts and faith. This is an exhilarating project, but I’m afraid of it. Although we didn’t do it, we can say ‘I’m sorry.’ We cannot escape history, but we can atone for it,” Hacker said.
“Congratulations. It takes courage anywhere to have these conversations. They say each journey begins with the first step and today, in this community, we are taking our first step. I believe this is going to be a marathon. Until we accept the pain and ugliness of our history, we cannot move forward. I went back to school to help facilitate these types of conversations. Count me in,” Joyce Washington, a vocal advocate for civil rights, shared in the forum.
Onessa Horton Webb, sporting an “I Am History,” graphic T-shirt, told the group they have to keep in touch and continue conversations.
“I am history. We have lost a lot of people to lynching. African Americans can’t do this. Caucasians can’t do this. But together, we all can make the difference,” Webb said.
Deborah Boyd, who has worked with the UT Martin Civil Rights Conference planning for the last 20 years said civil rights is not about us; it’s not about y’all; it’s about ALL.
Former UT Martin professor Dr. Frank Black expressed he would like to see younger people engaged in the conversations. He said there is still conscious and unconscious racism in America.
“I want people to come to this community and know we are a community that won’t tolerate racism,” Black added.
Research is taking place into determining circumstances surrounding other possible lynchings in Weakley County, as well as further knowledge of the documented lynchings.
Those on hand Saturday and other interested community members are invited to a second discussion at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 29 at the C.E. Weldon Public Library in downtown Martin.
Rev. Cooper may be contacted by phone at FUMC at (731) 587-2689.
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