CH@T: Commissioners consider historical marker for county’s lynching victims

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The Chatham County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday evening to consider accepting the donation of a historical marker remembering the county’s lynching victims. The donation, if approved, would come from the Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham and the national Equal Justice Initiative; the EJI, based on Montgomery, Alabama, has sponsored dozens of such markers across the country.

EJI’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, is a public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. In speaking about EJI’s historical marker project, he said: “The public narrative a nation creates about what is important is reflected in memorials and monuments. Who is honored, what is remembered, what is memorialized tells a story about a society that can’t be reflected in other ways.”

According to the EJI, the Historical Marker Project works with local groups to erect narrative markers in public locations describing the devastating violence, today widely unknown, that once took place in these locations. These projects and the other engagement efforts that community coalitions develop center the African American experience of racial injustice, empower African American community members who have directly borne this trauma, and invite the entire community to use truth to give voice to those experiences and expose their legacies.

The CRC-C’s mission is to improve race relations, enhance comity, empathy and understanding across and within Chatham County’s races, faiths and communities. Tuesday’s vote by the commission board occurred after press time. Prior to the vote, we asked the CRC-C about the marker, which would honor six Chatham residents who were lynched: Harriet Finch, Jerry Finch, Lee Tyson and John Pattishall in 1885, Henry Jones in 1889, and Eugene Daniel in 1921.

The idea of a historical marker to memorialize Chatham’s lynching victims has been in the works for some time. Commissioners were expected to accept the donation of that marker at Tuesday night’s meeting, which took place after our press time for this edition. Why is erecting a marker like this a good and appropriate thing to do?

These lynchings took place in a time when Black Americans were denied equal political, economic, educational and political rights, privileges and opportunities. Now more and more Americans of every color recognize those injustices for what they were and want a better society and a truer democracy. Memorializing the lives of these victims in a county which saw the second highest number of lynchings in North Carolina is a key step forward, an acceptance of the fact of injustice, and a commitment by the whole community to keep making progress.

What’s the proposed location for the marker?

The marker will go near the new Chatham Justice Center, on the south side of the county government annex at 12 East St. in Pittsboro, so that it will be a powerful reminder of the need for justice and to provide a site for the public, from school children to elders, to learn and understand our shared history in Chatham County.

What permitting and government approval is required for the marker?

The Community Remembrance Coalition Chatham (CRC-C.org), together the NAACP branches in Chatham County, applied through the planning commission for a permit to erect the historical marker. We and the Equal Justice provided all the details requested concerning the site, details of erection of the marker and the EJI-approved text for the marker.

The approval and placement of this marker would come soon after observances in memory of Eugene Daniel (last September) and the other lynching victims earlier this year, which included a soil removal ceremony (with some of that soil going to the EJI museum in Montgomery.) Those events reflect what a community doing similar work in Tennessee said: “There can be no reconciliation and healing without remembering the past.” In this work toward healing, what’s next for the CRC-C?

We have other important projects underway or in the planning stages. We plan to present to the county’s community with a mural that captures the history of the Black Chathamites and the brighter future they foresee. We are working on expanding and further developing a walking tour of downtown Pittsboro that will feature key sites of Black life in the city.

CRC-C is joined with the NAACP branches in the county to address the issue of excessive unnecessary suspensions for minority students and special needs children in our schools; their rates of suspension far exceed those of non-minority children. We would like to develop a project that would help released prisoners return to productive life and are exploring the options.

Finally, and very importantly, we want to work more closely with the business development community of the county to ensure vibrant life of our Black community, which depends on jobs and support for Black businesses in the county. Without that key economic access and wealth-building, our Black community, churches and cultural contributions to the county will wither and disappear as the county’s economic development ignores basic fairness to our own citizens.

We welcome new members and encourage those interested in our projects to contact us on our website home page (CRC-C.org). Donations are very welcome and work 100% to help our local community. We have no paid staff so all funds go to our charitable projects.

Your group is planning a trip to Montgomery later this year. What details can you share, and is that trip open to the public?

The trip is open to the public, subject to health and access conditions. We are planning to visit Montgomery from Sept. 19-21, traveling by bus. We have arranged with the EJI to visit the new Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Together these two sites tell the powerful story of slavery in the United States and encourage all Americans to commit to redeem our history with a better future.

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