Remembrance recalls moments to be inspired, to learn a lesson, or to move on from a regret that cannot be undone. Five unremembered Black citizens, lynched in Chatham County by white vigilante terrorists in 1885 and 1899, will this weekend reenter the history which buried them.
No county leader, no judge, no sheriff, no concerned citizen stepped forward to demand a fair trial for any of the accused. No person was ever indicted, tried, or convicted for the criminal conspiracies that resulted in these deaths. The purpose of these lynchings was to make sure that no Black American in Chatham County would ever challenge white rule. Our job is to recover from the effects of that legacy to build the community we should have.
We remember these fellow Americans not to shame or blame anyone living today. All those who participated in these lynchings have gone to their Maker, and His judgment is final. St. Augustine said that no one can be held responsible for something they could not have affected. No living white person in Chatham County, in my view, is responsible for these past events. We are all responsible, however, for their effects, which are still with us. Every single one of us in Chatham County — Black, Brown or white — will be accountable for what happens today and in the future.
Thinking that these events long ago should stay forgotten or that progress to advance racial justice is solely the personal responsibility of individual Black Americans is for some a rationale for doing little today. But there are things to be done today.
Will we ever know if a single person was disciplined over the mock slavery auction at J.S. Waters School? Nothing on the subject was said at the recent, otherwise outstanding, One Chatham presentation by Chatham County School officials.
The Chatham County Museum has a prominent display board featuring the names of the first Europeans settling the county. Not one word appears on that board to acknowledge the African American slaves who came with them to build the wealth of the county and enrich its religious, musical and food culture. The museum’s position is that the Black children in the county can look at this list, see their family surnames and thus feel included. How sad it is not to be honest about our local history: Black children and adults can only find their early settlement history on that board in the names of the white people who owned their ancestors. Would a meaningful acknowledgement of this key truth really be too hard to provide?
An objective study by the Pittsboro NAACP last year, entitled “Brighter Futures,” examined student discipline practices in the county schools. The study showed that Black students, children with disabilities, multiracial children, and economically disadvantaged children were disproportionally suspended from school compared to white children. The NAACP asked for a 90% reduction in exclusionary discipline and delinquency in the coming year. While the school system leaders are well-intentioned, concerned and engaged, we still have no public commitment on how to address this serious problem and improve the suspension rates dramatically.
VinFast is coming to Chatham, thanks to the superb work of a number of leaders in the county. According to reports, production is expected to start in 2024. VinFast expects to employ 7,500 by 2027 with average salaries of $51,000. How are we citizens and our county leaders, political, educational and business, going to ensure that our local Black and Brown entrepreneurs and job seekers can take advantage of an open process that leads to a quality work life? There is going to be, perhaps already is, a great deal of tension in the county about this issue. The sooner our leadership — public and private — plans and acts, the better off we are.
Every day in our county schools, our children and teachers finish the Oath of Allegiance to our flag with the words “with liberty and justice for all.” If we really mean that, then we can acknowledge the truth of the past without embarrassment or guilt. We can see then what needs to be done now to move toward equal justice and bring our community together in reconciliation for the future Chatham County deserves. As we are in business and education, we could become a model for racial relations in North Carolina.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: W. Robert Pearson was an innovative diplomat, leader and crisis manager at the top levels of the U.S. government. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey and completed a 30-year career in 2006 with the Department of State as director general of the Foreign Service. He is a frequent writer and speaker on diplomacy, foreign policy, Turkey, NGOs and development, and served under six presidents (four Republican and two Democratic) and 11 secretaries of state. He lives in Fearrington Village with his wife, Maggie, who also worked as a diplomat and served as a senior foreign service public diplomacy officer from 2000 to 2006 period.
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