TROY history class studies lynching, gathers soil for Equal Justice Initiative exhibit

TROY students Mya Bell and Ciara Jones collect dirt in Perote, Alabama in memory of lynching victim Tobe McGrady.

TROY students Mya Bell and Ciara Jones collect dirt in Perote, Alabama in memory of lynching victim Tobe McGrady.

A Troy University history class is doing its part to provide a sense of justice for victims of lynching in and around Pike County.

Students in Dr. Kathryn Tucker’s class, the African American Experience, have spent part of the spring semester researching lynching, searching out locations and filling jars with dirt from the sites where those lynchings are thought to have taken place.

One of those jars contains dirt from Coffee County along the Pea River where Jerico Shivers was thrown into the river with a heavy object tied around his neck by a group of men following an allegation of rape. The dirt collected was given to the Equal Justice Initiative for their display of soil collected from lynching sites throughout the country. The EJI’s memorial to lynching victims and Legacy Museum opened last week in Montgomery and drew visitors from throughout the country to activities throughout the weekend.

The Shivers incident was one of several that the class has studied as a part of their lynching project, Tucker said.

“We started with a couple of lists from the internet, including the Tuskegee list,” said Tucker, referring to information compiled at the Tuskegee Institute. “We began going through the newspaper databases from there. When I envisioned the project, I didn’t even know if there would be any close by. It was a gradual process of building on information. The last step in the process has been reading the accounts carefully and trying to identify the locations.”

Tucker said the vast majority of information on victims has been gained through newspaper research.

“I had the students do Google searches for lynchings in Pike County,” she said. “Some of the accounts we discovered didn’t pass the logic test. In some accounts it was really obvious that the lynchings were cases of scapegoating. Another theme that was fairly common in newspaper accounts was that many would say ‘before he was killed he confessed,’ as if that washes their hands of all guilt. We all know that just because someone confesses at the hands of a lynch mob does not mean it is an accurate confession. That seemed to be another way that newspapers had of saying that it was justified.”

The project grew out of the course that she describes as a “general education-level course.”

“The African American Experience is a new course I created for students who are interested in race and race relations in American history, but maybe aren’t history majors,” Tucker said. “This is the second time I’ve taught it in class and I also have taught it once online. It has been going really well. The students tend to be very engaged, passionate and interested.”

For one of the 19 students in the class, the lynching project has provided an extremely personal experience. Mya Bell, a freshman computer science major from Montgomery, discovered through the research that a lynching had occurred within her family.

“Dr. Tucker posted some documents online for us to review. One of those documents was the Tuskegee lynching list. I was looking through it and recognized the name Green,” Bell said.

Bell talked with her grandmother, who confirmed that there was a lynching in the family, but the list had assigned the incorrect name to the victim.

“The lynching list had it listed as Jim, but it was actually Joe,” Bell said. “He is on our family tree. Apparently the family had to run away at that time right after the lynching, so we don’t know exactly what happened.

The lynching took place in Andalusia.

“Joe Green was 16 years old and worked for a man named Sam Spicer. Sam Spicer wanted his wife’s insurance money, so he framed Joe for the death,” Bell said. “From all of the newspapers article, Sam Spicer was tried for killing his wife and that case made it to the Alabama Supreme Court.”

Bell said researching the project has taken on a whole new personal meaning for her.

“It became real,” she said. “I felt like a stronger connection; this person was related to me. There were times when I would get emotional about it. Times were different then, but like me, he was young and he really didn’t get a chance to figure things out in life. If we were to switch roles, I would want him to try to have me commemorated in some way. I’ve been talking to people at EJI, trying to have him commemorated and bring some sort of justice. There was really no justice for him, just like no justice for any of these people. So, just like them I am fighting hard for him to be commemorated. My grandmother tells me I have an opportunity to bring some justice to this situation.”

Student Kymesha Atwood collects soil from the lynching site of Jerico Shivers at Tabernacle, Alabama. The soil was collected at the request of the Equal Justice Initiative for use in their exhibit.

The class plans to tour the EJI memorial and museum on Wednesday, and the class has a display of their own research, which will open in the Troy Campus library today.

Tucker said she hopes to continue the lynching project when the class is offered again this fall.

“Unfortunately, there are plenty of lynchings to study,” she said. “It is a really hard topic to study, obviously. It gets to you, but I think it is important to understand how it is 2018 and we are still having problems over race, misunderstandings, riots, aggression and a very politically divided nation. I think understanding the impact of things like lynching and racial violence helps us to understand why we are today.”

While it may be easy to think of the occurrence of lynchings as ancient history, Tucker said the impact is still being felt today. That, she said, is what makes the EJI memorial and museum so important.

“A lot of these look like they were a really long time ago, but studying them closely, you understand that it wasn’t that long ago,” she said. “There are still people living in these communities. We are not talking about ancient history when it is still impacting people today. This is exactly why society needs this. It is about coming together and understanding the impact.”