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GREENSBORO — It’s been more than 130 years since a mob lynched a black teenager on what was then the outskirts of the city.
Now a local group is making headway toward creating a monument that would acknowledge what happened.
The Guilford County Community Remembrance Project Coalition is one of hundreds of groups across the country working along parallel paths to confront the legacy of racial terror lynching.
“What’s creating the conversation is acknowledging that there were over 4,700 lynchings in the United States, but we have to remember why,” coalition member Jacqui Graves said. “And that’s really what we want to do. We want to know why. How can we avoid it? How can we improve?”
These local groups looking to memorialize local lynching victims are part of one national community remembrance project created by the Equal Justice Institute, a nonprofit organization founded by lawyer Bryan Stevenson.
The organization represents people who were “illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons,” according to its website.
From there, the institute has branched out to other work, including the establishment of a memorial to lynching victims. That’s a centerpiece of its larger National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which the Equal Justice Institute opened alongside a museum in Montgomery, Ala., in April 2018.
For each of the more than 800 counties in the United States where the institute has documented a lynching, the organization has built two identical, rectangular steel memorials, each the size of a coffin. Each bears the names of the victims lynched in those counties.
Guilford County has one name: Eugene Hairston, who was arrested in 1887 after being accused of assaulting a white 17-year-old, then kidnapped from jail and hanged by a mob.
The first set of memorials hang suspended, row upon row, from a structure on site at the memorial in Montgomery intended to be a permanent monument.
The second set lie nearby. The Equal Justice Institute hopes the counties where the lynchings occurred will claim their copies and take them back to mark their history.
“One of the most important things about the museum down there is they want you to leave and do something about it,” said Allison Spooner, a member of the Guilford County coalition, who visited the Montgomery memorial shortly after it opened.
Claiming one of the memorials is not as simple as carting it off, however. The Equal Justice Institute encourages local groups and communities to first take other steps. Those include conducting a soil collection at the site of the lynching, erecting a historical marker, and conducting community education and dialogue.
Visitors to the monument or its website can sign up to inquire about claiming a memorial, as well as participating in other steps. In 2018, the institute reached out to connect a small number of people in Guilford County who had individually signed up to express their interest.
“I really care about racial justice,” said Graves, one of the initial group that got together. “I am really disturbed that I feel as if we are going backward and not moving forward as a country, as a nation, within our communities, and because of that concern, that’s why I’m involved in this project.”
Some of the half-dozen or so people who attended a first meeting in fall 2018 have continued the effort while also adding new coalition members, according to Terry Hammond, a later addition to the group.
Hammond, the director and curator of the art gallery at Guilford College, has been helping research the events leading to Hairston’s death.
The lynching was hardly a secret at the time. The Morning News newspaper in Greensboro ran an article about it with the headline, “Lynched!” on the day of his death, according to a pamphlet compiled by the Guilford County Community Remembrance Project. The Western Sentinel in Winston-Salem wrote about it in an article titled “Lynch Law & Lynchings” about a week later.
According to the pamphlet, Hairston was apprehended and arrested in Colfax after being accused of assaulting Mahala C. Sapp in the woods near her grandmother’s house.
“Within thirty minutes after the first news of the attempted rape was received at Kernersville, the best citizens were saying: ‘He should be lynched, let us do it,’” The Western Sentinel reported, according to the pamphlet.
He was first taken to Kernersville, then removed by officers to a jail in Greensboro, according to the pamphlet. [This sentence has been reworded and the next paragraph added for clarity. See clarification at the bottom of the story].
"Before nightfall it was well understood that his life would be taken that night," reported The Western Sentinel as quoted in the pamphlet. "The shrewdness of the officers in removing him to Greensboro alone saved his life for the time."
A mob of masked men then rode in from Kernersville, broke down the doors to his Greensboro cell, took him to what were then the suburbs of Greensboro and hanged him near a school house.
While newspapers detailed the lynching, there are no accounts of what, if anything, happened to those involved, according to the pamphlet.
Merriam-Webster defines lynch as, “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission.” In its report on racial terror lynchings, Equal Justice Institute said that it doesn’t count as a lynching any racial violence or hate crimes that are prosecuted. Impunity for the perpetrators is part of the definition.
“These lynchings were not ‘frontier justice,’ because they generally took place in communities where there was a functioning criminal justice system that was deemed too good for African Americans,” the Equal Justice Institute said in its report, sharing that thousands of people fled the South out of fear of being lynched.
“Terror lynchings were horrific acts of violence whose perpetrators were never held accountable,” the report said. “Indeed, some public spectacle lynchings were attended by the entire white community and conducted as celebratory acts of racial control and domination.”
From the newspaper records, Hammond focused on a few clues to the lynching location. One was a reference to “the neighborhood of Mr. Jackson’s farm” and the other was “near the little brick school house.”
Hammond, who has experience with genealogical research, found reference to a farmer named Jackson on what was then the outskirts of town. She then tracked down a reference to “the little brick school house” from a book of tales from the New Garden Friends cemetery.
The authors of that book referred her to another book from 1955 that indicated the schoolhouse was across the street from what’s now Church of the Covenant Presbyterian Church on South Mendenhall Street. Just days ago, she said, she learned of another reference to “Troy Institute” located at the corner of Walker Avenue and Mendenhall Street, in another book from the 1950s.
The group is now working with Church of the Covenant to plan a soil collection ceremony on the site of the church in early May, Hammond said. Soil would be given to the Equal Justice Institute to be part of an exhibit at its Legacy Museum in Montgomery.
They have also shared with Mayor Nancy Vaughan an idea about putting a historical marker in downtown, Hammond and Graves said. They would like to put the marker on the corner of Elm Street and Friendly Avenue at the former site of the jail from which the mob kidnapped Hairston.
And they have contacted a present day relative of Hairston, living in Kernersville, to inform her of the group’s work.
Bringing back the monument is probably at least a couple of years in the future, Hammond said. So far none of the groups across the country working on the project have brought back their steel memorials from the Montgomery exhibit.
In the meantime, the Guilford County group has kicked off a series of educational presentations. Last week, Deborah Barnes, a member of the group and adjunct professor at N.C. A&T, gave a talk at Bennett College to an estimated 80 to 100 people on why Hairston’s killing still matters today.
“As far back as this country has existed, the so-called ‘other’ has been turned into a monster which good God-fearing people need to worry about and protect themselves from,” she said, explaining what fuels ongoing racist terrorism. “People are shooting up Walmarts in part because so-called people of color tend to shop at Walmarts.”
Barnes, who is a long-time scholar of lynching, also talked about how lynchings contributed to defining who was being counted as a white person.
Race is a social construct, she said, not a biological reality, and being white was a loose, still developing concept. At times, she said, people carried out racial terror lynchings on Native Americans, Mexicans, Jews, Welsh people, Chinese people and Slavs in the United States.
And participating in a racial terror lynching also could be a way for people to prove themselves as white.
“These people knew they were seeing it, and they were either for it or against it,” she said of the people in 1887. “You are seeing it. What will you do this time, about racial violence and terror?”
Clarification: The pamphlet compiled by the Guilford County Community Remembrance Project does not specify why Eugene Hairston was moved from Kernersville to Greensboro before his lynching. The original article attributed a motive to the transfer.