Moving from anguish to action: Reflections on visiting the national lynching memorial
In June, I was in Montgomery, Alabama, with a group of foundation presidents and CEOs for the Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity in Philanthropy. During the trip, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon at the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The open-air memorial sits on a small hill, just outside of downtown Montgomery. It was hot and humid as I walked past the heart-wrenching sculpture of enslaved people by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, whose figures stand vigil at the start of the path. Ahead of me, the memorial rose, testament to the 4,000 documented racial terror lynchings in 12 states between 1877 and 1950.
As I approached, numerous steel rectangles came into focus, each hanging from the open-aired ceiling. One rectangle hangs for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place, and the names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns. It is a sacred space, where everyone spoke in hushed tones – if at all.
I prayed silently that I would not find a monument for the Virginia county where 10 generations of my ancestors lived before me. The heaviness I felt increased as I read name after name, county after county. The totality of the brutality was soul-crushing, especially knowing that white people like me had used lynchings as one way to terrorize and control their black neighbors in order to maintain the culture of white supremacy.
Then, as I walked around the Virginia counties, I found one for a county next to mine, Northumberland. A local African American, William Page, had been lynched by a group of masked farmers on August 15, 1917, in a tiny place called Lillian, less than 30 miles from where I live. Mr. Page had been accused, arrested, and lynched all in one afternoon, subverting his judicial rights in an act of mob terror.
Now the memorial was no longer abstract; it was personal. William Page had been brutally murdered in a campaign of white-led terror against African Americans. He had lived and worked in my community, and his descendants (and his murderers’ descendants) may live here still.
Walking out from the main memorial structure, I went into a field of identical memorials, looking for William Page’s name. I soon located it. These duplicate memorials are waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties where the crimes occurred.
Although no marker exists in Lillian to help us confront the truth about our own history of racial injustice, the details of this brutal murder were covered in two local newspapers of the day with excruciating detail.
As a white ally, what could I do in this struggle to remember William Page and to help myself and my community reconcile our shared history?
A week later, I was meeting with a local group in Northumberland County – Interracial Conversations – in an historic Baptist church about nine miles from Lillian. I was leading a discussion about bias, stereotypes, and power. At the end of the workshop, we turned to what we could do together to move from conversation to action. We talked about using economic power of the pocketbook and about harnessing voting power.
Then I told the story of the memorial and William Page. The room went very quiet as I recounted what had happened so close to where we were then meeting.
I asked who would be willing to explore how to bring William Page’s memorial home. Many hands were raised, both black and white, and we began talking about how to move forward. Not everyone in the room signed up to help, but enough did. One small step had been taken to turn my personal anguish into community action and to begin the long journey toward equal justice. This is a journey that can only be taken one county at a time and one person at a time.
As EJI director Bryan Stevenson explains, “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
For William Page – and all of the victims like him in counties across America – recognition, remembrance, and self-examination are long overdue.
Ali Webb is a consultant and partner with Keecha Harris and Associates, Inc., and the Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity in Philanthropy.