Jefferson County Memorial Project
Giving a Voice to Victims of Racial Terror
On a summer day in 1923, Will McBride of Adamsville, Ala., took a walk down a country road.
While the 60-year-old’s destination is unknown today, what is known is that at some point during his excursion, he came across a group of white school children.
McBride, a Black man, passed them by.
Later that day, the children told their school teacher that McBride looked scary to them, though he never touched them. In response to their story, the police were called. Officers arrested McBride and charged him with assault.
At trial, the children testified that McBride never physically touched them, but that the sight of the old man “frightened” them.
The Court discharged the case and on July 12, 1923, McBride went home, a free man.
But that night, a mob of white adults showed up at his home to terrorize him and demand “justice.” They dragged McBride out of his house, lynched him, and dumped his mangled body along a roadway.
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Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin (far left) attending JCMP dedication at Sloss Furnaces honoring lynching victims Tom Redmond, Jake McKenzie and James Thomas.
The McBride tragedy is just one of more than 30 recorded cases of lynching that took place in Jefferson County, Ala., from 1883 to 1940. Now a nonprofit group called the Jefferson County Memorial Project (JCMP) aims to honor McBride and other lynching victims through commemorative markers and other projects.
The JCMP launched in 2018 after the Montgomery-based nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) opened its National Memorial for Peace and Justice the same year. The National Memorial is a first of its kind, honoring Black Americans who suffered enslavement, hangings, and other forms of racial terror; it features 800 six-foot monuments—one for every county in the United States where an act of lynching occurred.
We wanted to…educate Jefferson County residents about our county’s history of racial terror…
“The JCMP formed after a group of Jefferson County citizens experienced walking through the National Memorial,” says JCMP Director Joi Brown. “We wanted to do something here locally to educate Jefferson County residents about our county’s history of racial terror and advocate wherever racial injustice still exists today.”
The JCMP is working in tandem with the EJI Memorial’s Community Remembrance Project to place markers—identical to the National Memorial’s Jefferson County marker—at strategic locations around Jefferson County.
Researching incidents of lynching in Jefferson County is a first step in preparing for the markers. Toward that end, the JCMP started the JCMP Fellows Program, in which students from local colleges and universities research and publish reports about the deaths of lynching victims in Jefferson County.
Lynching victims in Jefferson County are among those honored at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery.
“Our fellows have researched the victims over the past three years, and we’re now looking at ways to evolve that research toward restorative justice,” says Brown. “We’re trying to find the descendants of the victims and look at what justice would mean to them. I think that’s a question for the descendants themselves.”
The JCMP has, so far, placed two historical markers in locations around the county. One is located at Sloss Furnaces, the former blast furnace in Birmingham that is now a National Historic Landmark. The marker displays the names of three lynching victims: Tom Redmond, Jake McKenzie and James Thomas.
“These three were not lynched at Sloss Furnace directly,” says Brown, “but they were lynched at mines that were owned by Sloss Furnaces.”
The other marker is in Irondale, Ala., across from the famous Whistle Stop Café. The memorial honors William Wardley, a Black man shot down by a white mob on Dec. 7, 1896, following accusations that he attempted to pass counterfeit one- and two-dollar bills while trying to buy apples from a local merchant.
After Wardley’s death, U.S. Secret Service agents declared the money to be authentic and not counterfeit.
Plans are now in the works to plant a memorial in Linn Park in downtown Birmingham.
JCMP Director Joi Brown discovered that her own great-great grandfather was lynched in Blount County in the 1880s.
“Linn Park is important for several different reasons,” Brown says. “One of the main reasons is that it’s where our first documented victim, Lewis Houston, was lynched in 1883. It’s also fitting because the area sits right in front of the County courthouse, so it’s symbolic for several different reasons.”
Houston, a Black man, was accused of assaulting a white widow. He maintained his innocence, but, nevertheless, police jailed him.
Then on the night of Nov. 23, 1883, a mob of 150 white men ripped Houston from his jail cell and brought him to Capitol Park, which today is Linn Park. His last recorded words were, “Jesus, take me home,” before the mob hung him there.
JCMP researchers have also documented the lynching of 24-year-old John Thomas of Bessemer who, on April 24, 1909, was killed for “crimes against a white woman.”
The local newspaper at the time, the Lineville Headlight, described Thomas as a “brute” deserving of death. The editor and proprietor of the newspaper, Walter Scott, wrote in favor of citizens taking the law into their own hands rather than putting the woman through a trial.
Brown found similar newspaper disparagement of Black lynching victims when she began researching her own great-great-grandfather Matt Brown’s lynching death. The tragedy took place in Blount County in the 1880s after he was accused of assaulting a white woman.
…He was shot to death by a mob in the woods, and that’s how I learned the definition of lynching.”
“He was shot to death by a mob in the woods, and that’s how I learned the definition of lynching. It’s not just hangings. It’s any mob of three or more people, and it can be a shooting, a burning or a hanging,” Brown says.
“It was hard finding all of the details about his murder. I found two newspaper articles. One was titled, ‘A Black Demon,’ and the other titled ‘A Black Brute.’ White newspapers, especially the further back you go, depicted lynchings as justified killings of perpetrators who were being punished.”
Black-owned newspapers, however, were essential in documenting the horrors of these lynchings, Brown says. “ So often the only documentation we have are newspaper articles, and, in the South especially, white newspapers had a biased view of the lynchings. They were often not even called lynchings.”
JCMP Research Fellows prepare to deliver reports on lynching to the Jefferson County community.
At the turn of the 20th century, Black newspaper editors such as Ida B. Wells, owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, endeavored to report the facts surrounding lynchings accurately. Wells, for example, investigated numerous lynching incidents across the South and found that most of the Black men were innocent of the crimes of which they were accused.
“Oftentimes, there was no attack. There was no rape,” says Brown. “It could have been something as simple as a Black man walking down the street and looking at a white woman and her getting startled. Quite often it wasn’t even that. It could have been a case of accidentally bumping into a white woman and the woman not accusing him, but somebody else seeing it and making the accusation. And then there were times where it was consensual.”
White mobs that carried out the lynchings frequently threatened the lynching victims’ families as well, and many families ended up moving North, across the Mason Dixon line.
There, Black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the New York Age, in addition to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), reported on the lynchings and called on the federal government to end these extrajudicial, racially motivated killings.
The only woman reported to have been lynched in Jefferson County was Elizabeth Lawrence, a mother and schoolteacher, in 1933. She was walking home when a group of white children began throwing rocks and dirt at her. She scolded the children in response.
About a week later, on July 5, 1933, while Lawrence was home alone, the children’s parents surrounded her home. The details of what happened leading up to Lawrence’s killing are unknown, but JCMP researchers reported that Lawrence died after the mob shot her and torched her house.
The last recorded lynching in Jefferson County took place in Fairfield, Ala., in 1940.
The last recorded lynching in Jefferson County took place in Fairfield, Ala., in 1940. The victim was O.D. Henderson.
Henderson worked for the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co., and on September 5, 1940, a white co-worker alleged that Henderson bumped into him and knocked him down. There was a police officer in the vicinity, and the co-worker, offended, called the police officer over and told him that Henderson had knocked him over. The police officer began beating Henderson and called another officer over to help. The officers beat and shot Henderson to death.
“The O.D. Henderson story stands out because it was so recent,” Brown says. “I don’t believe lynchings stopped after 1940. I believe that, by definition, sometimes lynching can have a very historical, judicial definition and the definition can vary depending on whom you ask.”
Arguably, she says, one could say there are lynchings occurring today.
The JCMP aims to foster conversations about lynchings, in addition to researching and memorializing the victims, she says. The nonprofit, for example, is educating the community through projects such as community book discussions and art exhibitions.
…educating the community on this history has been surprisingly less difficult than we anticipated.”
“Lynching is a painful subject to talk about,” says Brown. “However, educating the community on this history has been surprisingly less difficult than we anticipated.”
The JCMP’s diverse programming, using the arts, discussions, and other events gives the organization a variety of approaches for reaching diverse audiences, she says.
Brown says, however, that she is frequently asked, “Why go back to the past? Why keep talking about it?”
“Well, hopefully, we can talk about it and process it so we can leave something better to the future generations of Jefferson County,” she says. “While they can never forget the past, they’ll have all the tools that they need and all of the truth that they need to get to a place of reconciliation.”
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