Nearly 90 years after the public lynchings of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith outside the Grant County Courthouse, soil from the site will be collected and memorialized to remind people of the past and work toward reconciliation.
Torri Williams of the Marion Community Remembrance Coalition (MCRC) told Grant County Commissioners Monday the Aug. 7, 1930 lynchings continue to cast a shadow on the community that lingers to this day, especially when the community deals with a race-related event, as evidenced by Google searches or past press coverage of Marion and Grant County.
“The lynchings of Abe Smith and Thomas Shipp occurred nearly a century ago, and while there have been efforts to reconcile and move forward, this shadow still lingers,” Williams said. “The terror that occurred that night nearly a century ago has become a part of the collective identity of this community.”
Commissioners gave the MCRC permission to collect soil from outside of the Grant County Courthouse to take part in the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, the memorial displays jars of soil from sites of lynchings all across the country, remembering victims of racial terror like Shipp and Smith.
“‘Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,’” Williams said, quoting EJI Director Bryan Stevenson. “‘This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that has shaped our nation, traumatized people of color and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.’”
Williams said some of the soil will remain in Marion to remind the local community of the site’s history in addition to soil being transported to be part of the memorial in Montgomery. She said she has received emails from across the country and as far away as New Zealand asking why Marion has not yet submitted soil for the memorial.
“Since 2018, communities across the nation have participated in Equal Justice Initiative’s efforts to memorialize victims of lynchings through community remembrance projects like soil collection and historical markers,” Williams said. “Given the notoriety of what took place here, the fact that Marion is not currently represented draws a lot of attention.”
The path to healing and reconciliation from the county’s history of racism begins with an acknowledgment of the history, Williams said.
“By participating in the soil collection and eventually in a memorial, Grant County will join communities across this country acknowledging their history,” she said. “For too long the collective narrative of this city has been one of racism, silence and violence. We have an opportunity to begin to leave a new chapter with communities across the United States through acknowledgment, remembrance and collective work.”
Commissioner Ron Mowery thanked Williams and MCRC for working with EJI to participate in the memorial and said he believes the soil collection is a “positive step in the right direction.” He recalled holding a community prayer vigil focused on race reconciliation during his time as mayor of Marion and hopes the community will continue to move forward.
“People hugged, people said I love you, people forgave (at the vigil), and I’m hoping that somehow, some way we can put that (lynching) in our past,” Mowery said. “And it’s always part of our past; we can’t deny that.”
Williams said she believes it is important that future generations have a tangible piece of history, the soil, which can tell a story on its own and begin to write a new narrative of what Grant County stands for.
“It’s there and you can see it and it’s a beacon for what a community can actually do after experiencing something like that,” she said of the soil.
Commissioner Mark Bardsley said the soil memorials have a biblical parallel to the Israelite people setting up memorials showing where they came from.
“Every generation has to deal with the ugliness of racism,” he said. “We’ve got to have some things that establish, ‘Hey we did this,’ and we’re continuing to remind future generations about that through the samples, and through the things that we do.”
The soil collection is an important step, but Williams said her hope and the EJI’s mission is that the memorials will begin or continue conversations of racial reconciliation.
“They also recognize that reconciliation is a process, so it’s not just a symbolic collection of soil,” Williams said. “It’s what we do moving forward with the community, how we have conversations, how we work through these issues, and so it’s a chance to be a part of a larger collective conversation in this community.”
Williams said MCRC has ideas for what a ceremony to collect the soil will look like, but the organization was waiting for official approval and wants to get community input before scheduling the event.