By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Between the 1880s and 1940, a documented 30 people were lynched or victims of racial terror violence in Jefferson County, Ala., according to the report released last week by the Jefferson County Memorial Project (JCMP).
These were people who had names, families, friends, lives before they were murdered—and the JCMP wants to tell their stories, an effort they began through a report released Wednesday night to a standing-room-only crowd at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB’s) Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.
The JCMP is a citizen-led coalition committed to telling the untold history of lynching in the county and explaining the historic links among slavery, Jim Crow, and present-day mass incarceration.
The report, entitled “The 30 Victims of Jefferson County” was written by JCMP Fellows, a group of 21 college and graduate students from the county’s six colleges and universities: Miles College, Jefferson State Community College, Lawson State Community College, Birmingham-Southern College, Samford University, and UAB.
JCMP core coalition members sent out emails to the six colleges asking students if they wanted to help with this research. Students began the research last semester, around September, conducting research by searching the internet, books, and newspaper archives.
As part of the project, students spent time at Birmingham’s Linn-Henley Research Library, combing through newspaper reports and genealogy databases to learn about the victims. Most of the reports from contemporary newspapers were written from the perspective of white newspapers, many of which depicted the killings “in a way that condoned them and made them seem like it was a rough-justice act, like this [victim] deserved this,” JCMP Project Manager Abigail Schneider told BirminghamWatch.org.
“These articles usually focused very much on the alleged crime [used as a pretext for killing the victims] rather than the fact that this was a mob of white men publicly murdering someone,” she said. “Additionally, they would refer to the [victims] as ‘savages,’ ‘brutes,’ and other incredibly dehumanizing and racist words.”
During last week’s report release, each fellow talked about his or her “research victim,” what shocked them about the incident, and the importance of telling others.
“My research victim’s name was O.D. Henderson, and he was from Fairfield, Ala., which is where Miles College is located,” said Devyn Troy, a junior history major at Miles College. “He was killed in a police station … [after] getting into an argument with his white coworker.”
Henderson was lynched on Sept. 5, 1940, in Fairfield, according to Troy’s research. He was fighting with his coworker, and a police officer who witnessed the incident joined in. Henderson was beat all the way to the jail, where he was eventually killed.
Troy said her victim was 25 years old, an only child, and single: “He had no children, no siblings. He only died in the memory of his parents. … Without his story being told, he would never live on because he has no descendants. His story is just as important as everybody’s story in this room. He has a right to have his story told just like everybody else.”
JCMP Fellow Jimena Ortiz-Perez, a sophomore nursing student at Lawson State Community College, said her victim, Will McBride, was lynched on July 12, 1923, in Adamsville by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
“[McBride], from Adamsville, Ala., was a 60-year-old male who wasn’t lynched but was beaten to death outside his house,” Ortiz-Perez said. “His crime was just scaring some little kids by his appearance. He didn’t steal. He didn’t kill anybody. It was just scaring these kids.”
There was a trial after McBride’s death, but there was no justice, Ortiz-Perez explained. Alabama newspapers at the time barely covered the atrocity: “Nothing was really reported about that trial, just the fact that the kids said, ‘Oh, we were walking home, and the man scared us, so we went to tell our teacher about it.’ … The teacher called the police, and somehow 1,000 KKK members showed up outside his door and [killed] him.
Ortiz-Perez said it took her three to four months to find information—in a Charlotte newspaper. Birmingham and Adamsville had no records of McBride.
“There was no genealogy,” she said. “We tried going on some genealogy websites, but nothing was found.”
Undre Phillips, a UAB master of public administration student, researched two victims, one of whom was unknown. He found info on the unknown victim, but his name is not clear at this time; Phillips has to do additional research to be sure of the man’s name.
“When researching, I found articles that referred to [the unknown man] as Charlie Winston, but we’ll have to dive deep into more research … to figure out if it is his actual name,” Phillips said. “What was surprising to me was that Charlie was one of seven men who were lynched in search of one man. They were looking for a man named Jim Brown, who had been accused of raping a white woman. ‘Charlie’ was 25 years old at the time he was slain.”
Jenesia Porter, JCMP Fellow and Samford University student, said what happened in Jefferson County is important but what happened in American history is equally significant.
“I think most people don’t realize that black history is so integral to America,” she said. “We make it a week or a month that we learn [about it] in class, but in reality, it’s part of every facet of American culture. … As much as we talk about George Washington, we need to be talking about George Washington Carver and even more obscure black figures that are important to our country.”
Ortiz-Perez added, “We learn from our past to fix the future. It’s important to educate children and other people because we need to discuss it. It is a wound we have been putting a [bandage] on, and we haven’t let it heal. … I think it’s time for healing, … time to do something about racial problems today not only in Jefferson County but in the whole United States.”
To read the Jefferson County Memorial Project’s report, visit www.jeffersoncountymemorial.com.
30 victims of lynching in Jefferson County
The victims include 29 males and one female.
The first documented lynching in Jefferson County was that of Lewis Houston, who was lynched on Nov. 24, 1883, in Linn Park, then known as Central Park, in downtown Birmingham. Other documented lynchings include …
An unknown man whose name might have been Tom Collins lynched April 22, 1886, at Pratt Mines in Birmingham.
Monroe Johnson lynched Sept. 28, 1887, in Leeds.
Jeff Curry lynched March 18, 1888, at Blue Creek Mines just outside of Birmingham in Adger.
Hardy Posey lynched April 23, 1888, at Southern Railway Depot in Bessemer.
George Meadows lynched Jan. 15, 1889, near Pratt Mines in Birmingham.
John Steele lynched Sept. 27, 1889, at Pratt Mines in Birmingham.
Tom Redmond lynched June 17, 1890, at Brookside Mines just outside of Birmingham.
Henry Smith lynched Nov. 16, 1890, near Hillman, a community about eight miles outside of Birmingham.
An unknown man lynched Nov. 17, 1890, at Birmingham Mineral Railroad, the night after Henry Smith was lynched.
Robert Mosley lynched Nov. 14, 1894, in Dolomite.
James Anderson lynched Oct. 9, 1896, in Toadvine, near Rocky Creek Bridge.
Henry Cyat lynched Oct. 10, 1896, in Toadvine.
William Wardley lynched Dec. 7, 1896, in Irondale.
Jake McKenzie lynched March 22, 1897, at Brookside Mines, just outside of Birmingham.
James Thomas lynched July 3, 1897, in Blossburg.
An unknown man lynched May 11, 1901, in Leeds, near the Southern Railway Train Route.
Charles Bentley lynched Aug. 2, 1901, in Leeds.
Jerry Johnson lynched Sept. 3, 1907, in Birmingham.
Elijah Nelms lynched July 29, 1908, in Pratt City.
William Miller lynched Aug. 4, 1908, in Brighton.
Anthony Davis lynched Aug. 21, 1908, in Pratt City.
John Thomas lynched April 25, 1909, in Bessemer, on the outskirts of town.
John Chandler lynched Jan. 28, 1912, in Bessemer at the corner of Third Avenue and 19th Street.
William Smith lynched Nov. 1, 1912, in Bessemer at 1623 Second Ave.
Wilson Gardner lynched Aug. 23, 1913, at Kilgore.
Will McBride lynched July 12, 1923, in Adamsville.
Elizabeth Lawrence lynched July 5, 1933, in Birmingham.
George Taylor lynched Aug. 23, 1934, in Stockham Park.
O.D. Henderson lynched Sept. 5, 1940, in Fairfield.