My mother was born in Laurens, SC in 1928. She was an only child but her mother, my grandmother, was one of twelve siblings. During my lifetime I got to know several of those siblings from Laurens. Many times I tried to imagine their lives, as they were people born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who endured the Jim Crow South.
This mirrored what a witness to a lynching might experience…This Sankofa Journey to Harmony caused me to reflect soberly on US history, including slavery and the Jim Crow era. During the journey we stopped at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL. The memorial recognizes the lives of African Americans who were victims of terror, largely in the southern US, killed primarily through lynching.
The memorial consisted mostly of numerous large, rust-colored, metallic, rectangular prisms hanging from the ceiling, each representing a US county and bearing the names of lynching victims. As we walked through the memorial, these prisms were first at eye level, but as we continued along a downward slope, the prisms rose above us, so we had to look up.
Did my family members know that person? Surely they had heard about lynching in their county…This mirrored what a witness to a lynching might experience: seeing the victim face-to-face, but then watching the victim overhead. We continued outside to where more rectangular metal prisms rested horizontally on the ground; our eyes turned downward, the way one might have to view a dead body.
I found a memorial listing names from Laurens County, SC, my mother’s home. The name at the bottom of the list was, “unknown.” I wondered about that person’s life and the ostensible reason for their lynching. Did my family members know that person? Surely they had heard about lynching in their county. Perhaps the terrorizing of African Americans in the south is what caused my mother, my grandmother, and some of her sisters (my great aunts) to be part of the Great Migration, as they moved from South Carolina, to Washington, DC, and even to New York City. Maybe the fear of reviving trauma is what made them reluctant to speak about their lives in the south.
The Memorial for Peace and Justice is associated with the Legacy Museum, which is close to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor, and where discussions surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott took place.
I don’t always feel that America owns up to this painful part of history…It was amazing to see how close the church is to the state capitol, upon whose steps Gov. George Wallace once exclaimed, “segregation forever!” My emotions at the memorial, and also at the accompanying Legacy Museum, ranged from anger, to deep sadness, to even a strange sense of gratitude for not having had to live during that era. I was also frustrated that I don’t always feel that America owns up to this painful part of history, nor respects how many African Americans are still impacted by the horrors of that terrorism. Honestly, I did not want to process my feelings at the memorial or the museum with white people. Yet, the Sankofa Journey to Harmony is designed to have members of different races have a shared experience.
…go back to get what we need from that history in order to move forward.My partner along the journey was Dr. Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church. We have become friends over the past few years.
Greg and I gave each other the space to experience the journey individually, in Montgomery as well as the other places we visited, but then to speak when ready about what we were thinking, feeling, and wondering.
Most of the members of my family from Laurens, SC are deceased, including my mother. I am not able to have conversations with them about the past. But I came away hoping that many others, including my own children and subsequent generations, could go to Montgomery and become better acquainted with its history. We can, in the spirit of Sankofa, go back to get what we need from that history in order to move forward.
Rev. Dr. Dennis Edwards is the Senior Pastor at Sanctuary Covenant Church.