The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill that would put lynching sites in western Tennessee on track to become part of the National Park Service, part of a trend this year in Congress using the agency to host discussions about the troubled and often violent advance the nation’s racial history.
A invoice by US Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, would urge the National Park Service to study the feasibility of adding locations in and around Memphis where white mobs have been lynching for decades, from just after the Civil War to the Jim Crow Era.
Supporters of the bill say it’s important to understand an ugly past in which black people were terrorized and murdered.
“Until we remind people of our past, we will not overcome it and we will not have a better society,” Cohen said during a July subcommittee hearing on the bill. “We must recognize the mistakes in our past.”
Preserving historical pieces has gained prominence amid a heated national debate about how the nation’s history spanning centuries of black slavery and oppression should be taught, said Tiffany Patterson, chair of Vanderbilt University’s African American and Diaspora Studies program, in an interview.
“There’s a backlash from the political arena that’s spreading to parents, teachers and politicians and whatnot who are afraid of actually being discussed,” she said. “So I think there is a need to recognize places and turn them into a kind of educational museum for the general public.”
Rich Watkins, executive chairman of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, a nonprofit dedicated to commemorating about two dozen lynchings in the area, said part of his group’s goal is to uncover a common set of facts that lead to it could be useful reflection.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a time when people don’t agree on the facts,” Watkins said in an interview.
Thousands of lynchings
The history of lynching — racist extrajudicial killings — is often not taught in schools, Watkins said. While most lynched victims were black, mobs also targeted non-black people who may have helped black people, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a longstanding civil rights organization.
From 1882 to 1968, nearly 5,000 people were lynched in the United States. according to records maintained by the NAACP. The Memphis Project lists 24 places where 36 people were killed.
One page commemorates the 1917 lynching of Ell Persons, a black man who was beaten into confessing to killing a white girl. A mob kidnapped people from his jail cell, “then burned, beheaded, and dismembered him in front of an estimated 3,000 people who gathered on Macon Road near the Wolf River in Memphis,” according to a press release from Cohen’s office.
Federal recognition through designation as a National Park Service would lend legitimacy to efforts to address the history of lynching in the United States, which is featured at some memorials and sites across the United States but not directly in the park system.
“It tells a visitor that this is something that this country recognizes that happened and we accept those facts,” Watkins said. “And it has shaped our society on a large and small scale.”
“For the government to address this is one of the ways we’re ultimately changing our attitude,” Patterson said.
Is it just symbolic?
The National Park Service recognition may seem purely symbolic, but that doesn’t make it unimportant, said Robert Bland, an assistant professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Tennessee, who specializes in race and memory studies in the United States.
“I think there’s kind of an instinct to say, ‘It’s just symbolic, and what about real political action?'” he said.
But particularly as elements of the political right have mobilized to suppress the story, making some people uneasy, symbolic efforts are still important, he said.
“History has always had propagandistic and mysterious purposes,” he said. “Our history has often been used to defend white supremacy in many cases.”
No committee markup – the next step towards passage – of the Cohen Act is planned. And Watkins acknowledged it could be a “multi-year” effort.
But Congress passed bills with similar duties earlier this year and voted to add a former one Japanese internment camp in southeastern Colorado as part the national park system and to expand sites related to Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court in Kansas that ended legal school segregation.
At the same July hearing where the National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands subcommittee of the House of Natural Resources considered the lynching sites bill, members also heard about bills honoring Mexican-American farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez with sites in Arizona and California and John P. Parker, to conductors in Ohio on the Underground Railroad who helped slaves escape from Kentucky.
Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, commended the panel for considering these bills and their focus on history, particularly from underrepresented groups.
“This committee has really made an effort — and they should be congratulated for that — in beginning to tell the whole story of the American experience and American history through our parks, our public lands, and our public property,” Grijalva said at the July subcommittee hearing on lynching and other law. “It’s good.”
Kym A. Hall, the director of the National Park Service’s capital region, said the agency was trying to better reflect the nation’s diversity.
“The goals of this current administration, and certainly the National Park Service and the Secretary of the Interior, are to tell broader stories in the United States, things that may not have been advanced in our country’s history in a more meaningful way that a multitude of people can relate to.” stories can connect,” Hall said at the hearing.
“We’ve spent the last 10, 20, 30 years of our 100-year organization realizing that there are many more stories to tell,” she added.
Watkins, who leads the Memphis project, said the NPS’s involvement is an important part of national reconciliation.
“With the National Park Service sites, it increases the importance of those sites,” Watkins said. “This location is recognized as important on a federal and national level — not just in this neighborhood or this city. This means that as a nation we are beginning to come to terms with this injustice.”