Last Sunday, people from our community gathered at an intersection in downtown Joplin to remember the 1903 lynching of Thomas Gilyard. He was a twenty-year-old black man who was accused of shooting a police officer when a mob of angry white people dragged him from the jail and hung him from a telephone pole. (He is one of over 4,000 documented racial terror lynchings that took place in the United States during a 100 year period following the Civil War.)
The memorial service was simple, beautiful and heartbreaking. City officials and clergy spoke and prayed, telling Thomas’ story and challenging us all to acknowledge the sins of the past as a step toward healing and reconciliation in the future.
We then all dug up a handful of dirt from the location of Thomas’ lynching, and put it in a jar that will be sent to the national lynching memorial opening this month in Montgomery, Alabama. One person asked, “Why dirt?” and D.L. Mayfield said it best when she wrote, “Buried sins can’t be repented of.”
I have felt sadness, confusion and helplessness in the face of the racial injustices of our country, both past and present. I am a middle-class white American who has grown up surrounded by privilege, and I don’t know what it feels like to be a minority in this country, much less what it is to suffer mistreatment because of my race.
But last year, when I read this article about the soil collection project, I thought, “I could do that. I could mourn.” And so some friends and I planned this event as a way to, if not right a wrong, at least to acknowledge that one happened. It was a very small step, but am important one for so many of us, and we hope it contributes to the efforts of so many people working for real and practical improvement in the race relations of our town. I want to especially thank Travis Hurley and Andrea Murdock for initiating and doing the lion’s share of the work on this project.
P.S. If you’re interested, you can watch the local news coverage of the event here.
P.S.S. We read this book to Valentine before taking her to the memorial service.