PITTSBORO — Elected officials, activists and community members gathered Saturday afternoon at the Chatham County Justice Center to push for “an America that works for all,” economic justice and a public recognition and memorialization for the county’s six lynching victims.
The hour-long ceremony, sponsored by the nonprofit organization Community Remembrance Coalition Chatham, drew a crowd of about 120 people.
Masks and social distancing were required at the event, and organizers placed iced coolers of water bottles around the venue to combat nearly 90-degree heat. Chatham Street, the road directly in front of the courthouse, was blocked off, and speakers addressed the crowd from a central podium.
In the event’s opening address, Rev. Corey Little, the pastor at Mitchell Chapel AME Zion Church in Pittsboro, condemned the “sick conditions” of racism in society.
He also encouraged people to metaphorically build bridges in their communities, which he described as stronger than just bonds. Bridging, Little said, is like the lubricant WD-40 — it has a knack for bringing people together, even if takes a little legwork to achieve that fit.
“When the ugliness and the grime emerges, we need people willing to clean up,” Little said. “We welcome you to build bridges.”
After an invocation and pledge of allegiance — with a critical look at the phrase “justice for all” — Mary Nettles, the president of East Chatham branch of the NAACP, addressed the crowd. She detailed the work of the Community Remembrance group, which has collaborated with the nationwide Equal Justice Initiative to research and memorialize lynching victims in the county. (The News + Record detailed the coalition's efforts last fall in a two-part series. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)
“We hope for a better relationship in Chatham County among Black, white and brown citizens,” Nettles said. “The whole truth and ugly past must be made known to all, especially those in denial.”
The county has six recorded lynching victims: Richard Cotton on Aug. 8, 1865; Harriet Finch, Jerry Finch, John Pattisall and Lee Tyson on Sept. 28, 1885; and Eugene Daniel on Sept. 18, 1921. Some accounts add the name of Henry Jones, who was lynched Jan. 12, 1899.
Nettles reminded the crowd that across the state, only one county has more recorded lynchings than Chatham: New Hanover, with 22, many of which are associated the 1898 Wilmington Massacre. Granville and Rowan Counties also have six documented lynchings. It’s just one example, she said, of “the virus named racism” her ancestors have been battling for 400 years now.
“America has never been great,” Nettles said. “All lives matter, but Black lives have been endangered.”
Karen Howard, the chairperson of the county’s board of commissioners, told those assembled that it wasn’t a coincidence those six victims’ names weren’t widely known. A public memorial, she said, is a chance to validate Daniel, Cotton, Pattisall, Tyson and the Finches — and their families.
“Imagine the agony of being a mother, being a father, being a grandparent or a child (of a victim) who went home silent,” Howard said. “Where was the opportunity to do what we’re doing now, to give voice to that pain?”
As the Community Remembrance Coalition and NAACP chapters continue to research and work toward a public memorial, Howard said collaborating with the victims’ descendants will be important. Seeking their input, she said, will be a small step in healing the “generational agony” they’ve faced.
“Allow that hurt, that anger and that agony to come to the surface,” she said. “Flush it out, give it space and let it breathe. And the people whose families were impacted by lynching directly? Let them come to the table and be a part of the conversation.”
Rev. Carl Thompson Sr., the senior pastor at Word of Life Christian Outreach Center in Siler City, echoed Nettles and Howard. History needs to be told, he said, whether good or bad — and there can be “no reconciliation without truth.”
As one example, Thompson highlighted the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, based on Montgomery, Alabama, which has detailed and confirmed nearly 4,500 lynchings of Black people in the United States from 1877 to 1950.
“Those people are crying out from their graves for justice,” Thompson said, “and they’re joined by a cacophony of voices crying out for us to demand accountability for their murder, rape, brutalization and dehumanization.”
Thompson also touched on economic injustice, which he sees as having “the most negative effects on Black people” today and creating harmful stereotypes. The idea of reparations, he said, is “not foreign” to the United States, which has previously invested in Native Americans and Japanese Americans.
“Black Americans are the only group that hasn’t received reparations for state-sanctioned racial discrimination,” Thompson said.
Those in attendance also heard brief addresses from county commissioner Diana Hales, Pittsboro Mayor Jim Nass, Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson and a voting rights activist. Musician Beverly Goldston performed a “song of inspiration” featuring lines from “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and invited the crowd to clap and sing along with her.
And Larry Brooks, the president of the West Chatham NAACP, delivered closing remarks. He invited the crowd to stand or kneel for a silent prayer in honor of the Black victims of racism — enslaved people, lynching victims, people killed by police — before dismissing them.
“We will continue to stand up for what is right,” Brooks said to applause.
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