On June 20, 1940, Elbert Williams was lynched in Brownsville, Tennessee, after he began organizing locally for the NAACP. On Monday, EJI joined members of Mr. Williams’s family to honor his memory by collecting soil from the place where his body was found.
Mr. Williams was the first known member of the NAACP killed for his civil rights work, the Jackson Sun reported. Three days after he was abducted and murdered in the middle of the night, his body was pulled from the Hatchie River and buried in an unmarked grave. A jury of six white men refused to return any indictments, and no official cause of death was determined. Other NAACP members fled Brownsville after the lynching, including Mr. Williams’s wife and one of his sisters.
Between the Civil War and World War II, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. EJI has documented more than 4000 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950.
To create greater awareness and understanding about racial terror lynchings, and to begin a necessary conversation that advances truth and reconciliation, EJI is working with communities to commemorate and recognize the traumatic era of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites across the South.
On Monday, Mr. Williams’s niece Sharon Green, who lives in Brownsville, and two of her cousins collected soil from the riverbank where his body was found. “It was very disturbing,” Ms. Green said. “My heart hurt. I’m still trying to wonder, how could people be so cruel?”
Two jars were filled with soil: one will remain in Brownsville, and one will become part of EJI’s exhibit that will reflect the history of lynching and express our generation’s resolve to confront the continuing challenges that racial inequality creates.
Following the soil collection, a joint memorial ceremony hosted by EJI and the Elbert Williams Memorial Committee was attended by 50 community members and state and local officials including Brownsville Mayor William Rawls, Haywood County Mayor Franklin Smith, District Attorney Garry Grown, and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh.
Brownsville elected its first African American mayor in 2014. Elbert Williams “made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could vote, a right that never should be taken for granted,” Mayor Rawls said. “We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way.”
EJI’s soil collection project is intended to bring community members closer to the legacy of lynching and to contribute to the effort to build a lasting and more visible memory of our history of racial injustice.