More than 200 racial justice advocates and community members convened at Sloss Furnaces on Monday for the dedication of a historical marker memorializing Tom Redmond and Jake McKenzie, who were lynched as a result of racial violence at the Brookside Mines in Jefferson County, Alabama.
The Jefferson County Memorial Project partnered with EJI on the marker installation and hosted the dedication ceremony, which included performances by Christina J. Wade and the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir.
"Jake McKenzie and Tom Redmond are two names that must be remembered in Alabama's history. They were both victims of unspeakable hate and we do them a great disservice by letting their stories be lost to time,” said Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin. "The Sloss Historical Marker Dedication will stand as a reminder of the injustices we have sworn to fight. Our history may be painful, but it's only by acknowledging those scars that we can we truly find healing.”
Jefferson County Commissioner LaShunda Scales and City Council Member Darrell O'Quinn also offered remarks during the ceremony.
"We're here to bear witness to the facts and evils of slavery, convict leasing and mass incarceration," said Jim Sokol, a member of the JCMP core coalition.
Coalition member Scott Douglas described the mining industry's reliance on laborers who were rented out through the "arbitrary and capricious" convict leasing system, which criminalized black people for things like standing in groups with other black people or leaving a job without permission from their employer. "The terror of Jim Crow is that it could strike at any time," he said.
Joi Brown and T. Marie King spoke about seeing the names of their ancestors at EJI's National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Ms. Brown said that newspaper reports at the time of her great-great-grandfather's lynching described him as a "black demon." She hopes the descendants of Mr. Redmond and Mr. McKenzie will find comfort in the markers.
"We are rehumanizing these souls," she said.
Hundreds of people gathered for the dedication ceremony. (John Hammontree)
Racial Terror and Convict Leasing in Jefferson County
After the Civil War, violent resistance to equal rights for black people led to decades of abuse and exploitation meant to intimidate black people and enforce racial subordination.
Alabama’s mining industry, which relied on enslaved people’s labor since the 1840s, continued such abuse and exploitation after slavery was abolished. Southern legislators used a loophole in the 13th Amendment to pass laws to criminalize free black people as vagrants and loiterers.
Local governments then sold the imprisoned individuals to private and government entities for labor. Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Company used this practice of “convict leasing” in Jefferson County, sending leased black laborers to work at the Brookside and Coalburg mines.
Between 1899 and 1902, over 100 leased laborers died while working in Coalburg.
Without legal protections, black laborers and black leaders of labor movements were often terrorized to prevent them from challenging unjust and dangerous employment conditions.
Although the names of many victims of racial terror are unknown, over 300 documented lynchings took place in Alabama, with at least 30 victims in Jefferson County.
In 2015, EJI partnered with the City of Brighton, Alabama, to dedicate a historical marker near Brighton City Hall that documents the lynching of William Miller, an African American coal miner who was seeking better wages for black workers and was murdered by a white mob in 1908.
Racial Violence at Brookside Mines
On June 17, 1890, Tom Redmond, an African American man, was killed during a violent confrontation between a group of white and black men in Brookside, a town 13 miles north of Birmingham where iron mines were owned and operated by the Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Company.
On June 16, a group of inebriated white men instigated a quarrel after recklessly hurling rocks at a group of black men. The next day, Tom Acres, a white man, reignited the dispute after drawing his pistol on one of the black men, Jim McDowell.
Mr. Redmond heroically stepped in to stop Mr. Acres from shooting Mr. McDowell, but the encounter sparked a shoot-out in front of the Sloss company store. Mr. Redmond was fatally shot.
The other black men eventually fled. Two were caught by a group of white men, who pursued them with bloodhounds. Although law enforcement prevented the white mob from lynching the two men, no one was held accountable for Mr. Redmond’s death.
Racial intimidation at the mines persisted. Seven years later, a black man named Jake McKenzie was killed on March 22, 1897, while trying to defend another black man, Henry Johnson, from being arrested for "disorderly
conduct," which was often alleged when black people resisted intimidation and mistreatment.
As the white community continued to treat black residents unfairly, violence continued to plague Brookside.
Lynching in America
Thousands of black people were the victims of lynching and racial violence in the United States between 1877 and 1950. The lynching of African Americans during this era was a form of racial terrorism intended to intimidate black people and enforce racial hierarchy and segregation.
Lynching was most prevalent in the South, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. After the Civil War, violent resistance to equal rights for African Americans and an ideology of white supremacy led to violent abuse of racial minorities and decades of political, social, and economic exploitation.
In an expanded edition of Lynching in America, EJI also documented racial terrorism beyond Southern borders, detailing more than 300 lynchings of black people in eight states with high lynching rates in the Midwest and the Upper South, including Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, West Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, Indiana, and Ohio.
Lynching became the most public and notorious form of terror and subordination. White mobs were usually permitted to engage in racial terror and brutal violence with impunity. Many black people were pulled out of jails or given over to mobs by law enforcement officials who were legally required to protect them. Terror lynchings often included burning and mutilation, sometimes in front of crowds numbering in the thousands.
In response to this racial terror and violence, millions of black people fled the South and could never return, which deepened the anguish and pain of lynching. Many of the names of lynching victims were not recorded and will never be known.
EJI's Community Remembrance Project
EJI's Community Remembrance Project is part of our campaign to recognize the victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites, erecting historical markers, and developing the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice.
As part of its effort to help towns, cities, and states confront and recover from tragic histories of racial violence and terrorism, EJI is joining with communities to install historical markers in communities where the history of lynching is documented. EJI believes that by reckoning with the truth of the racial violence that has shaped our communities, community members can begin a necessary conversation that advances healing and reconciliation.