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As a student in Albemarle County, Hannah Ayers learned about the lynchings of African-Americans, but that history always was in the sidebar of her textbooks.
Several years ago, Ayers and her husband, Lance Warren, decided to make a documentary to bring that history into the center of the American story.
Ayers and Warren edited the film down to 33 minutes — short enough to fit into one class period.
“Most of the teachers we’ve met aren’t opposed to teaching about lynching; the problem is that lynching hasn’t been part of the central narrative, and teachers haven’t always had effective tools for incorporating the history of racial violence into their curricula,” Ayers said.
The Jefferson School African American Center is screening the duo’s film, “An Outrage,” on Saturday to kick off the Civil Rights Pilgrimage from Charlottesville to Montgomery, Alabama. University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt will moderate a discussion after the film with Ayers, Warren and Albemarle policy analyst Siri Russell. All tickets to the free event have been claimed.
Russell said she learned about lynching through novels. Then, in high school, she received an email from a professor who wanted to write a book about one of her ancestors. Russell found out that her mother’s great-uncle, Frazier B. Baker, had been lynched in Lake City, South Carolina.
“The lynching — it was just one of those sad stories,” Russell said. “I think growing up in the South and being black, most people have a story.”
Russell is young, but she has her own story. She recounted walking home from her bus stop in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as a sixth-grade student when a group of young men in a pickup truck spit on her and called her the n-word.
“I felt shame, even though — I can’t really say exactly why, because it’s not like I did something wrong — but I felt really bad and really belittled. And I didn’t even tell my mother about it until years later. I just went home,” Russell said.
Charlottesville’s pilgrimage is an effort to commemorate John Henry James, who was killed by a mob on July 12, 1898, near present-day Farmington Drive in Ivy.
Schmidt said that as she and other researchers learned more about James, they realized that his story only was partially forgotten. Several former employees and a current member of Farmington Country Club had heard stories about the tree where he was lynched.
“These very sick secrets circulate in our community and aren’t shared between white folks and black folks, and the disparate impact this has on these communities cannot be overstated, because until 1890, black folks were in the majority here,” Schmidt said.
Before the Civil War, 12,103 whites, 606 free blacks, and 13,916 slaves resided in Charlottesville and Albemarle, according to the 1860 census. By 1940, many African-American families had moved out of the area, which had become over 77 percent white.
“Can you imagine the conversations that were held around kitchen tables in black households after dark, after the kids were in bed?” Schmidt asked. “[The pilgrimage] is kind of lancing the boil, exposing it to light and air in order to talk about these things.”
Russell said that as she watched “An Outrage” to prepare for Saturday’s discussion, she began to think about the descendants of the white mobs that committed the lynchings.
“These are also someone’s ancestors,” she said. “And I wondered briefly what it would be like to be someone else, looking at that image and it’s your family member in that position.”
Ayers and Warren have held screenings in 64 locations and spoken to more than 4,000 people about lynchings. They said that the size and interest of their audiences has surprised them.
“One reason that the history of lynching has so long gone undiscussed is because it is an ugly, awful history. Who would want to talk about these terrible things? But if keep these things at arm’s length, one effect of that is that we make this history somehow seem controversial,” Warren said.
The filmmakers said that they have seen conversations about commemorating lynching victims start at their screenings. In Charlottesville, they said that they have been inspired by the effort to remember John Henry James.
“Looking back at Aug. 11 and 12 last year — and that date coming up this year and all the awfulness that that reminds us of — this organizing effort is a very positive way to turn that pain into power,” Warren said.
Charlottesville and Albemarle have funded scholarships for high school students and librarians to join the pilgrimage. Both localities are planning extensive programming to bring the lessons of the trip back to the larger community.
One of the events will be a training day for local teachers. Schmidt said that after their June training day, teachers requested help with developing teaching methods and class exercises.
Russell said that she sees the pilgrimage as similar to the moment when activist Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse in 2015.
Newsome’s act of civil disobedience empowered Russell to question Confederate symbols for the first time.
“Maybe [this discussion] more broadly will allow people to have that space to be sincere and authentic in their feelings,” she said. “To feel pain that maybe they haven’t always been allowed to let out.”
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