Kudos to The Blount Countian for the excellent coverage and firsthand accounts for Black History Month. Although the month is over, I believe our work here in Blount County in recognizing Black history is not done.
Hate in this country of The Other runs deep and wide – African American, Asian, Jew, Muslim, Latino, and immigrants, etc. Growing up in a suburb of Birmingham in the 1950s, I was no stranger to bigotry. In 1958, 54 sticks of dynamite were placed outside of my synagogue. If not for the rain putting out the fuse, there would have been a terrible tragedy.
I heard such slurs such as “Dirty Jew” and “Don’t get jewed” in junior high from ignorant white kids, no doubt mouthing what they heard at home. However, in society I could pass, while people of color don’t get that luxury. They can’t escape being targeted.
Riding the bus downtown with friends on the weekend was a regular occurrence beginning when I was in sixth grade. Then one day my parents firmly said, “No more going to town. There’s trouble.” I didn’t like it, but I didn’t question, mainly because my questions were always met with a “because I said so.”
I was oblivious to what this trouble was. It wasn’t until a couple of years later when I picked up a book at the local library that my eyes were burst open to the truth. I read about the church bombing and the four young murdered girls, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and others. I was never the same. The horror of it and shame I felt at not knowing what had happened and continued to happen near my home haunted me.
In high school, I joined an interracial, church-run youth group that brought together blacks and whites from different parts of Birmingham to bridge the chasm, to deal a blow to fear because people often fear what they don’t know. We visited each other’s homes, went bowling together, and learned how similar we really were.
Fast forward to 1980 when my husband and I began building our home in Blount County. Over the years I heard there was a Ku Klux Klan group here. There was even a violent Klan attack against a multiracial family here in 1979. Years later I saw a sign on Hwy 278 between Hwys 79 and 231 that said “Klan Meeting.” I was shocked and frightened that it was so brazenly public, so seemingly accepted.
Zip to 2020 with our District Commissioner fiasco… racism, misogyny, defiance, lack of remorse, and support from his district – unbelievable! So again, I applaud The Blount Countian’s focus on Blount County’s Black History, but the past is not past.
Yet, there is more we can do. In 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) opened its powerful, ground-breaking, interactive Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery dedicated to African American victims of racial terror lynchings, mass incarceration, and more.
The National Memorial contains monuments corresponding to more than 800 counties in the United States where EJI documented racial terror lynchings. I visited both that summer with friends visiting from out of town. I located the Blount County Monument and there were three racial murders in Blount County.
Each county has a duplicate monument, and EJI has invited each county to retrieve their monument and take the lead in facilitating a local reckoning and place it in a prominent place in the county. Community leaders in Jefferson County have created a grassroots community coalition, the Jefferson County Memorial Project (JCMP), to orchestrate the retrieval of their memorial.
The goal is to take this step towards contrition and reconciliation, to bear witness to their horrific past. Can we do no less here in a county that honors Nathan Bedford Forrest and his historical Civil War route with monuments and signs all over Blount County? Nathan Bedford Forrest, a renowned Civil War general, who was also a slave trader, and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Who were Tobe Williams, Mack Brown, and Lillie Cobb? Do their descendants still live here? Do they not deserve a memorial, recognition that their lives were stolen from them and their families because of hate and racism?
Debra Gordon-Hellman, Blountsville