Our View: Living history

Our View: Living history
A white mob dragged Benjamin Thomas half a mile from the city jail to the corner of King and Fairfax streets on Aug. 8, 1899, where they then lynched him (Photo/Office of Historic Alexandria)

Three years ago, Alexandria City Council approved a plan to honor the memory of two lynching victims, Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas, by collecting a steel pillar monument currently held at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

McCoy was lynched on a lamppost at Lee and Cameron streets on April 23, 1897, and Thomas was lynched on a lamppost at Fairfax and King streets on Aug. 8, 1899. Alexandria’s pillar is one of 800 six-foot structures currently located at the memorial, all of which together represent the more than 4,000 documented lynching victims across the country.

Later this year, barring any COVID-19 pandemic-related delays, the city will make good on that promise with a three to four day trip where about 100 Alexandria residents will bus down south to claim the pillar, formally present soil collected from the two Alexandria lynching sites and tour the city.

We stand in support of the city’s plans to make this trip happen, as we firmly believe it represents the city’s continued commitment to advancing social justice and providing a valuable learning experience for those who will be experiencing Montgomery for the first time.

However, as the beginning of February marks the beginning of Black History Month, we are also acutely aware that conversations surrounding the city’s segregated past are cropping up more often than they do throughout the rest of the year. It is certainly exciting that the city has taken steps in recent years to reexamine its history in an authentic way, through opening the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, purchasing Freedom House and holding countless tours. It’s also important to recognize that there is still a long way to go.

In the Times’ page 1 story, “A southward journey,” we discuss the city’s plans to visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s memorial later this year. The pilgrimage is a wonderful way to shed light on the city’s history, but we must emphasize that while the lynchings themselves are a historic event, racial injustice is still alive and well. Just earlier this week, for instance, more than a dozen historically Black colleges and universities across the country reported bomb threats, resulting in police investigations and campus shutdowns.

We share in the collective concern that many people view this insidious issue “as a historic event, not a current event,” as longtime resident and restorative justice advocate Adrienne Fikes put it in this week’s story.

“It is recent history. It is immediate history. If you talk about the genetic impact of trauma, we know that trauma has a collective impact. We know that when someone gets shot by the police, there’s a negative impact on the entire community,” Fikes said.

Of course, the injuries that centuries of racial injustice leave don’t heal overnight, especially when they’re still raw and especially when they continue to endure attack. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but it is possible to hold grief in one hand and blazing hope in the other.

Let’s continue to engage in messy conversations. Let’s continue to march for change. Let’s continue to reconcile with the city’s rich past, shining a light on all its complexity and continuing ripple effects, while simultaneously working toward a more equitable future. Let’s do it during February and continue the momentum afterwards, too.