Lafayette County unveils marker to honor lynching victims

Published 12:08 pm Friday, September 17, 2021

The Lafayette Community Rememberance Project – Lynching Memorialization unveiled the historic marker honoring the memory of seven local victims on the anniversary of Elwood Higginbottom’s lynching.

On a rainy Friday morning, members of the memorial project and the community stood around the plaque located on the east side lawn of the Lafayette County Courthouse a few feet from where Higginbottom was lynched. 

The marker memorializes the names of Elwood Higginbottom, Harris Tunstal, Will McGregory, Will Jackson, Will Steen, William Chandler and Lawson Patton — all African American men who were accused of crimes and were not given fair trials before being attacked and murdered.

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church’s Rev. Duncan M. Gray III delivered the invocation prior to jazz artist and project member Effie Burt’s emotional performance of “Strange Fruit,” a song famously sung by the African American jazz singer Billie Holiday.

Originally a poem written by Jewish teacher and civil rights activist Abel Meeropol, “Strange Fruit,” does not directly mention lynching but the lyrics make it hard to doubt what is being alluded to.

Burt said she does not sing the song often but when she does, she rereads the backstory of the song even though it is a big challenge for her.

“I sang it before and I actually like it was happening and I was in the background,” she said. “I saw all the photos of people having picnics around hanging bodies and I cannot get it out of my mind when I sing that song. As I sing that song, I can feel all of the emotion.”

After Burt’s powerful performance, Donald Cole, a fellow member of the project, embraced her and took to the center to deliver his speech.

Cole, a former student activist and retired educator, said the morning was filled with mixed emotions and a multitude of divergent feelings that are hard to explain.

“This plot is dedicated to martyrs seen and unseen, known and unknown, whose lives reflected an incomprehensibly violent, brutal and tragic for reasons we are unable to comprehend,” he said. 

Cole said the dedication is a must-happen and one ceremony cannot appropriately cast its entire significance. The plaque only names a portion of the victims who were subjected to lynching and other forms of brutality.

“We take away a sincere gratitude of a citizenry government partnership that made this dedication possible at this site in the heart of our city,” said Cole. “We take away an appreciation for a much better America – not perfect but a much better America that we only wish existed before [the seven victims’] demise.”

“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,” recited Cole from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem . “We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” 

After Cole’s speech, members of the audience were invited to read a line off the plaque which lists the names of the victims and a brief description of the day they died and the cause.

“It was a beautiful and solemn occasion,” Cole said. “We’re appreciative of this particular event happening and the work it took to make it happen was so extensive. We have to pause for a moment and be thankful because soon we have to go right back to work.” 

Cole said this new marker isn’t the end of the community projects efforts and that things are where they should be. 

“Projects more important than this one have to be unveiled,” he said. “More stories need to be told and more history has to be written. We have this shared community but only a part of it has been shared. It’s up to us to make sure that the rest of the story gets told.”

Members of the Lynching Memorialization project requested the new plaque in September 2019 11 months after a plaque honoring Elwood Higginbottom, the last lynching victim in Lafayette County, was placed on the corner of North Lamar Boulevard and Molly Barr Road.