Friday, August 7th, 2020, marks the 90th anniversary of the infamous lynching that took place on the Grant County Courthouse lawn in Marion, Indiana.
J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith, two black men, were brutally and publicly lynched on the courthouse lawn in 1930, following severe beatings they suffered at the hands of an angry white mob. The two were suspected of raping a white woman named Mary Ball and killing her white boyfriend, Claude Deeter. A third person, James Cameron, who was only 16 years-old at the time, was also accused of participating in these crimes, but he managed to escape the same fate as Shipp and Smith.
Mary Ball later confessed that she had never been raped, but not before Shipp and Smith were publicly killed. It’s estimated that approximately 5,000 people witnessed the hanging of the two men, which, at the time, was still considered a spectacle white people liked to attend, and the event was commemorated through a famous photograph, taken by Lawrence Beitler.
Marion, Indiana became infamous for that 1930 lynching, and the community has been trying to reckon with its past ever since. This year, on the 90th anniversary, Marion will take one more step towards acknowledging its racist legacy by joining many other communities in participating in the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Soil Collection Project, which is a part of their larger Community Remembrance Project.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which works to uncover and end racial disparities in America, describes their mission behind the Community Remembrance Project by saying:
EJI’s Community Remembrance Project partners with community coalitions to memorialize documented victims of racial violence throughout history and foster meaningful dialogue about race and justice today. The Community Soil Collection Project gathers soil at lynching sites for display in haunting exhibits bearing victims’ names. The Historical Marker Project erects narrative markers in public locations describing the devastating violence, today widely unknown, that once took place in these locations. These projects and the other engagement efforts that community coalitions develop, center the African American experience of racial injustice, empower African American community members who have directly borne this trauma, and invite the entire community to use truth to give voice to those experiences and expose their legacies.
Soil will be collected from the site of the 1930 lynching and placed in a jar, which will then join hundreds of other jars currently on display at the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Equal Justice Initiative created these remembrance projects because they believe “[p]ublic acknowledgment of mass violence is essential not only for the victims and survivors, but also for perpetrators and bystanders who suffer from trauma and damage related to their participation in systematic violence and dehumanization.” The EJI also argues that the Community Soil Collection Project is important in 2020 because it aids in creating “greater awareness and understanding about racial terror lynchings” and can help start “a necessary conversation that advances truth and reconciliation.”
The collection of soil from the site of the Marion lynching will be an event open to the public on Friday, August 7th, 2020 (the 90th anniversary of the lynching) on the south side of the Grant County Courthouse. Residents of Marion and Grant County are encouraged to attend and witness the soil collection at 6:30PM. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Marion Community Remembrance Project cannot hold a larger event at this time, but they plan to do so in the future.
We spoke with Torri Williams, a driving force behind Marion’s involvement in the EJI project, about how and why Marion should participate, especially in the year 2020, which has seen racial terror, violence, and tensions rising across the country. Mrs. Williams is a Community Organizer, pioneer and driving force behind the Marion Community Remembrance Project; Co-Founder of Moving Marion Forward, a grassroots social change organization; Intersectional Engagement Director at Lark’s Song; and a volunteer on multiple local boards.
To get a better understanding of this project and its significance, here is an interview we conducted with Mrs. Williams in its entirety.
- What was it about the Soil Collection Project that appealed to you and made you think Marion should be involved?
When I first heard about the EJI’s museum I was struck by the intentional dedicated design to call attention to the period of racial terror lynchings in a way that not only highlighted indidivual events, but also connected communitied across the country to the shared legacy of racial terror. The idea of collecting soil from the site of such tragic injustice, especially with the Marion lynching taking place a the courthouse, a building whose purpose is rooted in justice, was really compelling to me.
- Who made first contact? Did you contact EJI, or did they contact you?
My connection with the EJI is an interesting story. Jack Heller, a professor from Huntington University, actually made the introduction between myself, some other community members, and the EJI staff in May of 2018, shortly after the museum opened. Since May of 2018, myself and other core members of the MCRP have remained in contact with and built a great relationship with the EJI staff. They provide guidance on how to assess whether a community is ready to participate in Remembrance Projects, how to develop a Coalition, etc. In August of 2018, staff members actually came to Marion at our request. We held a community meeting, the staff met with various members of the community, even visited the Weaver Settlement. I really can’t say enough about how great it has been to work with the EJI.
- What are you hoping Marion’s participation in this project will mean to both local residents and all Americans?
I hope that participation in this project will be one more step in the continuing work that must be done for racial justice. By participating in the soil collection Grant County would join communities across this country acknowledging their history and the legacy of terror that comes with lynchings. The iconic photo taken that night ties Marion’s identity to the events of August 1930. We can’t ignore it. We can’t pretend it did not happen. By participating in the Community Remembrance Projects we have the opportunity to begin weaving a new chapter, with other communities around the nation, through acknowledgement, remembrance and collective work.
Most recently, our nation was rocked by the murder of George Floyd. His murder sparked conversations, protests and collective action. All of these men were denied due process and murdered at the hands of vigilantes or in the case of George Floyd, the police. The end of Abe Smith, Thomas Shipp and George Floyds lives are now etched in our collective memory through a photograph. The cameras may be different, but the reasons are the same. While we have made progress, there is still so much work to do towards justice. My hope is that people in this community and all Americans are able to understand the connection between what occurred in this community nearly a century ago and the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
- What does Marion’s participation in this project mean to you, personally?
There has been a lot of work put into this in the last two years. As the local contact for the EJI, I have received emails from across the US, even overseas from people who have visited the museum and noticed that the community with the most recognizable image of racial terror lynchings has not participated in sending soil. It will be nice to finally give a different answer. As someone who was born and raised in Marion, our participation in this project represents one more step to healing. Reconcilliation is a process. It is not an event or a moment. The soil collection is one step in the process.
- Are there ways in which the community can become more involved, whether through this project or other local social justice issues and events?
Friday’s soil collection is really just one aspect of the work of the Marion Community remembrance Coalition. We will continue to do community education on racial justice. One exciting project that we will be unveiling more details on is an essay contest in partnership with the EJI that will award scholarhship money to a Grant County student. Although Friday is the collection of the soil from the courthouse, we will be holding a larger ceremony at a later date, when [COVID-19] allows. If people [have] questions or are interested in getting involved they can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
The community can also get involved by making financial contributions to the collection and project, as indicated and explained in a recent Facebook post made by Torri Williams, leading up to Friday’s event.
For anyone wanting to witness the event but unable to attend in person, we will be streaming it live on the Channel 27 News & Entertainment Facebook page, starting around 6:00PM.