Sep 27, 2023 5 min read

Remembrance as a Path to Community Healing

"Now is the time to confront the truth of our past to heal the wounds of our present." Dr. Smith+Image Soil Collection Jar
Soil collection jar memorializing the lynching of George Green
In this soil, there is the sweat of the enslaved. In the soil there is the blood of victims of racial violence and lynching. There are tears in the soil from all those who labored under the indignation and humiliation of segregation. But in the soil there is also the opportunity for new life, a chance to grow something hopeful and healing for the future. –Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Executive Director

On a beautiful fall Saturday, the small Village Church Anglican was filled with individuals and families who had come together with the shared intention to acknowledge a horrific episode in our community’s past.

I had joined neighbors from across my community at the soil collection ceremony to memorialize the lynching of Ira Johnson that took place in 1895, very near the small church where we gathered. The service was carefully designed to bring us into the moment with oral performances imagined from the perspective of Mr. Johnson’s wife, along with Mr. Johnson’s own perspective as he was led to his death at the hands of an angry white mob. Local leaders and ministers offered thoughts on why we remember, provided a eulogy for Mr. Johnson, and encouraged us to learn from our past but also to look forward. Throughout the ceremony were moments of music and song to touch and inspire and the opportunity to add our voices to those of our neighbors.

At the front of the church stood a barrel of soil gathered from the site where the lynching had occurred. Those in attendance were invited to come forward and place a scoop of the soil into one of two glass jars. The jars that we collectively filled would form a lasting memorial of the racial terror inflicted on Mr. Johnson.

Respectful and Public Remembrance

In my interview with our local Community Remembrance Team, they reminded me that:

Now is the time to confront the truth of our past to heal the wounds of our present.

On that fall morning, we chose to remember and commemorate a period of racial terror that occurred in our community. Holding room for that conversation required thoughtful preparation, skill, and respect. It was also an act of trust for a group of neighbors who had never met one another to hold space for this to occur. Ultimately, it was an act of healing, of repairing and stitching together one small tear in the fabric of our community.

Providing Context

Through the Community Remembrance Project of Greenville, South Carolina, the soil collection ceremony for Ira Johnson was just one of the services to commemorate the four lynchings that were documented in our county, those of Ira Johnson, Robert Williams, George Green, and Tom Keith. Through these ceremonies, my neighbors and I have the opportunity to acknowledge the harm of racial terror in our collective past. It provides additional context for the community we currently share and experience together. It also allows us to place those lynchings, which were part of our community’s past, in context with current actions in our community and across our country. It is an opportunity to recognize hard-won progress but also to acknowledge that we are still not so far removed from that time of racial terror.

Co-creating a Lasting Memorial

In a soil collection ceremony, like the one described, the soil is initially taken from the location, or very near the location, where the lynching occurred. Those in attendance at the ceremony are invited to help fill two labeled collection jars. One of the soil collection jars remains in the community, while the other is held by EJI along with others from across the country. At the church that day, person after person, hand after hand, trowel after trowel of soil, we co-created a physical memorial to Ira Johnson and his murder. It was a simple but solemn shared task bringing us fully into the moment, offering time for reflection, and connecting us physically to our past.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)

Our local Remembrance team has undertaken their work in coordination with the EJI. One of the most unique and impactful aspects of the EJI is its ongoing collaboration with local community remembrance teams to host conversations, erect historical markers, organize soil collection ceremonies, and hold essay contests for local high school students. All of this is done in support of local, community-led efforts to engage with and discuss past and present issues of racial justice.

The Practice of Building a More Inclusive Community

At State of Inclusion, our mission is to build a more inclusive world, one community at a time. We all know that there is no formula, no recipe for building a more inclusive and equitable community. Still, we believe that somewhere between the idea of a recipe or formula and random acts of inclusion and equity, there is something to consider, something we call The Practice of Building a More Inclusive Community. So far, we’ve identified six distinct practices for communities to consider. Over the past few weeks, through our Inclusive Outdoor Community Challenge, we focused on the practice of Self Work. In this post we've given one example from the practice we call GroundWork.

GroundWork is about preparing the ground and irrigating the soil of the community with a deep understanding of equity and inclusion while also planting seeds that will germinate and grow as we work in more structured ways to change community policies, practices, and systems. GroundWork is about reaching, touching, and preparing the hearts of people across the community. It is about supporting individuals along their personal journey and motivating and encouraging them to join with their neighbors to build their community’s more inclusive and equitable future. Listen or read the transcript of our episode, Preparing the Community Soil, where my colleague, Emma Winiski, and I discuss the practice we call Groundwork.

Want to hear more about narrative, truth-telling, and remembrance at work in communities?

Listen, explore shownotes, or read transcripts for the following related episodes:

Episode 55: my most recent episode with Kim Rodgers of the Center for Community Resilience. She shares about the truth-telling work undertaken by Cincinnati, Ohio.

Episode 53: my interview with Jerry Hawkins and our discussion of his work with the organization Dallas Truth Racial Healing and Transformation.

Episode 11: my interview with Dr. Feliccia Smith and Ellen Stevenson of the Community Remembrance Project of Greenville, S.C.

Need additional resources and inspiration for your own work?

Access Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation resources from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Learn More about the Equal Justice Initiative.

Learn more about the Center for Community Resilience.

Read, When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation by John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach.

Visit the Reconciliation Poetry site. I especially enjoyed the beautiful and insightful essays on Three Practices: Awareness, Lament, Hope.

Look for and attend a local remembrance service in your own community. In my community of Greenville, S.C., on October 7, 2023, there will be a local remembrance service to unveil a historical marker in memory of George Greene. I plan to attend.

Make plans to attend next summer's Duke School of Divinity Summer Institute of Reconciliation which brings together leading thinkers and speakers on the subject. This is broader than the notion of racial reconciliation and has a Christian focus, but it offers a deep dive into the concept of reconciliation, which can be meaningful to us all at many different times.

In many communities, maybe in yours, there is a need for healing and honest reckoning with our past. How can you begin that difficult but necessary work in your community?

Thanks for reading. If you're interested in building a more inclusive community and world, I'm sure you know others who are too. Please share this newsletter with a colleague or friend.

This newsletter is a publication from State of Inclusion.

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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