Addressing the Legacy of Lynching: The Mary Turner Project

“Some may ask, why bring up ‘the past’ and these atrocities now?…we should bring these events up so we can face our collective past in order to see how it might affect the present and future.” –The Mary Turner Project

Lynching is a difficult, painful topic from U.S. history that does not often find its way into everyday American discourse. Regardless of the societal silence surrounding this aspect of America’s dark past, the legacy of lynching still weighs heavily upon the communities affected by racial violence. When these communities find ways to engage with this legacy, they can create powerful tools for remembering the past and changing the future of race relations in the United States.

The Valdosta, Georgia community engages with their legacy of lynching through the Mary Turner Project. The Mary Turner Project is a community initiative that strives to eliminate racism through “research driven community engagement and action relative to past and current racial injustice.” [1] The project is composed of Valdosta State University students, faculty, and surrounding Valdosta community members.

The Mary Turner Project is named for a twenty-year old pregnant victim of a “lynching rampage” on May 19, 1918. Mary Turner was lynched by a mob for publicly speaking out against her husband’s murder and threatening to take legal action against the perpetrators. Her story is told on the front page of the Mary Turner Project website. Along with honoring Mary Turner by sharing her story, the website also names the other victims of the May 1918 rampage.

It is in honor of these victims and the countless other victims of racial violence that the Mary Turner Project undergoes their initiatives. The project’s website elaborates on their efforts in the section titled “Our Work.” The first main initiative digitizes 1860 U.S. Slave Schedules to create a free searchable web database in order to provide descendants of slaves with information on their ancestors. The second research initiative aims to create a database for documented lynchings in the United States. The third main initiative posted on The Mary Turner Project website explains their “Its Hate Not Heritage” campaign, which “seeks to end all state promotion and funding of Confederate holidays…events…roads, and historic sites.” [2]  As part of this campaign, the Project has organized public forums to discuss the Confederate Flag and its perpetuation of racism in the South.

In addition to these initiatives, the Mary Turner Project has organized a community memorial service for Mary Turner since 2009. In 2010 the project members raised money, petitioned for, and installed a “state sponsored historical marker documenting the events of May 1918.” [3]  Community members and descendants of Mary Turner and the rest of the 1918 lynching victims attend the memorial service.

The community effort to honor the memory of Mary Turner and others speaks to the need for families and communities to process and make sense of seemingly senseless tragedy. This process of healing is also illustrated in the Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, where law students investigated Civil Rights era cold cases and provided their research to the victims’ families. [4]  Historian Kidada E. Williams highlights the need for analysis of victims’ families in order to truly understand the ramifications of lynching. [5]

Although The Mary Turner Project serves a need within the Valdosta community to recognize a painful shared past and to restore justice to the 1918 victims, the project is small in scope. The Mary Turner Project acknowledges on their website that they are one of many community organizations dedicated to acknowledging racial violence and honoring victims. The names of the other organizations­–Alliance for Truth and Racial Reconciliation, Facing History and Ourselves, Mississippi Truth Project, and Southern Truth and Reconciliation­– encapsulate the organizations’ collective goals to document, remember, and begin the healing process caused by racial violence.

Researchers at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) recently underwent an effort to document the lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950. The Equal Justice Initiative, “a nonprofit organization providing legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners denied fair and just treatment in the legal system,” aims to tell the truth about racial violence in America, analyze lynching’s legacy, and spur national conversations about race relations today. [6] The New York Times published a map of EJI’s research, creating widespread access to this information. [7]

The Mary Turner Project, Equal Justice Initiative, and other groups’ efforts to document the victims of racial violence restore a sense of identity to the victims, provide healing opportunities for affected communities, and spark conversations about the legacy of this violence. Through these historical truths we may be able to analyze race relations in the present and change the future for the better.

[1] The Mary Turner Project, “Our Work,” http://www.maryturner.org/mtp.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] NPR, “The Goal: To Remember Each Jim Crow Killing, From The ’30s On,”  http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2015/01/03/374564307/the-goal-to-remember-each-jim-crow-killing-from-the-30s-on.

[5]  Kidada E. Williams, “Regarding the Aftermaths of Lynching,” Journal of American History 101, no. 3 (December 2014): 856-858.

[6] Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” February 10, 2015, http://www.eji.org/lynchinginamerica/.

[7] “Map of 73 Years of Lynchings,” New York Times, February 9, 2015, accessed February 23, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/02/10/us/map-of-73-years-of-lynching.html?_r=0.

2 thoughts on “Addressing the Legacy of Lynching: The Mary Turner Project

  1. Carly, this is an extremely interesting topic. Going to school in south VA, I can’t tell you how often I saw the Confederate flag. I am looking forward to seeing this video the site mentioned of in the spring, examining the confederate culture. The Confederate culture is there and seen as a part of one’s heritage. I am hoping this organization spreads to the other southern states as this is important for people to understand. However, there needs to be a balance. I am 100% for considering the renaming streets that were named in honor confederate generals but erasing historic sites seems excessive. Can historians teach effectively without the sites focusing on horrific history?

    1. Matt, thanks for your comment. The Mary Turner Project does not aim to erase Confederate historic sites but to stop government funding of these sites. I think that, if the historic site is tactful and conscious of its history, it could have the opportunity to tell an interesting and important story featuring African American voices.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s