MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Nearly two years ago, the Equal Justice Initiative asked citizens to help them complete their vision of a lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery.
Numerous volunteers filled jars with dirt from lynching sites across the country, carrying with them the names of the people killed, the date and their story.
The jars now sit within EJI’s museum and a coffin-like display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a tangible piece of the lynchings that took place throughout the country. The Montgomery Advertiser talked to some of those volunteers before the opening of the museum and memorial on April 26 to hear about their experiences collecting the dirt.
“It was quite a life changing experience, so it made an imprint in my mind,” said Mandy Medlock.
Medlock, formerly the executive director of Justice 360 in South Carolina, linked up with EJI because her group had been doing similar work. After Stevenson came and talked to Justice 360, she and others thought it was important to join in on digging dirt with EJI.
Her and others spent the night in Tuscaloosa and drove to Montgomery in the morning. Stevenson spoke to the group and told them about EJI’s plans before sending the volunteers off. They were given a jar, a trowel, some gloves and the story of the person for whom they would be collecting dirt.
After that, Medlock drove more than two hours to Helfin, Alabama, stopping to ask directions a few times when her GPS gave out. There was a storm rolling in as she drove on a dirt road near a set of train tracks. “I could hear the thunder rolling in.”
She collected the soil, snapped a few pictures, took a video and go back into her car to return to Montgomery, she said.
“I just remembered the fear I felt on the road by myself. Then I thought of the family of this man and what they faced,” Medlock said. Though she wasn’t there for the opening weekend, Medlock said she plans to visit the memorial to see how the dirt she dug has come to represent the man that was lynched.
“It’s such an overwhelmingly sad thing. I want to be there. I want to see it. There’s the part of me, I want to turn away,” she said.
Around the same time, Madeline Burkhardt was headed to Athens, Alabama, with the name Daniel McBride on an empty jar.
Burkhardt, who works at the Rosa Parks Museum, is originally from Athens and asked EJI how she could help after touring its office.
Like many lynchings, McBride was accused of murder. A mob that swelled to nearly 150 people at one point broke into the jail he was being held in and took near the train tracks in town before they hanged him. Those train tracks have no disappeared, giving way to a rural path in town.
“The whole place was very eerie. This walking trail was very secluded,” Burkhardt said. “The atmosphere was heavy. There was no one in sight. It was dark.”
Overall, she said the whole experience went by fairly quick. But the effects have lasted. Burkhardt said she had never done something with such an impact in her life, and it has encouraged her to talk about McBride’s story to people she knows in her hometown.
That, she acknowledged, is one of the most powerful parts of EJI’s plan to invite volunteers for the digging of dirt.
“This is a very dark part of history that people haven’t talked about in so long,” she said. “They are making the story more relatable.”
Josephine McCall Bolling didn’t tell her children about her father’s lynching when they were growing up. But as time went on, she began to do research for her book, The Penalty for Success, and her children learned more about Elmore Bolling’s story.
“It meant so much that not only did they witness, but they engaged in the process. I’m hoping the experience would be intensified in their minds so they can carry the legacy on after we’re gone.”
The family was able to dig the dirt and fill a jar for their father, their grandfather, who was lynched for supposedly insulting a white man’s wife, though extensive research conducted by the youngest Bolling daughter led the family to believe their patriarch was cut down for his economic success. No one was ever convicted, and the Bolling family would eventually flee Lowndes County in the dead of night.
“I thought of the terms, of the reason my father was killed, because he supposedly insulted someone on the telephone. He hadn’t committed a crime, he wasn’t suspected of a crime, he was just killed because of his prosperity. Then I thought about the dad I didn’t get to know,” Josephine McCall Bolling said.
Melissa Brown contributed to this story.
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