Appearances are everything down South, part of the region’s noted cordiality and social decorum. Yet on coastal Alabama’s Mobile Bay, a group of residents is determined to peel back their languid locale’s veneer of colonnaded mansions and Spanish moss-draped oaks to confront the proverbial “ugliness that cuts to the bone.” And to build something better from those truths.
A cross-section of faces spanning age, sex and race popped onto computer screens and launched into friendly banter. Finally, a woman’s voice quelled them and asked for committee reports.
It is the Mobile County Remembrance Project’s monthly online meeting, 20-plus activists driven onto the technological forum that defines group efforts in the COVID-19 era. They aim to erect markers honoring local lynching victims murdered from 1877 to 1950, a venture conducted in cooperation with Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
The friendly group’s ringmaster is Merceria Ludgood, the lone African American on the Mobile County’s three-member governing commission. Her connection to this project is personal.
Ludgood’s husband sits on EJI’s board of directors. They were present at the 2018 unveiling of EJI’s museum complex nodding to four centuries of dehumanization, bondage and marginalization that marks the African American experience. It has drawn over 750,000 international visitors to date.
They also walked, back in those pre-pandemic days, the six acres of EJI’s emotionally powerful National Memorial for Peace and Justice, commonly tagged the National Lynching Memorial, 170 miles to the north in Montgomery. Its award-winning design commemorates more than 4,400 victims of racial terrorism. Steel boxes, rusted to the same hue as dried blood, resemble makeshift pauper’s caskets. Each bears an American county’s name then the names and death dates of those lynched there. As visitors walk its halls, the floor declines and the slabs effectively rise. What visitors enter as a graveyard becomes a hanging.
In the yard around the central structure lie duplicate markers intended for display in their respective locales, to acknowledge old wrongs. The marker destined for Mobile called out to Ludgood, she said later.
Her aim—to see Mobile own this ugly past—will be difficult to achieve. Three centuries old, Mobile was a more laissez-faire Creole frontier port until King Cotton’s wealth and American racial perspectives reshaped it. Despite abundant antebellum trappings, Mobile long prided itself for avoiding the bombs and attack dogs and beaten and bloodied marchers that branded other Alabama towns. Mobilians considered themselves “better than that.”
“Because of my age, I know the real story, but I think we’ve spun a narrative that isn’t real,” Ludgood said. “Those people who cling to ‘We weren’t Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery or Anniston,’ will have to just face up. We weren’t them, but we were Mobile and had our own issues.”
Initially, Ludgood collected volunteer names at EJI founder Bryan Stevenson’s November 2018 Mobile appearance. The group initially convened in January 2019. What was assumed to be a quick checking of boxes grew into something deeper.
“I figured out early on they wanted to create community, to engage with each other,” Ludgood said. “I think we’ve become a community around this work.”
That bolsters the commissioner. She was enrolled at the University of Alabama in the first decade of its desegregation. She recalled watching a fraternity parade in their Confederate regalia accompanied by others in minstrelsy blackface.
“I had an instructor who said in class that slaves were happy, so they stayed on the plantation after emancipation. He said northerners came in and interfered. He used words like ‘nigrah,’” Ludgood said, the revulsion still in her voice.
In 1891, Zachariah Graham passed through Mobile County on the way to New York. After a chance encounter with a white girl resulted in his arrest, a mob snatched Graham from law enforcement and killed him.
In 1919, James Lewis was killed by a group of white strangers in the same area, north of Mobile city limits. His death was happenstance. He simply crossed the path of angry whites.
Mobile newspapers trafficked in noxious racial stereotypes and supported white supremacy. They also blamed lynching on barbaric residents beyond the city’s civilized realm.
“[The urban-rural excuse] gave those in town opportunity to blame it on the less-cultured residents in the country. That was their ‘out’ for looking the other way,” historian Scotty Kirkland said.
George Crozier’s grandfather was a Mississippi Delta plantation manager. However, the New Orleans native credits his mother for “more enlightened sensibilities.” After earning his marine biology doctorate on the West Coast, Crozier joined the faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1966.
“We attended the Black Catholic Church and I was on the front page of the Hattiesburg American marching after Dr. King was assassinated,” Crozier said. “We were under threat of the Ku Klux Klan, the phone calls, everything.”
Crozier became director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab on the namesake barrier island just beyond the mouth of Mobile Bay. He retired after nearly 40 years and spends his time with public efforts around Mobile, including the lynching memorial.
The victim Crozier was assigned to research, a man named William Walker, was discovered to have been included in error. EJI concurred and agreed to Walker’s removal. Crozier switched assignments.
“I'm not sure why others haven't been more active, including people I consider to be from Mobile’s gentry,” Crozier said. “Talk about plantation mentality.”
In 1906, Will Thompson and Cornelius “Dick” Robertson were separately accused of assaulting white women. Bloodthirsty mobs gathered at Mobile’s jailhouse so often, the sheriff moved both men to Birmingham for safekeeping until trial.
As September closed, a catastrophic hurricane ravaged Mobile, leaving the modern equivalent of $47 million in damages. Local newspapers stoked racial tensions amidst the despair.
Days after the storm, the sheriff and a deputy loaded Thompson and Robertson on a southbound train in the misty Birmingham morning. Trial awaited.
Eight masked men boarded just north of Mobile and seized the prisoners. They told a reporter aboard they were “leading businessmen of Mobile” who aimed to lynch the men just outside city limits so it wouldn’t “leave a stain upon Mobile that would take years to wipe out.”
When they dragged the captives from the train, 45 other vigilantes met them with rope. Among them was a state senator and newspaper publisher who begged the mob to let the prisoners “stand trial and be ‘legally hanged.’”
“Assaults on our women must stop or we [may] kill every Negro in Mobile County,” a vigilante answered.
Around 200 spectators followed a short march through the countryside before the terrified men were hanged just after noon. For the rest of the day, thousands of sightseers from Mobile rode the streetcar to gawk at the swaying bodies. Some snatched tree bark, rope fibers, bits of clothing or shoes for souvenirs. Some took photos for postcards. One of the grisly snapshots is currently in the History Museum of Mobile.
A year later, Moses Dossett was accused of assaulting a white woman. On a thunderous night, rain mixed with his tears as he was lynched in the same spot.
Municipal Judge Karlos Finley’s prominent family is nearly synonymous with Mobile history. Their lineage traces to the city’s Creole past and is filled with notable physicians, lawyers, pharmacists, educators and other leaders.
He also believes the popular and benign version of Mobile’s civil rights history, symbolized by mid 20th century Black petitioner John LeFlore and white city politician Joe Langan, wasn’t as successful as portrayed.
“Mr. LeFlore was an amazing letter writer and he was always requesting things,” Finley said. “Then Mr. Langan would go to the powers that be and say, ‘Hey, can we do this for these people?’ The powers would say, ‘It's just not time yet. We've got to make sure whatever we allow does not encroach upon what we're doing.’”
Conciliations were piecemeal and barely effective. After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a rousing 1959 speech in Mobile, Finley said power brokers felt threatened.
“Black preachers told King, ‘We're OK down here. We've got good white folks. We don't need you coming back down here, stirring stuff up,’” Finley said.
Complacency ruled. Finley’s father and others formed the Neighborhood Organized Workers (NOW) in the late 1960s and demanded more. He believes the impact of their boycotts and pickets resulted in criminal actions levied against its leaders. NOW was shattered.
Karlos is one of five Finley relatives on the Mobile County Remembrance Project.
In 1909, Richard Robertson shot and killed a white deputy sheriff and was arrested. That night, a throng pulled Robertson from his jail cell. They dragged him outside to the corner, across from Christ Episcopal Church, shot him, then hoisted him high into an oak by his neck.
For an hour, Robertson’s corpse dangled between cathedral and jail, at the intersection of church and state, the crux of Southern existence.
“I love research, but this has really touched my heart,” April Livingston said of the Remembrance Project. She mentioned lynching victim James Lewis, who’d been killed in 1919 when he happened to walk down the wrong street. “Thinking about that poor man, trying to walk home then beset upon by people who had nothing to do with him, then seeing where it could have happened and feeling I could make some small difference to his memory.”
Artist and art instructor Livingston has restored revered floats for the African American Mardi Gras organization. She sculpted a commissioned bust of Cudjo Lewis, the last local survivor of the Clotilda, the final slave ship to slip into the U.S. just before the Civil War. Voyage survivors formed the Africatown community north of downtown Mobile.
She hopes the Remembrance Project ripples through the rest of Mobile.
“It makes my stomach hurt for every time I've been told there was no trouble here,” Livingston said. “We must know and embrace this history as our own.”
As chair of the University of South Alabama’s History department, David Messenger recognizes time’s hallmarks.
“I think this moment, George Floyd and everything else going on, I think there’s great opportunity to build on and maybe integrate this into what we’re doing with students,” Messenger said.
A native Canadian in Mobile just three years, his project participation has been invaluable.
“I had this naïve idea about segregation as ‘we don’t come into contact with each other,’ but the dynamic is far different than that,” Messenger said.
The project will not only erect plaques detailing the lynching deaths but will also host an essay contest in area high schools.
“I hope this doesn’t become a passing sort of thing,” Messenger said. “I hope we can integrate it into more civil rights history in high schools.”
In 1981—yes, 1981—19-year-old Michael Donald was found lynched on a midtown residential block. A family of Klansmen randomly seized and killed the young man, then displayed his body in their neighborhood. Mobilians were shocked, embarrassed.
Those responsible were tried. One pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. One was convicted as an accomplice. One was executed by electric chair in 1997. The family patriarch was indicted but died before his trial could be completed.
Owing to its late date, Donald’s murder isn’t included on EJI’s lynching memorial, which only lists victims through 1950.
A couple of years later, Mobile’s city government was changed by federal order, and Blacks were elected to city office for the first time since Reconstruction. Former Neighborhood Organized Workers member Fred Richardson has held a city council seat since 1997.
In 2005, Mobile elected Sam Jones as its first Black mayor. He served two terms and is now a state legislator.
Karlos Finley’s sister, Dora, was prominent in 2007’s award-winning documentary The Order of Myths, a film exploring Mobile’s mostly segregated Mardi Gras. Though she died in 2012, her name adorns Mobile’s African American Heritage Trail, a chain of historic markers detailing achievement in the Black community.
Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy inspired Leah Nodar to return to grad school. A visit to the EJI website linked her to the Remembrance Project, where she is maybe its youngest member.
Nodar was at Mobile’s largest Black Lives Matter protest in late May. Along with an estimated 1,000-plus people, she felt compelled by the systemic racism she perceives. She sees the Remembrance Project as related.
“I think understanding how racism functions today requires understanding how it functioned in the past, how the structures we currently have were built,” Nodar said.
BLM marchers also focused efforts on a statue of Confederate Adm. Raphael Semmes at Mobile’s most prominent intersection. Semmes penned an unapologetic defense of the Confederacy rife with Lost Cause rationale—that the Confederacy fought over states’ rights not slavery, that they protected Southern nobility against Northern barbarians, that Blacks were inferior beings. Mobilians gifted a house to the unrepentant rebel.
Semmes’ statue was erected in 1900, just as Alabama refashioned its state constitution to openly codify white supremacy. It was also the prime lynching era.
The 2020 protesters’ ire was noted. The city administration removed the statue under darkness in violation of state code.
One historian hopes it’s not the past revisited, of troubles swept away and ignored.
“The whole thing with the Semmes statue plays right into that right? [The mayor] took it down, quietly paid the $25,000 fine and we all move on,” Messenger said.
The statue’s empty pedestal is now the stump for the Lost Cause’s once-expansive oak. Sadly, its roots still run deep after generations of penetration, as designed.
At the Aug. 10 Mobile County Commission meeting, Ludgood recommended that Mobile County stop observing Confederate holidays.
“The mood of the country has shifted, and we are coming to the recognition these Confederate holidays were code for white supremacy,” Ludgood said.
Despite stated empathy to her colleague’s perspective, Commissioner Connie Hudson disagreed. She repeatedly noted “sensitivity on both sides.”
“There are citizens who feel this is part of history, part of their heritage,” Hudson said. “The vast majority, slavery issue aside, had ancestors who fought in ‘The War Between the States’ and the vast majority of those were not slaveholders. They were poor farmers who felt like they were protecting their homeland.”
“You can’t get away from the white supremacy that was the underlying motivation… just because someone feels like they ought to be able to honor ancestors who fought a war to keep my ancestors enslaved doesn’t make it legitimate,” Ludgood said.
Hudson called it “a whole lot more complicated issue than that” and noted, “We can’t change history.”
Ludgood’s recommendation died. Her resolve remained.
Disclosure: This author has advised the Mobile County Remembrance Project on lynching research and copy-editing documents