A marker dedicated to the seven known victims of lynching in Lafayette County was dedicated in an emotional, public ceremony Saturday afternoon.
Under a cloudless spring sky, Lafayette County youth solemnly read aloud the names of the seven known men who died from racial terror in this county.
“We remember him,” they said, after reciting the names of all the men, except one. “In 1891, an unnamed Black man was lynched in Lafayette County. We may not know his name, but we remember him.”
Trinity Washington, a young girl from Memphis, was the last in line.
“My great-grandfather, Elwood Higginbottom, was lynched here in 1935. We remember him,” Washington said.
At stage left, sitting in front of the fence around the Oxford City Hall, sunflowers gave a bright contrast to jars of soil labeled with the names of four of the men. The soil was collected at the sites of their deaths.
Donald Cole, a celebrated math associate professor emeritus, administrator and the man after whom Martindale-Cole Student Services is named, served as the host for the ceremony to unveil the Lafayette County Lynching Memorial Marker. The marker was placed in September of last year, but due to pandemic concerns, the unveiling had to be postponed until April 2.
After welcoming the crowd of about 200 people to the ceremony in front of Oxford’s City Hall, Cole thanked the crowd for their presence and introduced the Grammy-award-winning UM Gospel Choir. Their joyful rendition of “Oh Happy Day” moved the crowd into clapping along.
Alonzo Hilliard with the Lafayette County Remembrance Project came to the microphone to offer thanks to the Alluvial Collective and the Equal Justice Initiative for working with the LCRP for the last five years to bring this project to life.
The project began after Kyleen Burke, a law student from Northeastern University researching victims of lynchings for the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, connected with Tyrone Higginbottom after he used a service to look into his DNA results. Higginbottom is one of the descendants of Elwood Higginbottom, whose lynching was most recent and had been researched by Burke.
Higginbottom had started a union of sharecroppers to maintain the integrity of the land they worked, earning him the recognition of “hero to the sharecroppers.” When he refused to let a white farmer run his cattle across his field, that farmer attacked Higginbottom while his wife and three children were home. To protect himself and his family, Higginbottom shot the farmer to death.
While most lynching victims never saw a trial, Higginbottom did. As he awaited the jury’s verdict, a vicious mob of Oxford and Lafayette County residents took him from the jail, drove him to the intersection of Lamar Boulevard and Molly Barr Road, hung him from a tree and shot his hanging body.
His family managed to escape to Memphis days after the lynching.
“I heard he was a hero to the sharecroppers. He was a hero to me! I would not be here if he hadn’t done what he did. My father, my siblings, my kids — we wouldn’t be here. He’s a hero to me,” Tina Washington, Higginbottom’s granddaughter, said.
Hilliard said many of the perpetrators of these lynchings were elected officials and prominent members of the community. Often, they were planned in advance for families to attend “like a birthday party, or a dance.”
These mob members were rarely arrested for their actions, creating an informal approval of the actions.
“People took photos of the burnt, hanged and shot Black corpses,” Hilliard said. “They’d send them to their families as postcards. Too many victims of this racial terror remain unnamed. It is critically important that we remember these victims of racial terror. We must be honest and reshape the cultural landscape through a more honest reflection of history through truth-telling. We must start by speaking their names.”
This is when the youth of Lafayette County introduced themselves and spoke the names of each man to a silent crowd, sitting in an unusually quiet Oxford Square.
Harris Tunstal, 1885.
Will McGregory, 1890.
Unidentified Black man, 1891.
William Steen, 1893.
William Chandler, 1895.
Lawson Patton, 1908.
Elwood Higginbottom, 1935.
A male singer’s strong voice broke the silence with the opening of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” after the last name was read. The crowd joined, singing along and shouting “yes.”
Two Lafayette County Aldermen spoke about the importance of this occasion and the marker, followed by local musician Lenny Kaye performing his song “Ghost Dance,” a song he wrote with American singer-songwriter Patti Smith about the dance Indigenous peoples used to do as prayers of protection to their ancestors.
“Thank you for calling upon our ancestors,” Cole said.
He then introduced Pastor Lee Robinson, a descendant of one of the victims. Lawson “Nelse” Patton was a jail trustee and was accused of sexual assault of a white woman. U.S. Sen. William V. Sullivan led the mob which lynched Patton, and in 1908 said he was proud of it.
“I directed every movement of the mob, and I did everything I could to see that he was lynched,” Sullivan said.
Pastor Robinson led the crowd in a joyful prayer.
“Remembrance for our yesterdays, and thinking about our hopes for our tomorrows. We no longer take food from a window in the back,” Robinson said. “We dine in. We no longer must move on a sidewalk to let a white man pass out of fear of retribution. We walk proudly. Lord, let us learn to love each other and greet each other with a holy smile. Amen, Amen, Amen.”
April Grayson with the Alluvial Collective and the informal leader of the LCRP began by introducing the families of three of the victims. Higginbottom’s descendants, a crowd of a dozen coordinated in bright blue, stood among the first two rows. Robinson waved from the side of the crowd, then the descendants of William Steen, who was killed because he allegedly bragged about sexual relations with a white woman, stood at the end of the front row. Each family received a round of applause.
Grayson invited the audience to a second ceremony to be held shortly after this one, honoring Elwood Higginbottom’s son, Pastor E.W. Higginbottom, with a bench installed in his memory near the Old Armory. E.W. Higginbottom spent the last years of his life finding healing through the search for information about his father. He was four at the time of his father’s death and his family’s subsequent fleeing, and he did not remember much about Mississippi until he returned eight decades later to find answers.
“History is not so long ago,” Grayson said. “It’s actually pretty fresh, and I’m glad our community could bring some healing. Any student can change the world by starting with their own community.”
Keiana West and Cyan Blackwell spoke as representatives for The Equal Justice Initiative. EJI “provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons,” and were contributors to erecting the monument. Blackwell said that as recently as the 1980s, representatives of the Supreme Court told Bryan Stephenson, the founder of EJI, that “we’d rather have a racist death penalty than no death penalty at all.” West also mentioned the importance of the Equal Justice Initiative.
“We at the Equal Justice Initiative believe that everyone is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” West said at the end.
Sociology professor Diane Harriford took the stage to talk about her journey to Mississippi. She was born in Iowa, went to Oberlin College in Ohio then SUNY Stony Brook and has taught at Vassar since 1988. Her studies into the Black experience have led her to Mississippi many times.
“In some peculiar way, when I come here, I feel like I’ve come home,” Harriford said.
The crowd nodded and laughed, and she continued.
“Mississippi led the nation in people who were lynched. Led the nation,” Harriford said. “I am thrilled that you all are now leading the country in making reparations — amends — for that.”
Effie Burt, a renowned singer wearing all black, stepped on the stage to sing “Strange Fruit,” a well-known mournful song with a note of danger.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” sang the renowned singer. “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”
Burt’s expression and vocal strength captivated the crowd just as she’s done for years as part of her activism.
Donald Cole stood in silence after her performance, letting the song settle in.
“I am beyond grateful,” he finally said, “to live at a point in time when I will never see that strange fruit hanging with my own eyes.”
After a spoken word poem by UM law student and Lafayette County Remembrance Project steering committee member Randon Hill, Elwood Higginbottom’s granddaughters came to the stage to sing “Available To You,” a praise song, accompanied by their brother on the bass.
Terry Hilliard led a moment of silence for the known and unknown victims, then the UM Gospel Choir closed the ceremony by inviting the crowd to join them in the first verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
With the strength of Effie Burt singing “Amazing Grace” at their backs, the families of the victims crossed the road to the marker and read, re-read and touched the words. Most wore t-shirts displaying the Higginbottom family tree, they hugged, wiped their tears and took photos.
“His lynching caused such a long shadow over our lives. It wasn’t shame. It was anger and injustice. And there’s still so much to do,” Washington said, then referring to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
Washington, the granddaughter of Elwood Higginbottom, reflected further on her emotions about the day.
“I wish my daddy could see this,” she smiled, looking at the lingering crowd. “The same community where his daddy was killed is full of people who celebrated his daddy today.”
The informal ceremony at the Old Armory for the bench in E.W. Higginbottom’s memory carried much more emotion. He passed away from COVID-19 during its earliest wave, and his niece laughed through tears recounting his stories from “adult daycare.” As his family touched his name on the plaque, laid flowers on the bench and cried, each one spoke about how much they missed him.
After Effie Burt delivered an impromptu performance of “Amazing Grace,” Valerie Reaves, a niece of Elwood Higginbottom and the family’s historian, emotionally addressed April Grayson in front of the small gathering.
“What you have brought to our family,” Reaves said shakily, speaking of Grayson’s role in the memorial marker, “is beyond measure. It is peace, and we will never thank you enough.”
The emotional moment was followed by a surprise from April Grayson.
“Now that I have your attention,” Grayson laughed after several tear-filled hugs, “I have a surprise.” In the five years since she became a part of the Lafayette County Remembrance Project, she has gotten many phone calls about the family. Just two days ago she received a call from an elderly woman named Tommye in Pennsylvania, who had seen the coverage of the ceremony on the news.
Her father was close friends with Elwood Higginbottom, and she believes she was one of the last people to see him alive as he sat in jail.
Her father owned a gas station and grist mill on the outskirts of town, and Higginbottom would come in for supplies for his crop. Every time he saw Tommye, he would hand her “a couple of real live little frogs to play with, and she loved him.” Grayson grimaced a bit as she formed her hands to mimic holding a couple of real live little frogs, turning the family’s surprise into laughter.
Tommye wants to share this and other memories of the community with the Higginbottom family as soon as possible.