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From January 22, 1912 to January 6, 2021

On Jan. 6 I was sitting in my house 10 blocks from the U.S. Capitol when the scream of sirens split the air and I turned on the TV to see armed men and women with Confederate flags battling police and erecting a scaffold with a noose. Oh, my god, I muttered. It’s 1912 all over again.

Back in the early 1990s I had a bi-racial grandchild on the way and, despite many years working for racial justice, I was terrified to tell my racist family in Georgia. I kept this child a secret until nightmares and a ghost woman on my bed said go home find out what happened. From childhood I had known something was wrong. There were too many secrets, too much anxiety about black people. It was time to connect some dots.

For many years I drove back and forth to GA interviewing elders and experts, researching documents, combing through cemeteries.

This, briefly, is what I found. Slaughtered lives. Stolen land. Forced, enslaved labor. Rejected and murdered biracial children. Criminal kinfolk unpunished by law but twisted in spirit.

My third great grandfather Brigadier Gen. Elias Beall, drove Seminole people out of Florida in 1812. His son and nephew drove Cherokee people out of Georgia in 1836, killing thousands on what became known as the Trail of Tears, all to enable White settlers to steal natives’ land.

Gen. Elias Beall was then commissioned by the governor to lay out Columbus, GA and dole out those stolen Indian lands. He settled 20 miles north in Harris County to become a large slaveholder and founder of numerous Baptist churches wherein was preached the righteousness of slavery and the sub-humanity of the enslaved. There my father’s extended family enslaved hundreds who were forced to work thousands of acres gained by theft. Two great grandfathers served as sheriff and auctioned off enslaved children separated from their parents while giving other enslaved people 40 lashes for which the slavers paid $1. Young boys cut their teeth on their RIGHT to monitor and punish Black behavior and any white man who chose became slave patrollers. In this and many other ways, a newly forming legal system was being braided with a brutal slave system which would maintain in part this ideology, attitude, and behavior to the present day.

With the loss of the war and their primary source of income and identity, my ancestors, diabolically set about to build a new and in some ways more brutal form of slavery. They weaponized the 13th amendment, and continued what they knew best, the “Negro control business.” As sheriffs—SEVEN TOTAL-- they turned their heads when kinfolk and neighbors murdered black people in cold blood and dumped their bodies in the river. As judges they ruled in favor of white men more often than not, regardless of the facts. As senators and state representatives they served on Prisons & Paroles Committees that created the draconian convict labor system that re-enslaved millions, killed thousands, and enriched countless white people.

My mother’s side, while less wealthy, enslaving fewer people, followed the same pattern. In 1912 my maternal great grandfather was sheriff of Harris county, his son my grandfather Doug Haadley was his deputy and a new Confederate statue had just been erected in the town square. [5] When his nephew was murdered and three African American men were suspected, he rounded them up along with a Black woman he trusted to be his star witness against the men. One of the men was a minister who bravely preached against the predatory ways of the sheriff’s nephew. Another was the father of a 14 year old girl pursued by the 34 year old nephew; and a deacon in the preacher’s church. The third man was the fiancé of the girl. He was also cousin to the sheriff and the deputy, therefore my cousin. The issue was inter-racial sex and family, a long-standing practice in Harris and many other southern counties, ranging from rape to long-term relationships about which little is known. Black and white preachers and politicians alike were trying to stamp it out but the widespread and wholesale rape of black girls and women by white men was not being punished and had long been the true crime behind white people’s cries of Black Rapist as an excuse for lynching thousands of Black people. Had this case come to court the great hypocrisy of the South would have hit headlines across the country. Better those headlines should be the vicious lynching of four innocent people, including the first woman to be lynched in Georgia because she refused to finger three innocent men, all her friends, one her preacher. Beside the baptismal font at Friendship Baptist Church.

As I immersed myself in this horror of family and American history I could not help but think Thank God that is all passed. What a foolish little white girl I was, for I knew better but not enough better. Until May 25, 2020 when I would be forced to connect another dot when four blocks from where I’d lived for 13 years in Minneapolis, MN, I turned on the TV [7] to see the familiar CUP Food store and to see a lynching happening in real time. As a former investigative reporter, covering some stories there for Life Magazine, I knew of brutality among Minneapolis cops. This, though, was a cut above. There in broad daylight, with a crowd pleading for mercy, a white police officer deliberately choked the life out of George Floyd.

Fast forward six months ahead to Jan. 6, 2021. Here on live TV, just down my street, hundreds, perhaps thousands of men and women, attacking the Capitol, busting through windows and doors. Your book is coming to life, a friend texted. I looked for the face of my long-dead grandfathers, uncles, cousins in the crowd.

Fifteen miles up the road on this dark day, my African American cousin, Jackie Irvine, sat traumatized as she watched his scene. Jackie and I are both cousins to John Moore that 21 year old man, the youngest of the four lynched in Hamilton at midnight beside the baptismal font at Friendship Baptist Church. Her great great grandmother fled to E. St. Louis following his murder. The lynching was never mentioned in her family. The connection of this capitol invasion to that midnight massacre in Hamilton ga was not lost on Dr. Irvine, former chair of Emory University’s Dept of Urban Education. She wrote this, published in Medium:

”Like the Georgia lynch mob, this 2021 mob of Trump insurgents included so called upstanding citizens, police, military.… who believed their country was threatened by “The Other.” The 1912 and 2021 murder scenes took place on hallowed grounds, one at the Black church and the other at the United States Capitol. Like the 1912 lynch mob, the 2021 rioters wore their insignia and carried the Confederate flag, ropes, guns, and knives. They even hung a noose from a scaffold they constructed. During both time periods, the mobs arrogantly flaunted their white privilege, unafraid of consequences or punishments. Both mobs took pictures and stole souvenirs.’

“The similarities of the two events sent me into despair and rage. Dr. Irvine continues. Seventy million people voted for Donald Trump, and hypocritical politicians who promoted discord for years and enabled terrorists now call for unity and healing. I am not persuaded. There cannot be healing without justice. From slavery to Jim Crow to the present day, African Americans continue to suffer because of racist acts and institutional racism that have never been adequately addressed. The lynch mobs of the past, like the one in Harris County, were never held accountable. Many of the white supremacists who attacked the Capitol will never be punished.

‘No superficial plan to unite America along racial, class, geographic, or cultural lines will solve America’s colossal divide. If solutions fail to punish the guilty and address persistent structural inequalities and racial disparities…., there will never be systemic change. I suspect without these efforts, I may see a sequel to this lynching nightmare.” Thus ends Dr. Irvine.

Long-term effects of racial violence across America are still being catalogued. Voter registration is lower in states and counties where they occurred, not to mention overall quality of life indicators for African Americans. Some white people today are like me beginning to examine the toll taken on us as well by the pathological beliefs and behaviors of our forebears, which too many of us still carry out. What are we doing to transform this dire legacy? Like we on this panel, white people must first face it. Once deeply and authentically faced, the imperative to act on several levels becomes clear. Today my sister panelists, Jackie Irvine and I with other linked descendants work together for justice.

Note: This is a talk I gave at the Slave Dwelling Project Conference in Oct. 2021.


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