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Community remembrance events to focus on lynchings of the past, need for justice today

SALISBURY — “Truth Be Told,” a community remembrance project to be held here Aug. 6-7, will commemorate the deaths of local lynching victims and focus on modern-day justice issues. 

Sponsored by Actions in Faith & Justice in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative, the events surround the dedication of a historical marker memorializing six people lynched in Rowan County during the Jim Crow era. The marker will be erected near the corner of Liberty and Church streets, beside the Oak Grove-Freedmen’s Cemetery. 

Organizers see the weekend activities as an opportunity to bring together Blacks and whites to face the truth of our history and experience healing. 

The events include:

• A service of remembrance 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 6, at Soldier’s Memorial AME Zion Church, led by the Rev. Derrick Anderson, pastor. N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green of Mebane will be keynote speaker. Green is the state’s ninth poet laureate, appointed in 2018 and reappointed 2021. She is the first African American and third woman to be appointed as the North Carolina Poet Laureate.

• A community dialogue 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 7, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, including an overview of the Equal Justice Initiative’s racial justice work, presented by the EJI’s Kiara Boone, deputy director of community education, and Bre Lamkin, project manager. After a 30-minute video, there will be a group discussion. 

• A performing arts celebration with the theme of “Strength, Hope, Resilience,” at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 7 at St. John’s Lutheran Church, celebrating the strength and resilience of Black families and communities of color. Krystal Stukes’ Triple Threat Dance will perform “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Sabrina Harris’ Vibes Art Incubator will present spoken word art. Yeddi Lino of Linovisuals will present photos from his Front Porch series. The Reach Church’s Praise Team Choir will perform songs of praise. 

The Salisbury community held its first public events to remember lynching victims in 2017. That was on Aug. 6, the anniversary of the 1906 lynching of three tenant farmers accused in the killing of the white Lyerly Family near Barber Junction — Nease Gillespie, John Gillespie and Jack Dillingham. 

The new marker, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, remembers those men as well as three more lynching victims: Harrison and James Gillespie, killed June 11, 1902, after being accused of killing a young white woman; and Laura Wood, a 65-year-old woman found hanging from a tree in Barber on Feb. 12, 1930. 

The Equal Justice Initiative has identified the six as the known lynching victims recorded in local history, though there were likely more. 

The marker will have silver lettering on a black background, with one side describing local lynching history and the other telling a broader narrative of modern day racial injustice. 

It will be among the first EJI markers erected in North Carolina. Similar markers have been installed in cities in 12 other states, from Maryland to Minnesota. 

Green, speaking at the Aug. 6 event, will address the need for truth-telling. 

The author of several books of poetry, she is a 2019 Academy of American Poet Laureate Fellow, 2014 NC Literary Hall of Fame Inductee, 2009 NC Piedmont Laureate appointment and 2003 recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature. 

Green teaches documentary poetry at Duke University Center for Documentary Studies and was recently the 2021 Frank B. Hanes Writer in Residence at UNC Chapel Hill. 

The planning of “Truth Be Told” has been a four-year journey involving community groups and three churches: Soldier’s Memorial AME Zion, St. Luke’s Episcopal and St. John’s Lutheran. Organizers include the Rev. Olen Bruner, the Rev. Kendal Mobley, Betty Jo Hardy, Pastor Anthony Smith, the Rev. Derrick Anderson, Dr. and Mrs. Bryant Norman, Father Robert Black, Mark Ritchie, Edward Norvell, Karen Puckett, the Rev. Geoffrey Hoy, Dr. Susan Lee and other members of the churches. 

Actions in Faith and Justice is a Rowan County grassroots alliance of citizens dedicated to community based, intentional dialogue and collaborative action intended to promote justice and equity. 

The Equal Justice Initiative, based in Alabama, was founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer and bestselling author of “Just Mercy.”  EJI provides legal representation for people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or mistreated in prison. EJI’s Community Remembrance Project partners with community coalitions across the country to memorialize documented victims of racial violence and foster dialogue about race and justice today. 

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