On June 5, 1902, a 28-year-old Black man named Wiley Gynn was lynched in Bondtown, Virginia. Gynn, a boarding house proprietor, was accused of attempting to assault a white girl. He was promptly arrested, but his case was never given a fair trial. When a white mob removed him from the jail and began marching him toward a tree to hang him, Gynn tried to escape and was shot hundreds of times.
For more than 120 years, this injustice remained unacknowledged. But on April 22, 2023, community members from rural Wise County, Virginia, gathered in the town of Coeburn (population 1,600) to dedicate a historical marker commemorating Gynn’s murder.
This community ceremony was part of a national movement spearheaded by the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to commemorate America’s history of racial terror. In rural Wise County in southwest Virginia, local leaders said that choosing to acknowledge the most difficult parts of their community’s past gives them the chance to heal and move forward.
“Racism is like a wound in our nation’s history,” Preston Mitchell, a co-founder of Wise’s Community Remembrance Coalition, told the Daily Yonder. “And we’ve put a Band-Aid over it, but it needs to be ripped open and cleaned out. And the cleaning is going to hurt. But this necessary conversation, this honest conversation, is the only way the wound is going to heal.”
According to EJI, over 4,000 people were lynched in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. Hundreds more lynchings occurred outside the South. These acts of public violence terrorized African American communities and brutally upheld the racial hierarchies of the Jim Crow system.
But until recently, this history has gone largely unrecognized by the cities and towns where such violence took place, according to Sia Sanneh, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative who is part of the team that researched racial terror lynchings.
“As part of the lynching research, we really began to understand the absence of memorialization across the landscape of the South in particular, and just how dramatic that silence was, given the depth of the history that is represented in these stories,” Sanneh said in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
In 2018, the organization dedicated the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is “the first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence,” according to the website.
In addition to the national monument, EJI has partnered with local communities like those in Wise County to collect soil from lynching sites and erect public markers. Such local efforts are crucial, Sanneh said, because they more accurately reflect the nature of racial terror lynchings.
“Many of these lynchings occurred in small communities where everybody knew each other and everybody knew about what happened,” Sanneh said. “They happened in this deeply local, deeply personal way. And I think that can’t be fully reckoned with only with a national memorial. There has to be some kind of local mechanism to confront that history.”
Since 2015, an estimated 75 communities have erected historical markers commemorating victims of racial terror, according to Sanneh. About a third of these communities are rural or small metropolitan areas.
In the April ceremony, Wise County installed its third historical marker. The county, which has about 36,000 residents and is located on the Virginia-Kentucky border, had already placed signs commemorating the murders of David Hurst in 1920 and Leonard Woods in 1927.
Long Time in the Making
The dedication of Wiley Gynn’s memorial is the culmination of more than four years of effort from members of Wise County’s Community Remembrance Coalition.
Tom Costa is a history professor at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and a founding member of the coalition. “We very naively thought we could just drive down to Montgomery, Alabama, and pick up our memorial for the Wise County lynchings [from the Equal Justice Initiative],” Costa told the Daily Yonder. “Of course, it didn’t prove to be as easy as that.”
That is because the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project is meant to be about much more than installing markers, said EJI’s Sia Sanneh. “The marker is not a sort of quick end, in and of itself. The process is really important—it should be an opportunity for communities to come together,” Sanneh said.
The Equal Justice Initiative asks each community to form a coalition of local stakeholders, who will lead community outreach and education efforts. In 2019, Costa cofounded Wise’s Community Remembrance Coalition, along with Preston Mitchell, a retired history teacher and Episcopal minister, and Tabitha Smith, the associate vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at UVA Wise. They were joined by members of the Pound Historical Society and representatives from a coalition of local African American and Episcopal churches.
The group spoke at community events and brought in guest lecturers to educate their fellow citizens about the history of lynching in Wise County and Virginia and the importance of recognizing local acts of racial terror.
The coalition took their proposal to each of the town councils that govern municipalities in Wise, as well as the city of Norton. Although one town council was unresponsive, the rest drew up resolutions supporting the coalition’s initiative to install historical markers.
In a county where over 80% of voters supported Donald Trump in the 2020 election, such staunch support for the coalition’s efforts may have seemed unlikely (Trump has repeatedly defended Confederate monuments). But much of the coalition’s success lay in its ability to move the conversation beyond politics and partisanship.
In February of 2019, the Virginia General Assembly issued a resolution apologizing for the state’s history of racial terror, and encouraging communities to participate in EJI’s Community Remembrance Project.
Coalition co-founder Mitchell said this resolution, passed unanimously by both the state House of Delegates and Senate, was critical in paving the way for the coalition’s work in Wise County.
“That resolution was passed 198 to zero. And that took the issue out of the political arena,” Mitchell said.
But that’s not to say the process has gone entirely smoothly.
After getting approval from individual town councils, the coalition went before the County Board of Supervisors to get permission to place a historical marker on the courthouse lawn commemorating the county’s three documented lynchings. The board tabled this resolution indefinitely, after members argued that the courthouse lawn was not the right place for such a monument.
So the coalition tried again, and this time got approval for three separate memorials to be placed at or near the lynching sites. The first historical marker, which commemorated the 1927 lynching of Leonard Woods, was placed on the Virginia side of Pound Gap in October of 2021 with the support of Virginia’s Department of Historical Resources.
A second marker memorializing the 1920 murder of David Hurst was dedicated in September of 2022. However, this marker, which had been placed along a highway between the town of Appalachia and the city of Norton, was stolen after just three weeks. The coalition is working with the Equal Justice Initiative to replace the sign and has gotten approval from the county board to place it in a more secure location.
Commemorating and Educating
Community education has also been a critical focus for the coalition, said Stephanie Cassell, who is a co-chair of the group and a high-school English teacher.
“Putting up the plaques has been the center of a lot of our practical effort. But encouraging meaningful dialogue about race and justice in our community is just as important,” Cassell told the Daily Yonder.
Members of the coalition have spoken about their work at community events across the county and hosted guest lecturers to speak on the community’s history. Cassell and Costa have both added more information about racial terror to their curricula. And last year, they hosted a workshop that trained high school social studies and English teachers to prepare lessons about lynching and local racial history.
In Virginia, this topic of education is not without controversy. On his first day in office, Governor Glenn Younkin signed an executive order “ending the use of inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory.”
But Costa says his experience with the coalition and the governor’s order has only made him more intent on teaching this history.
“I make it clear that in my class, we’re going to cover material that some people call ‘divisive.’ It is my belief that it is not divisive, and that we really need to understand the full scope of our past in order to really understand history.”
Coalition co-chair Terran Young agrees.
“We have a dark and unfortunate history in our country. And a lot of people don’t like to talk about it, but not talking about it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Young said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “And it’s important to know about, because we are all products of history, good or bad.”
"Those More Painful Aspects of History"
For Sia Sanneh at the Montgomery headquarters of Equal Justice Initiative, one of the most startling aspects of the Community Remembrance Project and the lynching research that led to it are just how new it all is.
“It still surprises me that we were able to do something new in 2018 when this data had been around for a really long time,” Sanneh said. “I think that’s a reflection of just how far we have to go as a country in valuing basic parts of American history.”
Costa said the United States is full of memorials and statues— what he calls “visible efforts to remind us about the past.” But what gets remembered and what doesn’t are an important indicator of the values and historical attitudes that are prevalent in a given time.
“These events had been long obscured because the people in control didn’t want to highlight those more painful aspects of their history,” he said. By erecting historical markers, the Wise coalition and others are restoring the history of racial terror to the public record, he said.
According to a spokesperson, EJI is in conversation with over 300 communities who are in the process of establishing their own Community Remembrance Coalitions. This represents a sea change in terms of public commemoration of racial terror and violence.
“I think people have a sense that there is a better place to get to on issues of race and racial justice,” Sanneh said. “And I think that history and facts have such an important role to play.”
At the community dedication of Wiley Gynn’s memorial, the Reverend Solomon Jones said the marker was a physical representation of progress in their community.
“We are not where we want to be yet, but we are moving up that ladder,” he said. “And it takes each and every one of us as brothers and sisters to work together to reach that goal.”