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Across the South historical markers are disappearing

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

For the past month, NPR series Off the Mark has brought you stories about historical markers scattered across the country. Today, we're going to look at markers that are missing. Many of them in the South that focus on Black history have been stolen or damaged. From member station GPB in Georgia, Pamela Kirkland reports that for communities that installed these markers, their absence is far more than a missing piece of metal.

PAMELA KIRKLAND, BYLINE: Just east of Atlanta, in Lithonia, Ga., an empty pole is all that's left of the marker in William A. Kelly Park.

DONETTA SMITH: And this is where it was. And it's all cemented. They couldn't take the pole (laughter).

KIRKLAND: That's Donetta Smith. She spent years researching racial violence in DeKalb County to finally have a historical marker installed here in 2020.

And it's a heavy marker. Like, this isn't...

SMITH: Two hundred pounds, over 200 pounds.

KIRKLAND: The marker, if it still exists, honors Reuban Hudson, a Black man who was lynched by a white mob after being accused of raping a white woman in the late 1800s. It also honors two unnamed Black men killed in a separate incident nearby. No one knows exactly when it went missing.

SMITH: It had to be in the middle of the night, 'cause as you can see, this is a busy corner.

KIRKLAND: Near a dollar store and city hall. Even though Smith grew up in Lithonia during segregation, she said she had no idea this kind of racial violence had taken place.

SMITH: The fact that nobody I talked to knew anything about these lynchings told me that this had been covered up.

KIRKLAND: Smith and the DeKalb County NAACP chapter worked with the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative to create the Lithonia marker.

ALBERT FIELDS: This is almost like a double lynching.

KIRKLAND: Albert Fields is communications director for the chapter.

FIELDS: You lynched him the first time, we found out about it, we put a marker to remind everybody. And then you turn around and lynch him again by stealing the remembrance part of it.

KIRKLAND: Another marker where 14-year-old Emmett Till's body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi has been destroyed three times. The Mississippi community wanted the damaged marker on display to show how their history can't be erased from the landscape, so they gave one to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where Nancy Bercaw is a curator.

NANCY BERCAW: That's not something that you lightly ask a community to let go of.

KIRKLAND: The new marker in Mississippi is bulletproof and surrounded by security cameras. Bercaw says the vandalism is deliberate.

BERCAW: These are not random acts of violence. It's a really active means to both suppress history, but also to terrorize the community there.

KIRKLAND: In 2020, the same year as the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, a marker to lynching victim Mary Turner, in the 1918 lynching rampage in the south Georgia town of Hahira, was shot several times. It will also be on display at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Nicole Moore is the center's director of education.

NICOLE MOORE: When people vandalize these markers and the Emmett Till marker, they steal the one in Lithonia, that's saying something. And it's really important that we make sure that people understand the terror didn't stop with the murders.

KIRKLAND: You can assume visitors to the National Center for Human Rights want to wrestle with this history, but roadside markers serve a different purpose. They can surprise people with the knowledge that they're standing where an atrocity occurred. DeKalb County NAACP President Edwina Clanton says that's what vandals want to destroy.

EDWINA CLANTON: People don't want them to remember what land they're standing on. We want them to remember what injustice was done to our people.

KIRKLAND: Donetta Smith says she worries about what comes next.

SMITH: Black history is threatening to some folk. And hatred, unfortunately, will always be around. But the haters will not prevail.

KIRKLAND: The Equal Justice Initiative is now working on a new marker for the Lithonia site.

For NPR News, I'm Pamela Kirkland in Lithonia, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "PEACE PIECE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pamela Kirkland
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