In a region where one still finds schools named in honor of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, it’s no surprise that many folks refuse to look at local history with a critical eye. Anytime thoughtful people suggest changing the names of these schools or moving public monuments erected out of racial fear to more appropriate settings (read: museums), the usual suspects come out of the woodwork with the usual talking points. Admitting the ugliness of certain specific chapters of our history, it seems, is a slippery slope that will end in the confiscation of all firearms and the establishment of a Communist cuck homeland. (Or something like that; right-wing paranoia isn’t all that lucid.)
There is a silver lining, however. As the demographics of Duval County shift—Jacksonville is becoming younger, more diverse and more cosmopolitan—there’s a growing will to address past injustices, especially when they continue to affect present-day communities.
Last month, at the initiative of activist organization 904ward, Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History joined forces with Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and the Brooklyn Museum to open a historical exhibition that examines violence in early 20th-century Jacksonville in the context of widespread racial terrorism in the Jim Crow South. The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America uses photographs, videos, artwork and artifacts to tell the story of seven documented instances of racial terrorism that took place in Duval County. Among the objects on display are jars filled with soil collected at some of the lynching sites. The exhibition then links the local outbursts to a broader climate of racial terror given license by resentful Southern politicians and legislators.
It could be considered a bold statement on the part of MOSH, but curator Paul Bourcier told me it’s time to come to terms with this particular slice of history.
“One of the things we do here is we believe in the value of history,” he said. “There are lessons that can be applied to present for better future. In this case, this is a topic people don't want to talk about. They want to sweep it under rug, to think this kind of activity is a thing of the past. In a sense, it is; we don't see widespread lynching anymore, but there is something going on today. EJI points out that we continue to deal with racial injustice in various forms. We're seeing domestic terrorism happening to all kinds of people branded as the Other. We see systems in place that put certain communities at a disadvantage. Can it be that we're looking at something systemic that hearkens back to the racial violence of the past?”
Of course we are. But this is where certain parties begin to circle their wagons.
“A lot of people are going to tend to think, ‘Here we go again. We’re being made to feel guilty for the past, for things we had no part in,’” he continued. “That's not the point of this exhibit at all. It's to shine a light on the Jim Crow period, to force people to get out of their comfort zone and say, ‘Gosh, I've never thought about it before. What can I do to build a better future? How can we learn from this?’”
It’s a good question, and the answer begins with acknowledging the trauma of historical injustice, and understanding that communities are still affected by its legacy in the 21st century. Contemporary issues—like the ongoing fight for school infrastructure maintenance—unfold in the wake of very specific and very ugly forms of racial terror. Recognizing them, calling them what they are is not a symbolic gesture; it’s an essential part of today’s struggle for equality.