Something happened the other night in Missouri.
Hours south of Ferguson and miles away from the blare of squawking talking heads, cameras’ glare, fortified police force and protestors, a quiet vigil was held.
A small group of people in a rural Missouri town stopped, as they have every year since 2001, to reflect on what happened there August 19, 1901: the expulsion of the town’s black population and the lynching of three men that led up to it.
One of the three men was one of my great uncles. Wrongly jailed for murder and rape, he was broken out of the jail by a mob, then hung, and his body riddled with bullets. Another of the men was my great-great grandfather. He died defending his home after it was set on fire by the mob, who then went on to expel all the black residents from the town.
My great grandfather escaped that night and eventually settled here in Milwaukee where I live now.
I struggled for weeks about telling this story, and knowing August 19 was approaching, I wanted to talk about not just the tragedy, but also the blessing I personally feel because I’m here to tell the story. After all, my branch of the family line wasn’t completely cut short that night.
That’s how race is so inextricably embedded within my story -- both in the tragedy and the blessing. But how do I tell that story without dredging up guilt, embarrassment and just tiring people out with race talk? So I struggled with it, kept the story to myself and planned to quietly remember August 19 in my own way.
And then Ferguson happened.
August 19 came in a fog of protests and more talking heads, more cameras. Beneath the fog, I thought about my grandfather, my uncle and how the incident ultimately led to me living here in Milwaukee where I would meet my husband and where we’d raise a family.
I thought about how this part of my roots wasn’t something my family talked about. In fact, it was a secret I only discovered two years ago; yet there I was, on the very date it happened, cautious to talk about it, fearful of causing discomfort.
I thought about that town in southern Missouri and the people who would hold vigil at the very place where everything happened in 1901. As uncomfortable it must be for them to know that such a tragedy happened in their town, they’d acknowledge it, talk about it, and heal.
Healing. It’s what we’re all trying to do.
The following is a note from a friend who attended last night’s vigil. I’m hoping our family can attend next year.
“Just finished our annual candlelight vigil at the site of the lynching in Pierce City. It is a pleasant and calm summer night here. The ringing sound of the riot and the gunshots are very distant now.”
Rochelle Fritsch from The Late Arrival...Finding out everyday that sometimes, late is right on time.
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