Eastern Kentucky Community Remembrance Project reckons with history of racial violence and slavery | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

Eastern Kentucky Community Remembrance Project reckons with history of racial violence and slavery

Learn more about the Eastern Kentucky Remembrance Project here. This article contains mentions of racial trauma, slavery, and violence against Black people.

The Big Sandy Chapter of KFTC recently launched a community remembrance project that aims to encourage learning and action for racial justice and reckon with the local history of racial terror and lynching. Using a model developed by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, group members plan to foster community conversations and dialogue, memorialize incidents of racial lynchings, lift up the vibrant history and present-day experiences of Black people and communities in eastern Kentucky, and create opportunities for diverse people to work together to build more inclusive and just communities.

“Jean and I first became aware of the local history of lynchings in eastern Kentucky when we visited the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama,” explained John Rosenberg. “It’s important for us to face this history.”

The Equal Justice Initiative has documented a number of racial lynchings in eastern Kentucky, including the killing of a 28-year old Black man named Fredrick “Kid” Shannon in 1924 by an armed mob. Newspaper reports said a mob of several hundred attacked a jail in Wayland, Kentucky where Shannon was being held, using sledge hammers and drills to break down the door. Shannon was shot 18 times and later died of his injuries. Although more than a dozen armed deputies were on duty, they later claimed that the attack was “so quiet” and the sky so dark that no individual members of the mob could be identified and none were charged.

According to EJI, additional documented racial lynchings took place in Knott, Breathitt, Harlan, Whitley, and Laurel counties. A Black man from Pike County man was also taken across state lines by a white mob and later killed in Mingo County, West Virginia.

As KFTC members and other local residents first considered how to begin a process of community engagement and dialogue about this history, they decided to begin with a service project. Beverly May noted that the upcoming Memorial Day weekend would be a good time to clear an old cemetery where many Black folks from Wayland were known to be buried. On May 29, with support of Wayland Mayor Jerry Fultz and permission from nearby property owners, a group of 15 volunteers climbed a steep hill with chain saws, loppers, and machetes and worked all day removing trees, briars, and shrubs from the site.

At mid-day they paused for a lunchtime program emceed by Emily Hudson, the founder of the new Southeast Kentucky African-American Museum and Cultural Center in Hazard, Kentucky. “This has been a good day, a powerful day,” she said. “It reminds us all of the power of stories, and the importance of uncovering our history.”

To open the program, Tiffany Pyette shared a land acknowledgement recognizing that Wayland is the traditional homeland of Shawnee, Cherokee, and Yuchi nations. “We must name our histories to combat the continuation of colonialism and anti-blackness in our lands.” Randy Wilson then sang a gorgeous version of the hymn “Tryin’ to get home.”

Then James Butler, a local resident who provided a delicious barbeque lunch for the group, shared some of his experiences as a Black man and coal miner who grew up in nearby Wheelwright. He described how his own father had gone into the coal mines of Birmingham Alabama at the age of 9 and by the age of 11 was charged and convicted of killing a white man. After spending years in prison, Butler’s father moved to Kentucky to get away from his painful past. He eventually worked more than 50 years in the coal mines. Butler spoke with pride about the mining, mechanical skills, and hard work he learned from his father.

Remarkably, the group ate lunch in the community center located directly across the street from the original Wayland jail, the site where Fredrick Shannon was incarcerated, attacked, and killed by the white mob. That small brick building still stands in the center of town.

After lunch, as the group returned to work in the cemetery, the site began to reveal more of its stories. At first, there appeared to be no visible headstones, only sunken places in the ground where people had been buried. But as vegetation was removed, volunteers located and propped up a number of stone markers, including some with names and inscriptions:

  • Spencer Martin, Born 1836. Died Nov 15, 1910. Not dead but sleeping.
  • L.H. Payne, Born March 13, 1880. Died Feb 19, 1935. Gone but not forgotten.
  • Willie Lewis, Born Oct 5, 1918. Died Feb 7, 1947. He is not dead but sleepeth. U.M.W.of A.

At the end of the day, Tiffany Pyette led a brief ceremony at the site. She later explained, “I brought to the gravesite sacred medicines: cedar, sage, and sweetgrass, along with my pheasant wing smudge fan, to be in ceremony for those we have lost and with those who are doing this work. I grew purple cala lilies in my home leading up to the service project day and fresh cut them that morning. Those flowers, along with those brought from another group member's garden, were arranged and placed on the graves towards the end of the cleanup day. Myself and the youngest member of our crew put them together and tended the graves in our own way. It was important to me that we leave the graves looking as beautiful as we can; that the people buried are visibly cherished.”

Since the service day, group members have continued to research and learn stories about the people who are buried at the site. Tom Matijasic, a local professor of history, quickly confirmed that Spencer Martin was an enslaved person as of the 1860 census. Spencer and his sister Cecilia were two of five people listed in that year as slaves owned by John Martin, Sr. According to Matijasic, the fact that all five were listed in the census by name was highly unusual for the time. John Martin’s son Daniel Martin later sold the land that became the town of Wayland in 1913.

Then, several days after a newspaper article and social media posts publicized the group’s work, a woman contacted John Rosenberg to share her family’s personal connections to Spencer Martin and other local Black residents. She wrote in part, “Belle Martin was my grandmother’s best friend, and a good friend to my mother…The cemetery you cleaned is Steel’s Creek. They lived right at the bottom in the valley where the cemetery is located. The Black Martin man who fathered my grandmother’s children lived across the road from her. They were all brought into the community together…The property she lived on and where I grew up she purchased for $25.00 from Spencer Martin. So much history.”

The East Kentucky Remembrance Project welcomes participation from all people who are interested in working together to reckon with our local history of racial violence and take actions to advance racial justice and healing. We meet on the 3rd Tuesday of every month at 7 pm via Zoom. To get on the group’s listserv, contact [email protected].

Land Acknowledgement Offered by Tiffany Pyette in Wayland on May 29, 2021

Hatito, Ne-ho-we-say-la-lo-pwah.
Sahn Gah Ley.

I have greeted you in the languages Indigenous to this land.

I would like to invite you to join me in acknowledging that Wayland is the traditional homeland of the sovereign Shawnee, Cherokee, and Yuchi nations. These territories overlap because this land is not just the names we call it, it is who cares for it, it is what it carries, what it grows, the rivers and the creeks that bring it life.

It is important to say that what is presently known as the United States is an institution built by the displacement and oppression of Native peoples in order to make way for slavery and the legacy of racism.

We must name our histories to combat the continuation of colonialism and anti-blackness in our lands.

Oppressive systems have always worked together to harm and to profit, but we, in the fight against oppression can also choose to not be alone. To stand in solidarity and care with one another, and in collective liberation on the land.

I am so grateful to those of you who have come to help us tend to graves; to regard all of our communities past and present as honored, deserving, and respected.

Today is just one piece of a larger project as we reckon with the lynchings that have taken place in our counties. Kid Shannon was lynched in Wayland at 28-years-old. He did not live to be as old as I am now.

Please take a brief moment of silence with me to reflect on who is here on these lands and who is not. Whose descendants are missing? Why are they missing? And who never lived long enough to have descendants?

Let us reflect on how these lands hold us all. How they now hold those whose graves we now tend. How it now holds our feet and knees and hands as we do this work.

These lands, like our hearts, carry growth and pain and hope. Let us reflect on how we endeavor to be good caretakers of this place and the people in and of it.

Thank you.