With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Germany's Racial Reckoning Offers Warnings for US

Antonio Tarrell would never have known about the lynching if he hadn’t come across that one Facebook post. His family didn’t know about it either. He didn’t learn about it in school or in the small town he grew up in. It was a suppressed chapter of Mississippi history, hidden out in the woods.

Otherwise, the 47-year-old knew plenty about his roots. He grew up steeped in his family’s stories, and fears, about Mississippi. He knew his ancestors were enslaved on a sprawling plantation about twenty miles outside of the picturesque town where William Faulkner grew up, and some of them were buried in a nearby cemetery lined with weathered headstones. He knew the slave owners of the plantation were Irish, and he knew, through a DNA test, that he had some Irish heritage, too. And he knew, from a story passed down from his grandmother, that a white man thrust a double-barrel gun in his great-grandfather’s mouth and stole his land. 

He just never knew about the lynching. Until he saw the photo.

he first time Tarrell caught a glimpse of the plantation, a chill came over his body. “You could feel it,” he recalled, winding down a lonely road in Mississippi. It was a stormy day in mid-December, and we were driving to the property where his ancestors were enslaved. The sky was dark and moody, and tall weeds shivered in the wind. The weight of it all hung in the air. “It’s heavy,” he told me, pulling up to a white house overlooking an open field.

Tarrell led me to a tangle of brush at the edge of the house’s lawn. He crouched down, scanning the earth for a budding rosemary plant. When he found it, he gave me a nod. “Here’s where we did it,” he said, pointing to the dirt. We were looking at the de-facto grave of William Steen, whose lynching was swallowed up by more than a century of silence.

Growing up, Tarrell knew nothing about Steen’s death, or that they were related. Nobody in his family did. Like many lynchings of that era, there are few public accounts of what happened. What we do know comes from two short newspaper articles published in the days after the killing: Steen, a former employee at a railroad shop, was hung by a mob on July 30, 1893, near Paris, Mississippi, about 30 minutes down the road from the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “He boasted of being criminally intimate with an estimable white woman,” explained an article published the day after the killing. A second article described Steen as a “negro of ill-repute.”

It’s unclear if Steen was buried, or when the memory of his death began to fade. By the time Tarrell learned about it, nearly 130 years had passed. “I feel like I’m the voice for the dead,” he said.

Read entire article at Codastory