By LORETTA FULTON
A disturbing but significant piece of local history will be commemorated in a public ceremony April 13 when soil is collected to add to a national project marking the sites of lynchings in America.
The event will begin at 10 a.m. at 341 Ash. St., where Grover C. Everett of Sulphur Springs was shot to death at the Joe Davis Hotel for “negroes” on Saturday night, Sept. 9, 1922. According to accounts in the Abilene Daily Reporter, Everett’s violent death was at the hands of “masked and robed men.”
The Abilene ceremony is part of the Community Remembrance Project sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, to bring attention to the history of lynching in the United States. The EJI uses the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s definition of lynching to refer to any violent death by a mob, not just by hanging.
The local ceremony will begin with a prayer by the Rev. Andrew Penns, founder and chairman of ICAN (Interested Citizens of Abilene North) and will end with a prayer by Chad Mitchell, former pastor of Mission Abilene.
At the end of the presentations by various speakers, guests will come forward to place a trowel of soil into two one-gallon sized jars furnished by the Equal Justice Initiative. One jar will be displayed at the Curtis House Cultural Center, 630 Washington St., and one will be taken to the EJI museum in Montgomery to be displayed alongside other jars of soil from lynching sites in the United States.
Guests at the April 13 event will be invited to process to the Curtis House Cultural House, about three blocks from the Ash Street commemoration site, to take the jar of soil for display. A reception will be held at Curtis House and the jar will be placed in an enclosure at the center for viewing and safekeeping.
The local commemoration was the initiative of Dr. Robert Wallace, a sociology professor at McMurry University but has grown to include ICAN, the Taylor County Historical Commission, the Carl Spain Center On Race Studies & Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University, Hardin-Simmons University, and community members. A class at ACU, headed by Nathan Gibbs, assistant professor and director of broadcast operations, is making a documentary about Everett’s murder and the soil collection project.
In a proposal to the Equal Justice Initiative to include Everett’s murder in the Community Remembrance Project, Wallace explained how he got interested in Everett’s murder and in pursuing the soil collection ceremony. Wallace periodically takes students to civil rights sites throughout the South and learned about EJI’s “Lynching in America” project. On the next trip, May 12-19, the team will take one of the jars of soil to the EJI headquarters and museum in Montgomery. The discovery of Everett’s violent death in Abilene was eye-opening to Wallace.
“I was surprised to learn,” Wallace wrote in the proposal to the EJI, “that in my own backyard, where I have lived for over 25 years, a lynching had occurred in 1922.”
Wallace then scoured stories in the Abilene Daily Reporter about Everett’s death and a grand jury investigation that followed. No indictments were returned in the “deplorable tragedy” but according to a Sept. 21, 1922, article the grand jury did say that “the deceased negro met his death at the hands of an unknown party of masked men.”
Wallace learned through his research that the Ku Klux Klan was active in Abilene in the 1920s, which led to further research and a desire for greater exposure of that part of Abilene’s history.
“By forthrightly addressing the past, hopefully the present can be faced in a search for truth and reconciliation,” Wallace wrote in his proposal to the Equal Justice Initiative.
As soon as Wallace learned of the Everett murder, he contacted Dr. Morris Baker, a retired McMurry professor and the first black graduate of McMurry. Baker said it is important that soil from the site of Everett’s death be included in the EJI project and that Abilenians be made aware of that history, which “impacts our current collective daily business practices.”
It may be difficult for people living in the 21st century in Abilene and other cities in the United States to understand that violent past existed, Baker said, but it is essential they be made aware of it.
“Possessing knowledge of our collective past,” Baker said, “contributes to our ability to avoid missteps that hinder movement towards the goals and ideals described in our Constitution.”
Other participants in the April 13 commemoration include Anthony Williams, Abilene’s first African American mayor; Jeff Salmon, chair of the Taylor County Historical Commission; Tryce Prince, executive assistant of the Carl Spain Center On Race Studies & Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University; Dr. Robert Wallace, sociology professor at McMurry University; Bria Kimble, president of McMurry’s Sociology Club; and Dr. Richard Darden, pastor of Shining Star Fellowship Church.