TRAGEDY TURNED INTO BLESSING
By LORETTA FULTON
Standing at the site of the 1922 murder of a black man at the hands of “masked and robed” men, Andrew Penns let it be known that despite the evil that took place there, God was in charge.
At the beginning of the ceremony commemorating the death of Grover C. Everett, Penns, pastor of Valley View Missionary Baptist Church, offered a prayer of thanksgiving for safe travels of those attending from distant places and for those who worked hard to make the commemoration a reality.
And at the end, Penns expressed gratitude for the people who came to commemorate Everett, who was murded on Sept. 9, 1922 at Ash St.
“Even though this was a tragedy,” Penns said, “it has been turned into a blessing.”
After Penns set the tone, other speakers followed, providing historical information, reminders of the pain still suffered due to the scars of slavery and segregation, and a look toward the future.
One of the speakers was Abilene Police Chief Stan Standridge, who apologized for the lack of action by law enforcement in 1922 to bring justice for Everett and his family.
“I stand here convicted,” Standridge said, looking at Everett’s descendants seated on the front row. “I’m sory. I’m sorry.”
At the end of the ceremony, a crowd of about 100 people came forward to place soil from the site into two 1-gallon jars. One jar will be taken in May to the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum in Montgomery, Alabama. The other will be on permanent display at the Curtis House Cultural Center, which Penns serves as director.
Several of Everett’s descendants were in attendance, including a granddaughter, Margie Davis of Amarillo and her daughter, Aretha Alford of Midlothian. In 1922, the Joe Davis Hotel for “negroes” stood at the site where the commemoration was held. Everett, from Sulphur Springs, was staying at the hotel while working in Abilene. He was shot to death at the hotel.
Saturday’s ceremony was part of the Community Remembrance Project sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative 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. In May, a group of students led by McMurry University sociology professor Robert Wallace will take one of the jars of soil to the EJI museum, as part of a Civil Rights tour.
On Saturday, Wallace gave some history of Abilene in the 1920s. It was the best of times for white residents, he said, and the worst of times for black people. Segregation was in full force and the Ku Klux Klan had a large and popular presence.
“We’re standing in what would have been designated the negro section of town,” Wallace said.
Wallace told of instances of porters at the hotels for blacks being kidnapped, beaten, and threatened. At the same time, members of the KKK Chapter 139 were glorified. A story in the Abilene Daily Reporter reported that 225 klansmen paraded one night, carrying an American flag and a flaming cross. Lights had been doused for a more dramatic effect.
“The burning cross cast a rosy glow over the marchers,” the story said.
Following Penns’ opening prayer, Abilene Mayor Anthony Williams said that in a documentary about the Holocaust, survivors insisted that the world never forget that evil. The same can be said for the atrocities committed against black people in the nation’s, and the city’s history.
“The expectation is that we learn as a community so we don’t repeat this going forward,” Williams said.
Jeff Salmon, chairman of the Taylor County Historical Commission, said a true history can’t be just about achievements. There should be an honest reckoning with the past, he said, including coming to grips with events like the one that took place in Abilene on Sept. 9, 1922.
“If we’re going to move forward in society,” Salmon said, “we must look back.”
Tryce Prince, executive assistant of the Carl Spain Center On Race Studies & Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University, quoted from Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Wounds can’t heal, Prince said, until the truth is told about them. For more of Stevenson’s remarks, go to http://www.eji.org
Link to story on kacu.org by Nathan Gibbs and his class at ACU that is making a documentary of the event.
Also participating were Bria Kimble, president of the McMurry University Sociology Club, who told of Everett’s life, and Richard Darden, pastor of Shining Star Fellowship Church. Darden related the story of the world’s first murder as recorded in Genesis 4:9.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
In that story, brother slew brother, Darden said, and the violence continues today. All of us are created in God’s image, Darden said, no matter who we are.
“This speaks to the great value God placed on Mr. Everett,” Darden said.
All of us, Darden said, have the moral and social responsibility to carry a lantern of truth that exposes evil present today. Saturday’s ceremony, he said, should propel us forward with a new vision.
“This commemoration and this location,” he said, “becomes a historic lauching point.”
Part of the “going forward” plan is to get an monument and marker from the Equal Justice Initiative to stand permanently at the site. Also, an ACU class led by Nathan Gibbs, is working on a documentary to tell the story of Everett and the soil collection project.
Abilene Police Department Chaplain Beth Reeves offered a concluding prayer.
“God help us,” she said, “to open our hands, open our hearts, open our eyes to the needs of one another.”
Top left, a woman holds onto her hat on a very windy day. Top right, a box of soil for the ceremony. Middle right, Robert Wallace and Tryce Prince participate in ceremony. Bottom right, jar of soil at Curtis House Cultural Center. Middle left, Rev. Andrew Penns places soil in jar. Bottom, plaque with jar of soil at Curtis House. Photos by Loretta Fulton
Photos at the top of the page show descendants of Grover Everett, including a granddaughter, Margie Davis, left, and a great-granddaughter, Aretha Alford, next to Davis. Photo by Loretta Fulton