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‘The most consequential project we have.’ New archive gives voice to forgotten victims of lynching

The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) archive launch and student recognition event is held at Columbus Place with remarks from Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, Law School Dean James Hackney, MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles, CCRJ alumni and Distinguished Professor Margaret Burnham. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

On May 19, 1944, Ollie Hunter, a Black woman in her mid-50s, went to a shop near her home in Donalsonville, Georgia, to buy oil. She picked up a can but the store manager told her to put it down. She did and left the store. 

The white manager then followed her and hit her on the head with the handle of an ax. Hunter died of what the death certificate listed as “concussion of brain.” No one served prison time for the murder, and Ollie Hunter’s story was lost to history.

Until now. On Thursday, Northeastern School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project celebrated the launch of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, a collection of records of anti-Black killings during the Jim Crow era that finally make stories like Hunter’s part of the public record.

The launch brought together archive co-authors Professor Margaret Burnham of Northeastern’s School of Law and MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles, along with the dozens of former Northeastern students who worked on the archive since it began in 2007. Scholars from across the country gathered, as well as some family members of the victims whose stories are told in the archive.

There, President Joseph E. Aoun spoke glowingly about the archive, emphasizing its importance for scholarship and society.

“I believe that this is the most consequential project and mission we have in this university,” Aoun said. “This project doesn’t belong to the university. It belongs to society as a whole, and, indeed, the world.”

The archive seeks to right an egregious wrong in American history—the mass coverup of cases of lynching during the Jim Crow era. At that time, Burnham said, lynching cases were rarely tried, and convictions were even rarer. Even if community members knew who perpetrated the crime, it would be officially listed as having been committed “by hands unknown.”

Now, thanks to new resources like digitized newspapers, Burnham and her students are able to bring these cases to the forefront. “We actually do know now, or can discover, who was involved,” Burnham said. 

Melissa Nobles stands behind a podium and talks into a microphone
MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles, co-author of the CCRJ Archives, speaks at the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) archive launch and student recognition event held at Columbus Place. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Creating the archive, which covers 11 former Confederate states from 1930 to 1954, was quite the challenge. Some of the records that Burnham’s team reviewed as part of their work—including Department of Justice reports, FBI reports, death certificates, news clippings and records of first-person narratives—have been destroyed or lost in fires or floods. Names change depending on the record, going from Jones, to Johns, to Johans. Sometimes, the documents contradict each other. 

Still more records should have existed but never did. “Most of these cases did not have a legal aftermath, which means no court records,” said Katie Sandson, an attorney who directs the racial redress and reparations lab at the CRRJ. “Part of the recognition is that the archive is never going to be 100% complete. There’s always going to be the absence of the information that’s been lost.”

Over the course of 15 years, around 400 Northeastern journalism and law students kept digging, and their persistence paid off. Today, the archive, which is available for any member of the public to access, holds more than 1,150 cases and thousands of pages of evidence documenting anti-Black racial killings from 1930 to 1954 in the Jim Crow South. 

The case of Ollie Hunter is one of them, and it started without a name, just a letter to the NAACP written on June 6, 1944, that reported the killing. The letter writer had almost no information—he didn’t have Hunter’s name or the name of the killer, and only knew that Hunter was told to put something down and was beaten to death. He wrote that an arrest was made and that the man was released on bail. 

It wasn’t much to go on, but the student assigned to the case was undeterred. Not only did they identify the name of the victim, but through their arduous research, they figured out who likely perpetrated the crime—the store owner’s son, who joined the military days after the murder. The student reported her findings to Hunter’s great-granddaughter, who is currently incarcerated.

Since the incidents occurred so long ago, justice is hard to find, though a few of the cases have led to some form of reconciliation. In the case of Edwin Williams, a lynching victim, his descendents were able to understand how his death occurred and pay tribute. Williams was a 33-year-old man who attended church in New Orleans with his family one day in 1943. As the family walked home, three white sailors stabbed and killed Williams. His wife delivered an affidavit to the NAACP, but a jury found the sailors not guilty.

“That case lies buried until two years ago, when our student found the records of the NAACP,” Burnham said. Williams’ common name made the case a difficult one, but the student was able to discover that his four sons were still alive, and made contact with them. Together, they gathered at the family’s church on Juneteenth 2022, which was also Father’s Day, to pay tribute to Williams. A marker will also be installed at the site of his killing.

“None of these things are going to bring complete justice, but it’s steps toward acknowledgement of what happened, steps toward correcting the record, and commemorating Mr. Williams,” Sandson said.

At the launch, former students who worked on the archive spoke about the immeasurable impact it has had on the families of victims, but also on their current work as lawyers.

“I learned from this project to be persistent and to be unrelenting,” said Kaylie Simon, deputy public defender in California who graduated in 2011. She researched the case of a teenager who was murdered in 1955; the perpetrator was convicted but did not serve any time. Simon organized a day of recognition for the victim, and successfully advocated to have the death certificate, which listed the death as an accident, corrected. “I carry that [persistence] with me in the courtroom,” she said.

Tara Dunn, now an attorney at Todd & Weld, worked on the case of Henry Gilbert, a man in his 40s who was accused of a crime he didn’t commit and was lynched while imprisoned. Dunn broke down as she described the impact the CRRJ had on Gilbert’s family—his granddaughter was present—as well as herself. 

“I am a better researcher, a better writer, and a better attorney because of this experience,” Dunn said. “But what I value the most is the imprint that it left in my heart for justice, the type of justice that wakes you up at night.”

There is still plenty of work to be done, Burnham said. The next step in the archive is to include border states, including Kentucky, Maryland, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Delaware. But the bigger challenge is in finding justice for the victims’ loved ones. Reparations architects are often challenged by lack of knowledge, she said, but in the cases she’s found, that doesn’t apply.

“A unique and definable category of victims for reparations are the families who lost loved ones to anti-Black violence during the Jim Crow period,” Burnham said. “These losses are calculable.”

The staff of the Civil Rights and Restorative justice project pose for a photo
The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) staff and Northeastern Library staff pose for a photo after the archive launch and student recognition event at Columbus Place. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

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