Remembering Neal

This is not fat theology. But this is absolutely body theology. This is absolutely community theology.

Earlier today I skimmed through a blog on how to incorporate black history month into the season of lent. One of the ideas stood out to me – – to research lynchings near your town.

I found one and the newspaper article recounting the murder of Neal Winship  makes my stomach heave.

In 1879  a man is accused and captured, but before a trial can be held, not that it would have mattered, a group of men arrive and drag his body from the jail  and take him down the road and hang him.  Hang him in front of a black church.

July 15 1879 The Weekly Constitution ATL
July 15 1879. The Atlanta Weekly Constitution

[The highlighting of “negro” throughout the article is because I used that word to search digital files of old Atlanta papers. The highlight is obviously not a part of the original document.]

The tone and bias of this article probably surprises no one. We know enough of our history to be able to clearly see racism in the past. But I do want to take a minute to look at what it’s doing. I think it’s important to name the ways we dehumanize people, the way we uphold systems of oppression. When we can identify why this article is racist – what attitudes are present that make the kind of society that lynches black men and women, then we can better identify racist thought that still exists today, even if it almost never ends in lynching anymore.

The article clearly sets up the white people as the benevolent victors. The white law enforcement “closely guarded” him – a show of their “care” to protect him, but the the ‘righteous indignation’ of the proud men who were “not disguised” was too strong.

They hung him in front of a church. His church? The men who murdered Neal probably didn’t even know. If this swift “justice” for an attempted crime is really about punishing a “bad negro” – then there is no need to leave his body hanging on a tree, to be found in the morning by a black church. The only reason you do that is to inflict terror and fear and to remind people exactly what you think of them – that their life is worth nothing, their life is not worth a chance of self-defense, a trial, the right to breathe.

The truth is, Neal probably wasn’t a “bad negro” or full of “villainy.” That’s just what is told to justify the violence.  So the story goes: if you behave, then you’ll be treated well. If you act respectable, then you’ll be given rewards.

If you follow the letter of our unwritten laws, then we’ll allow you to breathe tomorrow.

Even if he was guilty of the crime he was accused of, the way “justice” was carried out for him was racist and unjust.

The lynching itself is unspeakably horrific. The barbarity of it reinforced by the barely reserved glee with which it is reported. The  article upholds and condones a lie of white supremacy that paints the white men as warriors for justice protecting the decency of women and goodness.

I started digging and found the location of where the church would have likely been in 1879. Google street view told me there was a cemetery there today.  I had some timing flexibility today that gave me enough time to get there in daylight. I needed to go visit.

It’s a small cemetery, mostly run down – with a few newer graves – even a fresh one. Many of the gravestones were broken or had fallen over. Up in the corner there was a scattering of older graves. The oldest I saw was 1862. I didn’t find one for Neal, not that I really expected to.

Flint Ridge Cemetary
Flint River Cemetery, February 2015

I stood near those older graves though, which were resting near a tree. It was cold today in Atlanta – bitter wind. Quite different from what Georgia in July is like – the month when Neal was killed.  Yet the cold seemed fitting.I’m sure it was not that tree, but it was one like it and one close by. This was the tactile, physical connection you can’t get just reading old articles on the computer: the tree and the tombstones and the cold bitter wind.

I wanted beautiful words, something that would make my standing there in a cemetery remembering a man who had been dead for over 140 years matter. All I had was, “I’m sorry. Forgive Us. You are not forgotten. I know your name, Neal Winship.”

And later when I got home I did some more research to see what else I could find about Neal. And I found an article from a week later.

It turns out that the newspaper had incorrectly reported which county’s citizens had gone into a rage and kidnapped and murdered Neal.

July 22 1879 Weekly Consitution ATL
July 22 1879. Atlanta Weekly Constitution

What I noticed though is that they changed Neal’s last name too. He went from Winship to Wimbush. They did not bother to take the time to acknowledge that mistake.  (Though I guess Wimbush could be the mistake. Either way,  careful journalism seemed to not be an issue in this story.)

One of my seminary professors would often say “remember” as re-member. To again member, to put back together the parts of the whole, the parts of the body. That’s what I was doing there in the cold wind, under a tree, on a blood soaked land: trying to put back together Neal, trying to put back together the community, trying to put back together myself. To re-member all of us, to remind myself that it all matters. The beginning and the end. The history that is never really over. The past and the present and the future are all part of the same time.

Neal Wimbush/Winship: I remember you.

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