How I came to know Will Brown – by Shelly Salter for Auri Whitaker
In October of 2018, I experienced what I now know as the great fortune
of attending the JDAI Coordinator’s Conference in Birmingham,
Alabama. Alabama, I also came to discover, is truly a piece of our
nation’s hallowed ground. Monday, October 8, 2018 was Columbus
Day. I suppose an inside joke of some sort for the Universe.
The group took a bus ride to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice
in Montgomery. It was hot! We arrived in Montgomery and I was
immediately taken by the size of the place. Not really sure what it
was going to look like, but somehow smaller than I had expected. When
we walked through the entrance I still couldn’t quite figure
out what I was looking at that day. One of the first things I saw was
Now, of course I had learned about slavery. Of course, I understood the
women likely had children while enslaved. Of course, I knew their
children would likely be sold. Of course, I know what it means when
Bea said “I am not a white mother” in the Imitation of Life. I am not dumb. The difference now is that I had never considered
this from the eyes of a mother. As I looked at these statues, and the
women squatting, I realized one was giving birth, in chains. In
chains! I immediately started to recall the deliveries of both of my
children. Although I did deliver by c section, I know what labor
feels like! I began to consider what the reality of that must have
been. Somehow, this was no longer something from a history book like
a “Viking” or “Morse” or “Pilgrim” or “Slaves”. It was a woman, a mother. In a situation I
had been in twice myself. It was awful. I could not imagine this. My
heart hurt so badly at that moment I really did not know how to
continue walking. Yet, it felt wrong to walk away. I continued.
As I walked up the hill and around to the memorial itself, I began to
notice houses surrounding this place. Big, Victorian homes with
beautiful front porches. At least that is how they likely were when
in their splendor. Later I wondered how women, white women, could
kiss their children on these porches and send them off to school.
All the while, Black women and children were being bought and sold
directly across the street. “Slaves”. Those “mythical”
characters from our history books had now become more humanized in my
eyes…mothers, children, people.
I walked. As I began to walk into the memorial, I again, couldn’t
quite decide what I was seeing. We looked up:
The memorial holds hundreds of giant slabs with the names and lynching
dates from all over the country. Two of them became special to me.
I had known that there was a lynching in Omaha. It would be in the
World Herald every once in a while and I have been reading that every
day for thirty-some years.
I was embarrassed. I am not really sure why, but I think that is what
I felt. Embarrassed that my State, my County was represented here.
It’s funny, I say often I don’t understand why white
people today have such a hard time talking about this. I don’t
think anyone is blaming us, just asking us to take a look at history
and the world the way different eyes see it. It’s not that
I kept walking. By the way, it was still so hot! As I continued, I
began to think of my Grandpa Blankenship, born on a hill in Boone
North Carolina in 1892. The stories he told of the South, his
family, views on race and equity. Both of my Blankenship
grandparents were hard hitting Democrats. My grandma often told me
not to forget the people without TVs and computers: the poor. I was
raised in the Catholic Church of the 70s. I guess I just knew
justice, and social justice in particular, was just right.
Justice is wealth, opportunity and privilege within a society – Oxford.
..It stoned me – Van Morrison
I have always known that they were black people with my last name,
Blankenship. I suppose I always knew why. But on this day, it stoned
me. I stood there, speechless and thoughtless as I looked at MY
name. My name, my white name. I cried. Oh, how I cried. I thought
to myself, “what are you doing? You are at work! Stop crying.”
I felt like I could not bear anymore. Like Scrooge with all those
ghosts. I could not hear/see anymore. At that moment, I turned and
saw my friend, Auri Whitaker. Auri was having the same issue I was,
only with different eyes. I could see it in her face, she felt the
same way. At that moment, we looked at each other with eyes I expect
people to see in each other during times of disaster. We were
stoned. Our reasons are not likely the same. I spoke, she did too.
Later we talked about how we both felt the need to hear someone
else’s voice to snap us out of what we were feeling. Auri asked
me to have the courage to tell this story to my Collaborative
someday. I told her I would, but as of this writing I cannot.
We got on the bus. All of us changed.
The next stop was the Legacy museum and then, the trip back to
Birmingham. The Legacy Museum also shook me to the core as I read and
heard the stories there. There was an exhibit about medical care and
obstetrics/gynecology. There was a doctor, I suppose lots of them,
credited with great advances in this area. He performed his tests on
black women, without anesthetic, to gain these advances. Again, I
knew about stuff like this and not just here. Nazi experiments are
familiar to me. Now, a grown woman, it all just felt different.
The whole way back to the hotel, I wondered about William. Who was
William Blankenship, what was he accused of? Why does he have my
name?…..on and on and on. My brain. When I got back to the room, I
could not take it anymore. I remembered my husband and I finding
really old articles of his uncles who were bank robbers in Salt Lake
City, so I thought I would give it a shot. Here is what I found:
An attempt at outrage. I don’t even know what that means. I don’t
know if William is innocent or guilty. What I do know is that he was
“about 20 years old. He was promptly committed to jail. From
whence he was taken last night and hung to a tree”. No lawyer,
no trial, no judge, no bail, no family, just promptly taken last
night and hung to a tree.
And the next day we had the privilege of a private tour and party at the
Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham across the street from the 16th
Street Baptist Church. Now there is a whole other story about how I
met James Bell and had a smoke with a fancy homeless guy outside
because the church was closed. So, he and I rapped while I had a
smoke and I went back to the party. These stories are another piece
By the way, my grandpa B as the story goes, was born on a mountain, in
Boone North Carolina in 1892. Three hours from where William
Blankenship was lynched Aug 11 1889, just three years earlier.
So, back to how I came to know Will Brown. When I found out that counties
were sending the dirt from their lynchings to be a part of the
museum. I knew Will had to be there. I took my white self into a
meeting with theJudge Vernon Daniels of the Separate Juvenile Court and theThomas Warren Sr, Executive Director of TheUrban League of Nebraska AND the first African AmericanChief of Police in Omaha NE and promptly told them how we “just had to do something about the dirt”! They were so kind. So kind to tell
this dumb little white lady that there is a whole big party planned
with a whole bunch of people of color who ALREADY KNOW THIS AND HAVE
KNOW FOR THEIR ENTIRE LIFETIMES!!!! god, I am an idiot sometimes. All
the white people are, but we don’t mean it and appreciate
anything that will help us learn all that we are able. For some other
woman and her children.
I learned so much from this trip and from my time as a JDAI
Coordinator. I learned that my eyes may not see as well as I thought
they did. I learned that listening to the experience of people who
look different can help me to understand how to better serve our
children and families. In allowing others to express their
experiences, I find out about how the world works for them. These
experiences help me to be able to stand up for others, not because I
know what they are seeing and experiencing. Because of what I have
learned, I know that I am responsible to tell others. I am
responsible to speak up for some other woman and her child.
-Who am I to be blind, pretending not to see their needs? – MJ
I shared this article with Thomas and Judge. Again, the kindness is
amazing. It is not their role to educate me on things I should know.
I appreciate every piece.
“Also, the “’big party” was actually the 100th
Anniversary commemorating the lynching of Will Brown at the Douglas
County (NE) Courthouse. It was actually sponsored by the Omaha
Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, a very
diverse coalition of community leaders, representatives of non-profit
organizations, educational institutions and elected and appointed
officials. In fact, representatives from the Equal Justice
Institute were present for the collection of the dirt samples and we
plan another event to erect the marker in the Spring.” –
Thomas Warren Sr.