GROUNDWORK FOR CHANGE
Graduate students at the School of Social Work are working to honor and memorialize Fulton County’s 35 known victims of lynching. As they engage the public about the ongoing struggle for racial justice, they hope to inspire changes to policy that will help resolve some of today’s most pressing issues.
BY SONAM VASHI
The sun beats down on Allison Bantimba (M.S.W. ’19), who’s brought together more than 40 people on a small, grassy hill northwest of Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta, an oasis of real earth in the middle of the city’s concrete landscape.
It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday in May, already reaching nearly 90 degrees. Ambient noise from the hospital generators, busy Edgewood Avenue and a homeless encampment in the Bell Street tunnel filters in. But Bantimba, her classmates and the Atlantans who’ve gathered here are focused, silent. This is a funeral.
They’re here as part of the Fulton County Remembrance Coalition (FCRC), an initiative Bantimba started as the capstone project for her master of social work degree program and which has since grown into a community of dozens of Atlantans who seek to change the narrative around racial oppression. Supported by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), FCRC has collected soil at the sites where Fulton County residents were lynched before 1950 as a way to remember the atrocities.
Today’s collection is for Thomas Finch, a black Grady orderly accused of raping a white woman there, according to the EJI. Early on the morning of Sept. 12, 1936, five white police officers arrested the 27-year-old Finch, but he never went to the jail. An hour later, Grady hospital workers found his body beaten and punctured with bullets. His right eye was disfigured, and he was still alive. “Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord,” were said to have been his final words. Doctors rushed him into surgery, where he fell into a coma and died from his injuries. No one was ever prosecuted for his death.
In front of the crowd, Bantimba stands behind a blue bucket, filled with dirt that she and members of Finch’s family collected from their family home, a symbolic location. A large, empty jar bearing Thomas Finch’s name sits on a table in front of her. She grabs a handful of soil.
In 2016, Bantimba, who grew up in Boston, was a case manager at a homeless shelter in Tucson, Ariz. She had always been passionate about helping others, but she was becoming frustrated by the way society treated her clients like criminals, showing little regard for the reasons they had gotten into their situations or the larger systems causing the problems she saw every day. That year, Bantimba’s aunt gave her a book, “Just Mercy” by EJI founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson, which calls for solutions to America’s broken justice system.
“Each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done,” Bantimba read, thinking about the people she saw every day. Stevenson’s work captivated her.
Inspired, Bantimba and a friend volunteered with EJI, which had begun the work of remembering lynching victims across the South. She went to Monroe County, Ala., to collect soil for a lynching victim named Will Parker, who was accused of assaulting a white child. Parker was murdered the night he was accused. They went to the site, now next to a highway, and started digging with a shovel. Halfway through, Bantimba started using her hands to dig, connecting with the soil. How long did he hang there? she thought. Who were his family?
“We weren’t sure if anyone had ever laid him to rest, so to our knowledge, we were the only people who were honoring this man,” she says.
Later, when attending the opening of EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery — which lists the names of lynching victims on more than 800 monuments, one for each county where a lynching occurred — she found the Monroe County monument commemorating Parker and sat in front of it. A couple came up to her, asking if she was from Monroe. Bantimba told them about her soil collection. “My last name is Parker,” the man said, stunned. His family was from Monroe. There was a strong chance Parker was his ancestor. Bantimba suddenly understood the profoundness of remembrance.
She enrolled in the social work program at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies because of its unique emphasis on systemic issues and community organizing.
“Social work is not only about helping a person. It also has this overall social justice framework,” School of Social Work professor Elizabeth Beck says. “Our program is uniquely good at working with students in that framework. That’s our guiding orientation.”
The second year of the program is built around a community-oriented project, usually one from a list of submissions by local agencies. But Bantimba had her own idea of what she wanted to do: further EJI’s work in Atlanta. Fortuitously, Beck had also visited the EJI memorial and wanted to get involved. She became the group’s faculty sponsor. With EJI’s help, Beck, Bantimba and classmates Kayla Duncan (M.S.W. ’19), Rey Granger (M.S.W. ’19), Kera Lamotte (M.S.W. ’19) and Lydia Russo (M.S.W. ’19) connected with a diverse group of other interested Fulton County residents to form FCRC, a collective that would collect soil for the county’s 35 known lynching victims and engage the public about racial justice.
Bantimba and FCRC use old public records, news clippings and interviews to look deeper at the lynchings. Many of the Fulton County lynching sites are in downtown Atlanta, in places where Bantimba and her classmates walk every day.
While police and media narratives about the lynchings often rested on racial stereotypes and inaccuracies, history and geography bear witness to another astonishing fact.
“As a society, we have done everything in our power to make sure no one remembers what happened at these locations — how no one gave these individuals due process,” she says. “Concrete has been poured over them. Confederate statues have been placed on top of them.”
By connecting with the soil underneath — and researching the facts — Bantimba and FCRC are uprooting those stories. Looking closely at the past has become a unique attribute of modern-day civil rights work. It’s not just to correct the record. The lack of truth about these killings is precisely why a legacy of racial terrorism exists today, Bantimba says.
“Things are happening right now because we let lynching happen and because we let enslavement happen,” she says. “Our failure to acknowledge these atrocities allowed for a smooth transition into other forms of terrorism. And the longer we let it happen, the more legal it becomes.”
Now, FCRC is building toward the next step: finding a form of justice. Because widely promulgating the facts of history is a part of that pursuit, the coalition has been able to reach a far wider audience by partnering with other local groups focused on social justice, such as the Housing Justice League. It has collaborated with the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, too — in the middle of Atlanta’s historic black commercial district — to permanently host its collection of 35 jars of soil, one for each of the lynching victims, and display the narratives of their deaths to visitors.
“So many people are going to see that,” Beck says. “It’s such a beautiful and important outcome.”
Though Bantimba has now graduated from the master of social work program, she has no plans to stop leading FCRC. There’s still much work to be done — working with the county to erect the historical markers EJI has provided for each site, creating educational guides around the project — and she knows she’ll continue to be at the FCRC meetings at the Auburn Avenue library twice a month. While she isn’t yet sure of her next professional step, this work is simply too important for her to stop.
The soil is cool in Bantimba’s hands. The color of ground coffee, the dirt is a time capsule: New topsoil, teeming with microbial life, is mixed with dark, rich humus from deeper within the ground, layers of earth that maybe had even preceded Finch’s life. Bantimba places the first handful of soil into the empty jar. Finch’s descendants follow her. Finch’s nephew, Bryant O’Hara, had only learned about his uncle days before the ceremony.
“I’ve learned that history isn’t something that’s just in a book,” he says. It’s embedded in this soil, “part of who you are and how you got to be there, and the choices you’re going to make going forward.”
Bantimba watches as, one by one, members of the coalition intently reach into the bucket and fill the jar. The soil leaves mineral traces, making the participants’ hands sparkle in the sunlight and depositing residue in their fingernails. Attendees silently watch, holding white daisies and slowly removing the flowers’ petals, letting them fall to the ground. After 25 handfuls, the jar is full. Finch’s niece, Joyce Finch-Morris, screws the white lid on top of the jar, as another FCRC member leads the group into a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the “Negro national hymn.”
At the end of the ritual, Bantimba thanks the new attendees for coming and says goodbye to her FCRC family, taking the jar to add the Auburn Avenue exhibit and leaving the somber atmosphere. The grassy hill, littered with daisy petals, is otherwise untouched. Bantimba thinks about how Thomas Finch’s final moments were filled with terror, the trauma of what so many others have experienced.
She can’t change that. But now, she has this jar of soil — touched by the hands of people who remember Finch and the others — where peace can finally grow.