By Emery Lay
For the Opelika Observer
The Lee County Remembrance Project [LCRP] is the result of a years-long friendship between Ashley Brown and Olivia Nichols. The two met in November, 2018 at a diversity symposium on Pebble Hill.
“I was teaching a course at Auburn University at the time, and I had a great student named Monique Napier,” Nichols said.
The student-teacher duo began meeting every Tuesday to discuss the historical legacies and policies that they saw deeply embedded in our modern-day structures, particularly those with racist roots. Both recognized that the effects of these negative foundations were still lingering. Together, the two accumulated a wealth of information surrounding this issue.
“It was so easy,” Nichols said. “And that was what was just so heartbreaking is that this information has been readily available, [we’ve] just chosen not to address it.”
This research is what brought Nichols to the symposium where she met Brown. Nichols said she calls the bond they share an “amazing collaboration”. Brown’s background in counseling set the tone for how to address the historical traumas and experiences of the people both women were learning about. On the other hand, Nichols brought to the table an ability to contextualize the influences that shape the trajectory of a child’s growth with her background in development and health equity.
“They just merge so beautifully,” Nichols said.
After running into each other several times after the symposium, the two decided they needed to create something out of their new knowledge. What sparked this was the historical lynching of four Black men: John Moss, George Hart, Charles Humphries and Samuel Harris. After hearing their stories, Nichols and Brown wanted to educate others, too.
“This really got started around when [the Equal Justice Initiative] opened their national world peace and justice [site] at the Legacy Museum,” Nichols said. “Ashley and I had both went to the site, independently — we did not know each other then — and saw a column and were just stunned. I’ve never seen these names before … I’ve lived in Lee County for years and I didn’t know … Why don’t we talk about these things?”
To put it plainly, Nichols said, “There’s no recognition.” That is when both women knew things had to change. From there on out, the two worked together to create and co-found what is today known as the Lee County Remembrance Project.
The journey had to start with an application to the Equal Justice Initiative [EJI], so both women worked to make sure they were EJI-approved. Once they were approved to move forward, LCRP began working with new volunteers. To this day, LCRP is an entirely volunteer-based group, boasting over 40 presentations across the Lee County area.
“We’ve worked with folks from all over the county,” Nichols said. “From mayors to churches to different book clubs.”
Recently, the LCRP began connecting with the community through a racial justice high school essay contest for ninth graders to enter. Fifteen students submitted an essay as entry. The LCRP knew that the contestants already had the skills to accomplish an incredible essay.
However, they still held different events surrounding the contest to enhance the learning experience and sharpen the tools the students already had in their toolbox. The LCRP hopes to make this an annual event.
“We wanted to provide them education, because that’s another key focus for Lee County Remembrance,” Brown said. “Educating … in the hopes that we won’t continue to repeat our history because we aren’t knowledgeable about it or aware.”
The LCRP follows the EJI’s framework for what they call the “Truth and Reconciliation Model”. Additionally, the LCRP adheres to a three-prong set of goals, advertised on its website: commemorate, educate and advocate. The logo is a four-part flame, symbolizing the four documented victims of racial terror lynchings in Lee County and the LCRP’s desire to shed light on the stories.
Brown said the LCRP has strived to learn the stories of those four men to the best of their ability, whilst acknowledging that newspaper accounts and other informants are not always accurate and often only show one side of the story.
“We won’t ever know the experiences of those men who were lynched,” Brown said. “However, we try our best to understand, we try our best to educate and continue to provide research to the community at large, so that they have an understanding of what happened to these men … [while] also moving forward into where we are now, what’s going on in the world around us in terms of racial injustice.”
Brown admits that hearing these stories has been hard for her, as a Black woman, to hear.
“I can’t help but to think about my own family,” she said. “It’s difficult, it’s very hard to read, especially the fullness of the language.”
Yet, Brown said that LCRP refuses to censor the language. The LCRP believes it is important to truly know how the text reads in order to better understand and contextualize such a delicate, yet gruesome part of Lee County’s history. It further explains the trauma that intertwined with the lynchings.
On Nov. 5, 2020, the LCRP hosted a virtual “Soil Collection Ceremony”. Volunteers went to the various sites where Moss, Hart, Humphries and Harris had been lynched. At each one, they collected soil from the ground where the men had died.
“The soil represents the blood, the sweat and the tears that they experienced during that time,” Brown said. “And we never should forget about that, we should continue to consider what those experiences were even down to the last final moments.”
This month, on Saturday, June 12, the LCRP will honor those four men with a historical marker. The marker will feature the stories of each man and provide a place for them to be remembered in the wake of their tragic deaths. Speakers will be present to commemorate this sacred moment in Lee County.
The ceremony will be held at the Opelika Courthouse Square on the corner of S. 9th St. and Ave. A in Opelika from 3 to 4 p.m. Its website reads, “The courthouse square has shown us the power of community — for grief and remembering, like the memorial held by the Opelika City Council & Lee County Officers for the lynching of George Floyd; for celebration and unity like Juneteenth and Pride Day; and for calls for justice like protests held this summer.”
“We don’t want this to be a continuing thing,” Brown said. “However, through research, if we find more, we’re going to continue to recognize and put a name to these people. We name these people and the injustices, and we humanize them … We’re going to continue to do that.”
Brown and Nichols call the marker “Phase One”. As the LCRP grows, Nichols said they hope to become a “stable force in the community.”
Attendees are encouraged to visit the LCRP exhibit at the Museum of East Alabama, located across the street from the courthouse, prior to or following the ceremony. For more information, or to read an educational booklet carefully and passionately written by Brown and Nichols, with the help of Auburn historians, visit www.leecountyremembrance.org/research.