A group of Omahans gathered at the Douglas County Courthouse on a chilly day in October 2020 to commemorate the 1891 lynching of George Smith, a Black man falsely accused of raping a White child. The lynching took place at the same location where another Black man, Will Brown, was lynched under similar circumstances in 1919.
The event was organized by Dr. Franklin Thompson of the University of Nebraska Omaha and the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama. EJI has been gathering jars of soil from lynching sites around the US and erecting historical markers. During the ceremony a series of readers read aloud my chapter on Smith from my book, A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha. Both WOWT-TV and the Omaha World-Herald covered the event.
I spoke for about five minutes near the end of the ceremony. Here are my remarks:
I thank Dr. Thompson for inviting me to be here today. I’ve been thinking about what I could possibly say to make sense of what happened here in 1891, or to explain what it might mean to us today. I can only rely on the words of other people. One of those people is a Lakota man; the other is an African American journalist.
Fifteen years ago I attended an event at Ash Hollow State Park in western Nebraska. It was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Blue Water. The army called it a battle, but it was a massacre. US troops attacked a Lakota village, fired indiscriminately at men, women, and children, and burned all the possessions of the people who escaped into the Sandhills.
The 2005 ceremony at Ash Hollow involved performers retelling the story of this terrible event for a mostly White audience. Many descendants of Chief Little Thunder were also there. From the Little Thunder family we learned that the trauma from the massacre never really went away, because it was part of a long chain of injustices that continue up to the present.
For me, the most powerful part of the event was when Philip Little Thunder spoke to the crowd. He said we couldn’t change the past, but that it was now up to us “to come together and acknowledge each other as human beings.”
The ceremony lasted a few hours, but he expressed the heart of it in that one phrase: acknowledge each other as human beings. Because that’s what didn’t happen at Blue Water Creek in 1855. Much of human history involves one group—usually the more powerful one—failing in some way to acknowledge the humanity of another group. In the past this was done explicitly. Today it’s usually more subtle. In 2020 no one admits to dehumanizing others, but people will show you what they believe by what they choose to ignore and by what they’re willing to go along with.
George Smith was not murdered by an individual, but by a mob. And not just by a mob, but by an entire society. Injustice is never about “a few bad apples.”
Ida Wells-Barnett, that great American journalist, said it best a year after George Smith died when she wrote that the people who remain silent are “accomplices, accessories before and after the fact, equally guilty with the actual law-breakers who would not persist if they did not know that neither the law nor militia would be employed against them.”
I said that much of history is a story of dehumanization. But history is also a story of humanization—by people like Wells-Barnett who hold society to account and refuse to let us look away from things we’d rather not see. It is not pleasant to look at events of 1891 and recognize how much of that past remains unresolved in 2020. It is not reassuring to realize that a young woman writing in 1892 saw the world with greater moral clarity than do many of our leaders today.
History is not about reassurance and it’s not about comfort, but it’s also not about reliving crimes and tragedies for their own sake. We remember people like George Smith not so we can dwell on painful events that can’t be changed, but so that we can better recognize patterns of human behavior. We remember so that we can better recognize unjust systems and how they came to be. We remember so that we can see the humanity in each other and resolve to build a fairer and more humane world.