America’s shameful history of lynching blazed into the spotlight with the recent opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Some call it the “lynching museum.”
Russellville, Kentucky opened its own small lynching museum 10 years ago, the vision of one man who made a promise to tell the truth.
Billie Holiday’s haunting song Strange Fruit about “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” plays quietly in a one-room lynching-museum in Russellville, Kentucky. The room is nearly filled by a tree with four rope nooses hanging from it.
Volunteer historian Michael Morrow is the visionary behind this lynching memorial and serves as a guide.
“The lynching occurred here in 1908. I felt then and I feel now that these stories have to be told.”
“Then” was 2008 when this lynching museum opened, 100 years after four black men were lynched following the fatal shooting of a white farmer.
Joe Gran Clark is a Russellville attorney active in historic preservation. He says the men who were lynched were associated with a lodge.
"There were lodges, generally segregated at that point in time, and this was an attempt to shut those down, and to keep them from meeting and talking," said Clark.
Morrow said the four men who were lynched were members of a lodge that expressed an opinion about black sharecropper Rufus Browder, who fatally shot, reportedly in self-defense, the white farmer that he worked for, James Cunningham.
"They were arrested because they was in the lodge. The lodge had passed a resolution saying that Rufus had killed Cunningham in self-defense and then they passed another resolution to raise money to help pay for a lawyer for Rufus,” said Morrow.
Rufus Browder was taken to jail in Louisville for his own protection, but the four black men in jail became the victims of a local mob. Morrow said there a note attached to one of the men who was lynched warning local black residents to leave white people alone. That note can be seen on a well-documented photograph of the four black men hanging from the tree in Russellville. The photo was taken by a man from Nashville and made into a postcard.
"After lynchings they would send postcards out," said Morrow. "Some of them would go to blacks in the area to intimidate them. Like the sign said, 'if y’all don’t quit, you’ll go the same way'."
Morrow is 55 and feels compelled to tell the story of this lynching in Logan County because of a promise he made when he was 11 years old to a neighbor, Miss Mattie Bell.
“Me and my cousin went with my grandmother one day to help Miss Mattie Bell put up her effects and this Bible was there, well I dropped the Bible actually, and it came to this page that had these four men on it and they all died on the same day, August the first 1908. And I said, ‘Miss Mattie Bell, I said, what happened to these people? Did they burn up or something?’ She said, ’No boy, they were lynched.’ I said, ‘Miss Mattie Bell, what’s lynched?’ “
Whether it was childhood curiosity or Destiny, Morrow had to know more about lynching.
“So I would sneak up to Miss Mattie Bell’s and start asking the questions and started telling me the story. She gave me the Bible. She said, ‘I’ll give you this Bible if you promise me you’ll tell the truth and let people know what happened'.”
I’d be different places and something would come up about it," said Morrow. "I was at a bookstore one day with a couple of friends. They said, ‘Today’s your birthday’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ And one of ‘em, he knew I liked stuff about lynching and history and he seen this book that said Russellville and it was talking about the lynching that went on and he said, ‘Man, I’m just going to buy you this book.’ Well, he bought the book for me.”
Morrow said it’s important to tell the story because the message of the public lynching applies apply today.
“It was similar to what those people were doing in Charlottesville, Virginia," said Morrow. "It was a form of intimidation.”
Morrow is referring to the August 2017 rally in Charlottesville when white nationalists marched with torches and swastikas. The demonstration became violent and a 32-year-0ld woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and many others injured.
A project by the Equal Justice Institute and Google called, “Lynching in America” reports that between 1877 and 1950 there were 167 lynchings in Kentucky. Those lynchings, documented by county, include Fulton 20; Logan 11; Todd 7; Warren and Henderson 4; Christian, Daviess, Hardin, Marshall and Trigg 3; Allen, Simpson, Hopkins and Hart 2.