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Portal to the Past

By C. L. Stambush

How History Helps Shape a Better Tomorrow

Dr. Kristalyn Shefveland, Associate Professor of History, and area high school senior Sophie Kloppenburg didn't know how much they had in common before they met in the summer of 2021. But through their encounter they discovered both were committed to historic truths and bringing those truths into the light through education.

Searching for a community senior project, Kloppenburg, of Mount Vernon, Indiana, heard whispers of seven Black men who were accused of raping three White women. Untried and unconvicted, the men were lynched, shot, stabbed and burned to death—four of them hung from a tree on her hometown's courthouse lawn—144 years ago.

Kloppenburg wanted the world to know what happened and for it to be commemorated with a plaque on the site of the 1878 lynching. She, Shefveland, Dr. Laurel Standiford-Reyes, Assistant Professor of Psychology, and two community members combined forces and started talking to Posey County Commissioners. "Sophie had already spoken with the city commissioners, and they were enthusiastic, but more conversations needed to take place," said Shefveland.

Through those conversations, the idea bloomed from a single commemorative plaque reminding people of the killings, to a full scope of projects—including town halls, curriculum development, student and educator workshops, teaching internships, interactive exhibits, research internships and conferences—to educate others on how lynchings and other forms of racial trauma impact society.

The first official act in the 1878 Memorial Project was the placement of a plaque commemorating the killings on the Mount Vernon courthouse lawn in October 2022. "We worked with the county commissioners and Dr. Betty Hart, USI Professor Emerita of English, a fantastic scholar in the region and the first African American high school teacher in Posey County, to draft the language for the memorial," said Shefveland.

The 1878 Memorial plaque is just the beginning of this long and storied project. On it is a QR code providing a portal to an ever-growing body of educational and historical material on a website maintained by USI's Rice Library and History Department. The website will allow historians, researchers, educators, community members and anyone else interested in southwest Indiana's racial history and the lynching of innocent men to learn more. "It's not particularly educational to have just a memorial, but if we create a website, it's evergreen," said Shefveland. " The plan is that if people want to know more, they can find a very well-curated, community-sponsored website with a ton of resources."

The collaborative project is one of many similar responses across the nation addressing historic acts of racial terror and violence, such as the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana through ties to southwest Indiana and how it shaped the state. "It's something older generations know a lot about. At one point it was taught in schools and talked about," said Shefveland. "Then it just slipped to the side. Part of the work we are trying to do with these projects is recognize where we were and where we are now."

Facing the truths of the past is not easy. Shefveland has encountered a variety of emotional responses in her pursuit so far. "Some people will get angry, some people are going to get defensive saying, 'That's not who we are now.' I get that and I understand," she said. "It's uncomfortable; but sitting with discomfort, and sitting with an understanding of what was done, in many ways is to indicate that it won't happen again. We don’t want to just focus on the negative, but instead to talk about how the past plays a role within communities today."

Learning from this past provides a positive pathway to a more compassionate future for humanity. Fortunately, there is a robust and committed group of USI faculty and students, school corporations, local governments, communal organizations, historic societies, cultural museums and more, intent on delivering a wealth of learning resources into the hands and minds of citizens.

"The purpose of this work is to address historic absences of marginalized peoples within the local and national narratives through humanities teaching and learning," Shefveland said. "Diversifying the narrative has direct impact on communities and provides an avenue for reparative justice."

USI's scholars have historically contributed to the body of works illuminating the lives of African Americans. Dr. Darrel Bigham, Director Emeritus of Historic Southern Indiana and Professor Emeritus of History (deceased), in his 38 years at USI, conducted oral histories in Evansville's African American communities during the 1970s and '80s, producing an oeuvre of material in his 11 authored, co-authored or edited books addressing emancipation and its aftermath in the Ohio River Valley region and donating more than 1,000 images to the University's archive collection.

"The lynching era left thousands of Black people dead; it significantly marginalized Black people in the country’s political, economic and social systems; it led to a mass exodus of Black refugees out of communities that participated in racial violence," said Shefveland. "Lynching—and other forms of racial terrorism—inflicted deep traumatic and psychological wounds on survivors, witnesses, family members and entire communities, Black and White alike, who witnessed this culture of terror and violence. We live with the legacy of that violence. Acknowledging divisive events of the past leads to unification in the present."

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