The city had moved on.
But on the heels of a years-long national reckoning about race, Lawrenceville finally intends to acknowledge Hale — his death and his life.
Led by the Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition Project, with the support of the Gwinnett Historical Restoration and Preservation Board, a Juneteenth ceremony is being planned to collect dirt from the corner of West Pike Street and Perry Street, where Hale was killed. It’s part of a national effort to memorialize lynching victims in the country.
“He never received justice,” said Curtis Clemons, vice chairman of the steering committee for the Remembrance project. “He hung from the town square and people took pictures celebrating his lynching.”
Hundreds of jars of soil from documented lynching sites at the new Legacy Museum, part of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., April 20, 2018. Dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy, the site demands a reckoning with with the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror. Audra Melton/The New York Times
The soil collection is just one part of a process to ensure Hale isn’t forgotten by history. Dirt where his blood was spilled will be housed in Gwinnett as well as at the Legacy Museum, near the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.
Run by the Equal Justice Initiative, the museum houses soil from other areas where lynchings occurred. The group also works to erect public markers to memorialize lynching victims. Last May, DeKalb County became the first in metro Atlanta to install a historical marker recognizing lynching victims in its borders.
Earlier this year, the Confederate monument came down in Lawrenceville’s Square. It was unrelated to the process to erect a marker for Hale, which began in late 2019. But Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, D-Lawrenceville and a member of the Remembrance committee, said it was “surreal” to see the pace of change, after so many years of stagnation.
“It’s thrilling,” she said. “It feels like for once, our work is being realized into something that’s tangible.”
Lawrenceville’s mayor and council advocated for the monument’s removal. City manager Chuck Warbington said the city also supports the efforts to memorialize Hale.
Calling the lynching “dark history” in the city, Warbington said he hopes the community can grow from acknowledging the circumstances around Hale’s death.
“Would I have wanted to have that as part of my history? Obviously not,” Warbington said. “We’re not proud of it, but we’ve come a long way as a city. We can look deep within ourselves to build a more unifying community.”
Failing to address the past doesn’t erase it, Clemons said. But steps like these do help a community move forward.
“If we’re going to look at the history of Gwinnett, we need to look at the complete history, not just a whitewashed version,” he said. “We had a dark past and everything wasn’t above board. ... Hopefully at the end, justice and reconciliation will prevail.”
The committee has been able to piece together some information about Hale. A farmer who was born in 1875, he married a woman named Willie in 1891. In 1906, they had a daughter, Sarah. Census records show Hale was diagnosed with asthma as a child, Hutchinson said. He was buried in a pauper’s field near the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, and doesn’t have a gravestone.
“It’s so important to make sure we humanize people,” said Marlene Taylor-Crawford, the chairwoman of the Gwinnett Historical Restoration and Preservation Board. “This was a human being, a father, a husband who had a life.”
Hutchinson said she created an Ancestry.com profile for Hale, but members of the group had not been able to find his descendants. Taylor-Crawford and Hutchinson both surmised his family left town after the lynching.
“It sits on my heart, what happened to him.” Hutchinson said.
Taylor-Crawford visited the Alabama museum and called the trip life-changing. She said it was powerful and emotional to see jar after jar of soil collected from places where people died violently. The dirt is “almost sacred ground,” Clemons said.
“It really makes you understand the level of brutality,” Taylor-Crawford said. “Unless we begin to talk about it, we will continue on the same route of this kind of evilness, this kind of inhumanity.”
The Equal Justice Initiative has recorded two other Gwinnett County lynchings, though Remembrance committee member Steve Babb said research is ongoing to see if there are more that should be acknowledged.
Thomas Martin and William Sneal were lynched weeks apart in 1882, in a part of Gwinnett that is now Barrow County. Babb said Henry Campbell’s 1908 death is considered an execution, but may in fact be a lynching. Others are rumored, but not verified.
The process to collect soil where Hale died is just the beginning of acknowledging the county’s history and teaching people about it, Taylor-Crawford said. It’s important to recognize the trauma of the past, said Marlene Fosque, a Gwinnett County commissioner who has supported the groups’ efforts.
“That person died because of hatred,” she said of Hale. “Healing can never begin until you acknowledge the pain and hurt that happened a long time ago.”