Words like racism and lynching often invoke visceral reactions. The reaction Beverly Foster's after is love.
Foster leads the Walker County Remembrance Coalition, which recently wrapped up its campaign to install the Memorial of Reconciliation, Peace & Justice on the grounds of the antebellum Marsh House. It is the first county in Northwest Georgia to erect such a marker.
Before dedicating the resultant plaques to the annals of the area's history, Foster first had to educate the community.
The historical plaques tell a difficult story, that of "the lynching era," otherwise known as the Jim Crow era (1877-1950), and of one local victim in particular.
"You've got to get the community on board so they know you're not talking hatred, you're talking love and reconciliation," she said.
With a topic like unlawful lynching, that can be delicate work.
"Once you use the word 'lynching,' even most Black folks are gonna shy back," she said. "I took it to white churches, I took it to Black churches. I discussed all these things with them, but in a manner that could be accepted, in a way that didn't seem angry.
"To be angry would hurt no one but me."
The project was borne from a young local's trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and has been several years in the making. The timing of its culmination feels divine, Foster said.
But despite the current national conversation surrounding racism in America, she said the history detailed on those plaques is unknown to many who grew up following desegregation. Yet it remains part of the story.
"My feelings are to accept the reconciliation, the peace, the love, but have the remembrance of what was done," Foster said. "We have remembrance of the Civil War all the time, of the Twin Towers all the time, D-Day all the time — we have remembrance of all these historical events all the time; we're gonna have remembrance of this. But we're gonna do it in the context of history, not of hate."
Georgia had the second-highest number of unlawful lynchings between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP. Yet it wasn't until a trip to the lynching memorial in Alabama that now-alumna of Ridgeland High School Emma Jones learned the story of Henry White, a 24-year-old Black man hanged by a mob in her hometown in 1916.
She contacted Foster to help her change that.
Foster, a Chickamauga native, has been working both behind the scenes and publicly, personally and professionally, to bring awareness to racial issues in Walker County for decades. She's served as president of the Walker County African American Historical & Alumni Association, given historical presentations and spearheaded public displays, and now anchors a local television program devoted to the county's Black history.
She said she's heartened by the widespread momentum she now sees.
"I went many years feeling like I just had the support of maybe four or five people in my association, but now I feel like, oh my goodness, I've got support from all over the place — different countries and everywhere," Foster said.
That includes Jones and Foster's three other young mentees, whom Foster taught skills such as grant writing as part of the project so that they could carry on the work one day.
"Everyone has the right to remember their history," said Foster. "We don't have to agree on it, but I want them to feel like they have the opportunity [to share it]. That's what America is about: opportunity."
Contact Jennifer Bardoner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In January, the Remembrance Coalition plans to launch a scholarship program, offering a total of $5,000 in one-time awards. Originally planned in conjunction with the plaque project, the essay contest was delayed when schools let out amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Beyond that, Foster said she has some more projects in mind but she isn't ready to share them yet.
She does offer this hint, though: "When we talk about Black history, all we talk about is slavery. There's more to our history than slavery. Now my next step is what's beyond that in Walker County."