By Natalie Anderson
SALISBURY — The city has issued a certificate of appropriateness for the Actions in Faith and Justice organization to install a historical marker commemorating local Jim Crow-era lynchings and present-day racial injustice.
The marker would be adjacent to the Oak Grove Freedman’s Cemetery, located between the curb and sidewalk along North Church Street. The Freedman’s Cemetery pays homage to more than 150 mostly unknown Black men, women and children buried there. In the mid-2000s, several stones were removed from the granite wall separating an Old English Cemetery from the Freedman’s Cemetery to symbolize their shared history.
Organizers say the marker will be in proximity to the Rowan County Courthouse where three Black men named Jack Dillingham, John Gillespie and son Nease Gillespie were abducted from the Rowan County jail in Salisbury and lynched by a white mob of more than 5,000 people a distance away.
“We chose to put our remembrance right beside the Freedman’s Cemetery where people from around that same era with be together,” said Rev. Olen Bruner, co-chair of the grassroots organization Actions in Faith and Justice. “We want to recognize and honor our people so they can be together and rest in peace.”
Efforts related to the project began in 2017. In December, the city’s Public Art Committee formally endorsed the project. The city granted the project a certificate of appropriateness on March 10, which gives the green light for the marker to be installed. City Manager Lane Bailey stated in a letter of approval that the installation would be overseen by the city’s Public Works and Community Planning Services departments.
Bruner said he was “elated” to see the city’s formal approval as it gave him hope to see the project through.
“Lord, Jesus, it’s going to happen,” Bruner said. “My excitement is that we get one more opportunity in this current state of our society to come face-to-face with truths.”
Bruner said the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama is currently constructing the marker. AFJ and the city are hoping for an installation in August, but installation will ultimately depend on the shipment of the marker. In the certificate of appropriateness, EJI estimates construction and shipment can take up to 10 weeks.
The marker will be 3.5 feet wide and about 3 feet high, with the supporting post rising four feet from the ground. The marker will contain silver lettering on a black background, with one side describing local history about the 1906 lynchings and another telling a broader narrative of racial injustice. The Equal Justice Initiative will be responsible for crafting the marker, shipping it and maintaining it.
“It is a gift. The only cost the city will incur is digging the hole, and if they don’t want to do it, I’ll do it myself,” Bruner said. “It is a gift to us … that will allow children to know a historical fact — that this happened in America.”
Bruner said EJI is currently partnering with multiple organizations across the U.S. to “change the narrative of race in America.” Called the Community Remembrance Project, EJI has placed such markers in cities in Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma and Minnesota. He said Salisbury’s marker would be the first in North Carolina.
“The moment is right,” he said. “The time is right.”
AFJ, Bruner added, is currently looking into other projects, including ways to commemorate Salisbury’s Black community in the EJI’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Additionally, AFJ has plans for “more projects that are positive but respectful of the feelings of the community around us,” Bruner said.
Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.
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