Collecting Evidence and Restoring Justice 1930 - 1970
Since 2008, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University (CRRJ) has been digging into ancient records and probing the memories of elders across the country to preserve an account of racial violence and to examine the toll it took on our communities and our legal systems in the mid-twentieth century. We have collected legal documents of law enforcement investigations, court records, photographs, and media accounts, and have interviewed hundreds of people to capture their memory of the period. CRRJ has the most extensive collection of files on racial violence cases from this period in the country.
CRRJ helps communities to use the information collected to support restorative justice projects. Our restorative justice work draws on two approaches to righting past wrongs: restorative justice and transitional justice. The central tenet of restorative justice is that the justice process belongs to the community. Communities must engage in remediating historical wrongs, sometimes through their governmental institutions and law, and sometimes in street-level organizing. As implemented by the Project, restorative justice is crafted to speak to the descendants of homicide victims, foster accountability, support reparations, honor the healing process, memorialize victims, and further racial reconciliation. The field of transitional justice offers a second approach to grave historical wrongs. Truth commissions, official apologies, and memory projects have been used in communities to heal the wounds of racial subordination and violence. These processes focus on collective responsibility for human rights violations. They contribute to reconciliation by educating citizens through the public debates they stimulate and by providing structures for genuine interactions between alienated groups.
We work at the intersection of memory, history and trauma to create projects that acknowledge the need for accountability, repair, and social transformation. We week to honor the voice and agency of families and communities as they actively reconstruct the past, and as they come to fresh understandings of the ways in which the past is reflected in the realities of present-day racial disparities and social experiences.
Our work is based on the idea that a painful past must be addressed by all who were affected before it can be transcended. Communities themselves must identify a context-tailored process that will further their needs as they themselves define them. We offer examples, provide information about transitional and restorative justice, and encourage all members of the community to participate.
Below, please find overviews of our restorative justice endeavors. Additional information is also available by consulting our Restorative Justice Report 2018, which is available for download here.
On January 26, 2017, Louis Dekmar, Police Chief of LaGrange Police Department in Troupe County, apologized for the killing of Austin Callaway, which occurred on September 8, 1940, in LaGrange, Georgia. The investigative work of CRRJ student Jason McGraw led the Callaway family to push for the apology.
On October 21, 2017, Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper, apologized for historical racial violence by the police department at CRRJ's Resurrecting Their Stories: A Community Based Oral History Project conference.
On March 10, 2018, CRRJ joined the family of Henry "Peg" Gilbert to reflect on his life. Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley extended an official apology to the Gilbert family.
Engaging the Families of the Perpetrators
Thanks to the investigation of CRRJ students Tara Dunn and Goeun Ariel Lee on the Henry Peg Gilbert and Gus Davidson case in Georgia, Karen Branan, granddaughter of the Harris County Sheriff at the time, apologized to Gilbert's daughter Recie for the role her family played in his death. Ms. Branan's grandfather was an influential figure in Harris County when Gilbert was killed in 1947. Ms. Branan continues to engage with the family and donated money to fund a gravestone. On May 4, 1947. Gus Davidson accidentally hit a calf while driving in Troup County, Georgia. The calf belonged to Olin Sands who confronted Davidson. According to Davidson, Sands pulled a gun on him and he shot in self-defense killing Sands. Davidson fled for his life. Sands was shot near the Union Springs Baptist Church in West Point, where Henry Gilbert was a deacon.
To obtain information about Davidson's whereabouts, Harris County Police Chief W.H. Buchanan arrested Henry "Peg" Gilbert, a 42 year old prosperous farmer who worked about 100 acres of his own land. Gilbert was married with four daughters. On May 23, 1947, four days after his arrest, Henry Gilbert was found dead at the Harris County jail in the city of Hamilton. He had been shot and beaten by Police Chief Buchanan.
Sandra Simpson-Kraft learned that her father killed John Earl Reese in 1955 in reading CRRJ student Kaylie Simon's research on the case. She is now working hand in hand with CRRJ to engage with the Reese family and on other CRRJ projects. The Reese family is named in her will.
In 2010, CRRJ helped to secure a new gravestone for John Earl Reese, who was killed on October 23, 1955, in East Texas. The gravestone was unveiled on October 23, 2010, in the presence of many family and community members, including his cousin, Joyce Faye Crockett Nelson who was also shot on October 23, 1955, but survived.
On August 20, 2016, CRRJ provided a burial marker for Ellis Hutson Sr. who was killed on March 13, 1948, at the Nacogdoches County Courthouse in Texas when he was attempting to bail his son out of jail.
Engaging Public Officials
In 2009, Joyce Faye Crockett Nelson, who was shot when her cousin John Earl Reese was killed on October 23, 1955 in Texas, told the story of what happened to public officials for the first time. CRRJ facilitated Ms. Nelson's conversation with County Commissioner Mike Pepper and Rusk County Mayor Buzz Fullen.
In 2012, CRRJ Fellow Chelsea Schmitz facilitated a conversation between City Councilman Fred Richardson and the family of Rayfield Davis in Mobile, Alabama. On March 7, 1948, 53-year-old Davis said that Blacks and whites would soon be equal. Horace M. Miller, a white man, became enraged by Davis' statement and beat him to death.
Civil Rights Markers
Civil rights markers were erected in the local library in Tatum, Texas and in Mayflower, Texas in front of a Black church that was shot up on the night John Earl Reese was killed.
As a result of a community campaign, local officials named a street after a 16-year victim of a racially inspired drive-by shooting in 1955. John Earl Reese Road is the street name for the road he grew up on.
Engaging in the Arts
CRRJ intern Michelle Wells wrote and produced the play, The War at Home. On the John Earl Reese case, a community member commissioned a painting about the incident of racial violence. Toni Morrison (pictured), Isabel Wilkerson, and many other writers have met with survivor families at Northeastern University.
Correcting Public Records
John Earl Reese's death certificate reported his death as an "accident" when in fact it was a racial killing. CRRJ officially changed the death certificate to reflect that death was a "homicide." The amended death certificate was issued in December 2010.
Consultations, Amicus Briefs, and Legal Advising
In 2010, CRRJ served as legal adviser to the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, a Boston community organization, on its Boston Busing Truth and Reconciliation Project to examine the legacy of the 1970s-era desegregation crisis.
In 2014, CRRJ filed an amicus brief urging a South Carolina court to exonerate George Stinney Jr. (left), a 14-year-old-African-American boy who, in 1944, was sentenced to death in South Carolina in a lynch mob type proceeding. Seventy years after his execution, South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Carmen T. Mullins vacated Stinney's conviction.
In 2015, with CRRJ's legal research, a civic group in Tallahassee sought to transform the Leon County jail (now the Firestone Building) from which the teenagers Richard Hawkins and Ernest Ponder were kidnapped in 1937, and the site where civil rights activists were beaten in the 1960s, into a museum and educational venue.
In 2016, CRRJ sponsored a congressional briefing on the Emmett Till Civil Rights Cold Case Act in Washington, giving members of Congress an opportunity to hear first-hand from family members of victims whose cases were brought to light for the first time by CRRJ.
History of Racial Violence, Restorative Justice, and the High School Classroom
CRRJ partners with Cambridge, Ringe and Latin High School to operate the Kimbrough Scholars program. The program engages high school students in our investigative process and teaches research and interview skills while the students learn history on the ground.
CRRJ developed curricular materials based on the John Earl Reese case for use at Tatum High School in Tatum, TX.
CRRJ's investigative work has led to commemorations on several cases, including Austin Calloway, Henry "Peg" Gilbert, Samuel Mason Bacon, Thomas Mattox and John Earl Reese. Further memorial events include one for Ellis Hutson, Sr. at the courthouse at Nacogdoches, TX where he was killed in 1948. On November 14, 2013, in Alston, Georgia, the CRRJ, the UNESCO Transatlantic Slave Trade Project, and the Rosewood Heritage Foundation came together to commemorate the life of Isaiah Nixon, who was killed for voting in 1947. Nixon's wife, Sallie Zimon, fled to Georgia with the couple's children immediately after her husband was slain. For many of Nixon's family members, the commemoration in 2013 was their first trip to Alston.