DALLAS — With a broken bone in one foot and gout in the other, Shirley Johnson limped across her living room toward the front door. The visitor waiting there one recent afternoon, the Rev. Angela D. Sims, hoped that at age 74, Mrs. Johnson’s memory was in sturdier shape.
A few minutes later, with Mrs. Johnson settled into a wheelchair, Ms. Sims took out a notepad and placed an audio recorder on the coffee table, beside a photo album and the family Bible. An assistant with a video camera set up his equipment across the room and focused his lens on Mrs. Johnson, a retired bill collector in a pink sweater and gray cornrows.
Dr. Sims interviewing Ola Comins, 84,
at er home in Dallas on Thurs.
Ms. Sims spent the next 20 minutes or so asking questions about Mrs. Johnson’s personal history to put her at ease, and they laughed together when Mrs. Johnson said that if she had known about being on camera she would have worn her wig.
Then, her gaze steady and her voice both velvety and firm, Ms. Sims came to her point. What, she wanted to know, did Mrs. Johnson remember about lynching. Mrs. Johnson let out a long sigh, which hung in the air unbroken for a time.
“It’s hard to explain,” she finally said. “In the black community, we always talked, we always heard, we heard the adults.” As a child of 5 or 6, Mrs. Johnson went on, she heard her grandmother and a family friend talking, and they used a phrase the girl had never picked up before — “messing with.”
The two women were talking about a black man in their neighborhood who had lived with a white lover in defiance of segregation’s code. “And next thing they know,” Mrs. Johnson told Ms. Sims, recalling that conversation across all the decades, “he was floating in the Trinity River.”
For close to two years, Ms. Sims has traversed the country in search of such memories, the recollections of African-American elders about lynching. From New Jersey to California, through Alabama and Oklahoma, she has recorded nearly 85 men and women speaking on a subject most had been determined to avoid, a degradation never to be reawakened.
Ms. Sims has sought to elicit and so defang the sense of shame. As an ordained Baptist minister and a professor of ethics and black church studies at the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., she is gathering the accounts to preserve the historical record and to grasp the faith that allowed lynching’s witnesses and survivors to persevere.
“I’m listening for what salvation and redemption might look like,” said Ms. Sims, 54, during a break between interviews. “I’m listening for how grace might play out and for notions of forgiveness. "I think about some of the individuals I’ve met and the way they’ve talked about having to get rid of racial hatred — to be in relationship with God, to not hate themselves. I’m looking for a way to articulate this ethic of resilience.” In the near future, her findings will take two forms, thanks to her partnership with Baylor University in Waco, Tex. The university’s academic press will publish a book based on the oral histories, “Conversations with Elders: African-Americans Remember Lynching,” and its Institute for Oral History will maintain the recorded interviews, which should be available online in 2012. For Ms. Sims, the project grows from scholarly and personal soil. A corporate accountant who answered the call to ministry in middle age, she wrote her doctoral dissertation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia on the anti-lynching campaigns of 1890-1920 led by Ida B. Wells. Toward the end of Ph.D. work, in late 2007, she heard a black minister give a sermon in which he recalled a lynching that had occurred when he was 8.
“I told myself there must be others,” Ms. Sims recalled.
Fortified with a $30,000 grant from the Louisville Institute, she started the search in May 2009, sending out hundreds of e-mails to personal and professional contacts, asking if anyone knew anyone who might know anything. That scattershot appeal yielded the initial 45 interview subjects.
They told Ms. Sims of seeing black men castrated, of finding charred bodies, of walking on blood-soaked ground. They told her of the pervasive fear of doing something that could bring forth a lynch mob. They told her, too, of the unexpected intervention of some whites. One man recounted how he had escaped an impending lynching because he was tipped off by a Ku Klux Klan member, who happened to have been his father’s boss.
From her own mother, Helen Pollard, a retired schoolteacher, Ms. Sims heard the story behind a family story about the ancestor who abruptly left Louisiana. The explanation that Mrs. Pollard revealed started with a black couple, her grandparents, walking down the plank sidewalk of their hometown.
“This white man pushed her off the sidewalk into the mud,” Mrs. Pollard went on, referring to her grandmother, “and my grandfather tackled him and would have killed him if they had not gotten him out of there and got him home. And his — his boss was a member of the Masonic Lodge, and they smuggled my grandfather out of Louisiana at night.” She continued, “Because black men just did not—in fact, you just did not disrespect any white person. I don’t care whether they were a boy or a girl.”
For Ms. Sims, such interviews went beyond racial issues to ontological ones. “The question of where God was in the midst of this evil,” she said, “is held in tension with the way God acted. They name the evil, but they recognize something beyond it.”
In trying to form a “theology of resilience,” Ms. Sims has combined the firsthand testimonies with Biblical teachings, particularly the Book of Micah with its cry for moral justice and the Gospel of Matthew with its mandate for disciples to travel the land. She has also been inspired by the essays of Alice Walker and a lecture by James H. Cone, the leading exponent of black liberation theology, about the lynching tree being the crucifix of African-American Christianity.
With her field work nearing its end, Ms. Sims said she was just beginning to reckon with the psychic toll of undertaking what she calls “this ministry of presence, of sitting in the silence.” Nothing, however, has made her question the mission.
“There is no rest for a weary soul,” she said, “when you’re doing the work you were called to do.”
Dr. Sims's first book Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B. Wells' Interrogation of American Terror (Palgrave McMillan, 2010) is available at Amazon.com. See her book in the carousel above.