Featured photo: Members of the Smith family and their attorneys stand in front of the memorial for Marcus Deon Smith, which was installed at the IRC recently. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
Trigger warning: This article describes acts of racial terror including a lynching and a police killing.
“What do we hope to uncover from soil?” asks poet Demetrius Noble, his voice steady, echoing as he stands in the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Greensboro on Sept. 30. “What answers might we discover from our toils of digging dirt and enshrining earth? And memorializing the massacred? What are we after?”
He’s positioned himself in the crossing of the church, the glow of mid-morning light working to penetrate cream-colored stained glass windows adorned with deep purple grapes that span the height of the walls.
He goes on.
“Specifically, what answers are hid in this history that we aim to locate upon the bloodied ground of a lynching tree?”
On this Saturday morning, more than 200 people gathered within the church, sitting in the pews to listen to community members commemorate the life and tragic death of Eugene Hairston, Guilford County’s only recorded lynching victim. It happened on Aug. 25, 1887. He was 17 years old.
A dedicated group of activists and scholars — including members of the Guilford County Community Remembrance Project, or GCCRP, who have worked for years to uncover Hairston’s history — gave speeches that touched upon Greensboro’s ugly history and the effects that Hairston’s murder had on the community.
Much of the work stems from the group’s connection to the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, which works with local organizations to identify and honor lyching victims.
In attendance was Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who spoke about her visit to the museum and memorial, as well as Councilmembers Sharon Hightower and Nancy Hoffman, who also went on the trip. Former Guilford College scholar James Shields’ deep voice rang out through the church walls as he sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Lift Every Voice,” while UNCG student Ruth Hullette reflected on how her whiteness can and should be used to help those who are marginalized.
At the end of the morning’s event, community members took turns pouring scoops of dirt, dirt that was collected from the approximate area of where Hairston was hung, into a large glass jar.
But one of the most striking moments that took place on Saturday didn’t happen within the church’s walls or near the lynching site at all. It took place nearly a mile and a half away, where another memorial was to take place.
Two killings, 131 years apart
Kim McKenzie stooped down to take a look at the rock, running her fingers along its marbled surface. She touched it more than once to make sure.
“You can’t move it,” she said. “It’s solid; it cannot be moved.”
Her face was partially obstructed by shadows cast by the trees that surrounded the rock over which she stood. On its surface, a simple metal plaque read: “This memorial is dedicated in loving memory of Marcus Deon Smith with funds for this dedication provided as an expression of respect and reconciliation by the City of Greensboro.”
McKenzie is Marcus Deon Smith’s younger sister. And since 2018, the same year that the GCCRP and Greensboro councilmembers visited the Legacy Museum, McKenzie has been living without her brother.
Less than an hour after more than 200 people commemorated the death of Eugene Hairston at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, a much smaller group gathered at the Interactive Resource Center to commemorate the new memorial for Marcus Deon Smith. In addition to McKenzie, other members of the Smith family were in attendance, including Smith’s mother, Mary Smith; his father, George Smith; and his brother, Leonard Butler. All had traveled from out of the city to be there because they had been waiting for this day.
As TCB and several other news outlets have extensively reported, Marcus Deon Smith was hogtied and killed by police on Sept. 8, 2018. For much of the last five years, the family had been embroiled in legal battles with the city of Greensboro, fighting for justice, ultimately winning a $2.57 million settlement in early 2022. And on Saturday, one of the final pieces of the story played out as the community gathered to honor Smith’s memory at the newly installed memorial plaque at the day center for the unhoused community where Smith often hung out.
“This can be a place that people can come to understand Greensboro,” said Flint Taylor, one of the attorney’s for the Smith family who flew in from Chicago to attend the event. “To understand the history of Greensboro, to understand what the center means and understand the struggles that are going on now….”
As attendees, some of whom had just come from the Eugene Hairston memorial, paid their respects at the marker, it was impossible to not contextualize both deaths and reflect on how Greensboro has responded to acts of racial terror throughout the years.
After Mayor Vaughan took the time to recite a speech at the earlier Hairston memorial, her absence at Smith’s remembrance was notable. And that’s because the two deaths of Eugene Hairston and Marcus Deon Smith aren’t unrelated; there’s a direct throughline here.
From the first slaves who were forcibly brought to Guilford County’s soil in the mid 1700s, to those who fought against their oppressors during the Civil War, to Eugene Hairston’s killing in 1887, to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the A&T sit-ins, to the 1979 Greensboro Massacre and the 2018 killing of Marcus Smith, Greensboro’s deep and troubled history doesn’t start or end with Hairston or Smith.
“If our efforts are to be more than symbolic and extend beyond a pompous acknowledgement… then we gotta connect the blood spattered dots of Eugene’s Hairston’s lynching to the… mundane monstrosities that we suffer daily,” Noble continued at the first memorial. “What is the historical arc of bloodthirsty madmen mobbing at dark?”
Eugene Hairston was at a house in Kernersville, where he lived with his mother, stepfather, three sisters, a baby brother and a boarder, when he was arrested for the attempted rape of a 17-year-old white girl on Aug. 23, 1887. According to old newspaper reports, authorities said “he fit the description.”
After rumors that a lynch mob was forming, Hairston was transported from the jail in Kernersville to one in Greensboro, near where the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant now stands. Less than two days later, a mob of 30-50 white men broke into the church and lynched Hairston from the tree outside, repeatedly shooting his body afterwards.
Later, Hairston’s family traveled from Kernersville to Greensboro by horse and cart to retrieve his body.
Marcus Deon Smith was a 38-year-old unhoused Black man who suffered from a mental health episode the evening of Sept. 8 in downtown Greensboro.
As he staggered along Church Street, police officers stopped him to see what was the matter. Smith told them he needed help. After putting him in one of the patrol cars to take him in for a mental health evaluation, Smith became panicked and eventually was let out after kicking the car windows. Right afterwards, police restrained Smith using a Ripp-Hobble, hogtying him with his chest to the ground and hand and ankles strapped together behind his back. He died before he reached the hospital.
While Smith was killed at the hands of police in Greensboro in 2018, 131 years prior, police did little to nothing to stop the white mob that came to take Eugene Hairston from the Greensboro jail.
Newspaper reports at the time noted that those in favor of lynching Hairston were “the best citizens in Piedmont Carolina.”
Until body-camera footage came out, the city of Greensboro — including the mayor and police chief at the time, Wayne Scott — continued to push the false narrative that Smith simply “became combative” and “collapsed.”
No mention of Smith being hogtied was included in the first official police press release.
On Sept. 10, 2018, the News & Record printed the words from the press release as fact, noting that “while officers were attempting to transport Smith for mental evaluation, he became combative and collapsed. Both EMS and officers began rendering aid. He was taken to a local hospital where he later died.”
At the Hairston memorial, UNCG student Ruth Hullette connected the dots.
“Eugene Hairston was falsely accused, thrown into prison, kidnapped, tortured, riddled with bullets and finally put on display as a spectacle of fear and intimidation for all to see,” she said. “Today, that mindset manifests itself in things like police brutality…. Guilty until proven innocence, guilty with no chance to prove your innocence.”
In the ensuing years after Smith’s murder, the city spent more than $3.7 million defending the officers who were named in the lawsuit brought against the city by the Smith family. City staff, including members of city council, worked to minimize their accountability and to this day, none have apologized for Smith’s death.
In the aftermath of Eugene Hairston’s death, a grand jury was called to interview witnesses but none of the perpetrators were ever identified or charged.
Seven of the eight officers responsible for hogtying Smith — which was the cause of his death — got merit raises last year. And a condition of the settlement is that none of the defendants must admit liability.
Still, Mary Smith told TCB that she is waiting to hear those words.
“We would like to know if the city of Greensboro will apologize to the Smith family,” she said. Or will it take decades to acknowledge and apologize.”
For the 1979 Greensboro Massacre victims, it took more than three decades.
‘What does he look like in your mind?’
As part of the unimaginable task of lowering, untying and transporting Eugene Hairston back to their home, members of the Hairston family witnessed first-hand the impact of racial terror on the 17-year-old’s body.
In the case of Marcus Deon Smith, the only member of the family who watched the police body-camera footage was George Smith. Mary Smith has repeatedly said that she didn’t have it in her to watch.
“George had to suffer through something that no father, no person should have to suffer through,” said attorney Flint Taylor at the memorial. “He had to see that video. He’s the man… who learned what happened to Marcus Smith because the city lied; the city wouldn’t tell them what happened. This man, his health has suffered from it, his spirit has suffered from it, but he stood with us. He made it here, he made it everywhere every time, so we have a special place in our hearts for George along with Mary for having the strength.”
On Saturday, George Smith attended the event with an oxygen tank that beeped periodically as he sat in a fold-out chair.
“It wasn’t even about the cash,” George said at the event. “It was about finding out what happened to him. I thought he had had a heart attack, but when I saw the video, I was shocked. I had never seen him like that.”
Mary Smith, the matriarch of the Smith family, congratulated local journalist Ian McDowell, whose book, I Ain’t Resisting, chronicles the Marcus Smith case. Smith said that for her, having everything that happened to her son and her family documented, recalls to her Emmett Till.
“The book kind of reminds me of what Emmett Till’s mother said,” Smith said, paraphrasing. “I want to leave my son’s casket open to let people see what they have done to my child. I want this book to represent the same thing that Emmett Till’s mother felt. I want everybody to know what they did to my child.”
This wasn’t the first time Till’s name had been invoked that day.
In the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Greensboro an hour earlier, Dr. Deborah Barnes asked visitors what they imagined Eugene Hairston to look like.
“I want you to picture Eugene in your mind,” she says. “He died before he could leave a social, political or economic footprint so we will have to make his life up for him. Here’s the little we know: He was Black, 17 and allegedly physically disabled. What does he look like in your mind? Does he look like Emmett Till? Trayvon Martin? Or does he look like your son? Your nephew? Or your neighbor?”
Barnes takes the atrocious historical event of Hairston’s killing and humanizes the boy into existence. If alive today, he would have been a high school kid or one just getting ready for college.
Marcus Smith loved playing basketball and often cut hair for people at the IRC. He had plans to one day attend barber school. His sister said that she wasn’t even aware that Marcus was living at an unhoused day center, because whenever she would call to update him on her life, he had nothing but supportive words to say to her.
“He was just always my cheerleader,” McKenzie said. “But he was here, and he had his own people that he was cheering on.”
Now, Smith’s memory lives on in the plaque installed on a small hill next to the IRC’s parking lot.
But as poet Demetrius Noble recited during the Hairston memorial, no amount of commemoration, whether through soil or marble or metal plaque, is enough to right the wrongs of the past or fight the injustice of the future. Instead, he calls for lasting, transformative change.
“If we won’t remain silent, and if we’re serious when we yell, ‘No Justice, No Peace,’ then this dirt demands that we fundamentally change this land, and not just the topsoil,” Noble recites. “But deep down beyond the roots of the tree that Eugene Hairston hung from until we all are free.”
Correction (10/4/2023): An earlier version of this article stated inaccurate locations of the lynching tree and jail locations for the murder of Eugene Hairston. Those have been updated.
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