“Jim Waller was laying face down, and I went over to him and turned him over and the air came out of him…. It was his last breath. It was an exhale and I knew then that this could not have happened without police complicity.”
Rev. Nelson Johnson remembers the moment like it was yesterday.
He had just finished fighting off a Nazi who had attacked him with a knife, cutting into his arms, leaving trails of blood. He stumbled across the road where lifeless bodies lay on the pavement until he found Jim Waller, one of the five victims of what would become known as the Greensboro Massacre, and watched as his friend died.
The black-and-white image of Johnson kneeling next to Waller, widely circulated, is one of the most well-known images from the event from 40 years ago. But in the front room of the Beloved Community Center, a diptych brings the scene to color.
“I was so determined to show their experiences as accurately as possible,” says artist Aliene de Souza Howell. “I wanted to honor them and tell their story.”
The 10 pieces in Howell’s Greensboro Massacre series sit propped up on fold-out tables at the Beloved Community Center. They portray various scenes from the killings as well as images and portraits of the KKK and Nazi members who murdered the victims four decades ago on Nov. 3, 1979. Howell, who now lives in New York City, was working on her thesis at Guilford College in 2003 when she first learned about the tragic events.
“The more I learned, the more shocked I was that it had happened and that I had never heard about it,” she says.
At the time, the push to provide more clarity and visibility around the events was stirring. Eventually, a truth and reconciliation commission was established to demand justice for the victims and to bring light and closure to what had happened. It was around the same time that Howell decided to take on the task of documenting the event through art.
She tracked down old newspaper articles and read books written by survivors to get firsthand accounts of the killings. She spoke with Johnson, who helped organize and survived the massacre and is depicted in a number of Howell’s paintings.
The largest in the series depicts Johnson as he’s being dragged off by members of the Greensboro Police Department right after the shootings.
“Instinctively then, it just flashed in me that these people had totally set us up,” recalls Johnson about the moment. “I stood up and said out of all of the energy in my body that the police were part of this… and that they are responsible for these murders.”
Johnson recalls that when he went to get a permit for the march about a week before the event, that police Capt. LS Gibson had told Johnson that he would only be able to get the permit if he signed and promised that any members associated with the march would not carry any weapons, concealed or in plain view. And in the moments after KKK and Nazi members drove up and killed his friends, Johnson said he realized that the police had known a shootout was going to happen.
In the painting, Johnson struggles as three police officers grab his arms and legs, lifting his body off the ground. He grabs onto a limp chain rail, the only thing keeping him anchored to the earth.
Howell says that recreating the image took some creativity on her part. Using video footage from news crews and a full-length mirror, the artist recalls contorting her body to look like Johnson’s so she could accurately depict the way his body was twisting as he was lifted.
She says she worked on the pieces for hours every night for about a year.
“I saw a lot of sunrises that year,” she says. “When I finished them, I didn’t know what to do with them; I was in shock.”
And while she didn’t live through the events, Howell says that researching the massacre and being embedded in the victims and survivors’ stories took a mental toll on her.
“They are such emotional pieces,” she says. “I would stay up at night and then I would have all these nightmares about the Klan coming after me.”
Now, Johnson says that the Beloved Community Center is working with the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro to plan an exhibit to display the works.
“It’s part of a long process of helping this community and any other people who are interested better understand what happened,” Johnson says. “I think it’s helpful for people to see some depiction of what actually happened on that day and the wounds after that.”