Featured photo: Seven UNCG students created museum concepts that are now on display at the International Civil Rights Museum in downtown Greensboro. The inciting prompt for the designs was Greensboro’s only recorded lynching victim, Eugene Hairston. (photo by Will Harris)

Visitors walk through the darkened space, weaving in and out of the rows of statues. Some are brown, others are Black, a few are white. But each Black statue has a piece of its body missing — a lost calf, an omitted arm. And that’s because the statues depict a sample of the more than 100 people who were lynched in North Carolina between 1877 and 1950. And while not all of the victims of racial terror were Black, the ones who were often had body parts torn away from them as prizes after their murders.

In the center of the room, visitors make their way down a small hallway lined with mirrors only to find themselves at a dead end, at which protruding white hands point at them as sounds of a mob play in the background. It’s uncomfortable; it’s uneasy. But that’s the way Sahd Bayor, an interior architecture student at UNCG, envisioned his museum.

Bayor is one of seven students who created museum concepts that are now on display at the International Civil Rights Museum in downtown Greensboro. The inciting prompt for the designs was Greensboro’s only recorded lynching victim, Eugene Hairston.

According to a poster on display as part of the exhibit, Hairston was a 17-year-old boy who was lynched in 1887 in Greensboro after being accused of assaulting a white woman in Colfax. Hairston maintained his innocence but was arrested and brought to a jail in Greensboro where a mob eventually kidnapped him, hung him and shot at his corpse. 

Bringing Hairston’s story to light has been an ongoing effort by the Guilford County Community Remembrance Project, which has been working with the Equal Justice Initiative to spread awareness about Hairston’s story. The Equal Justice Initiative, which was founded and is run by lawyer Bryan Stevenson of Just Mercy fame, is based in Montgomery, Ala. The organization opened the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice to commemorate victims of lynchings in the US in 2018. Eugene Hairston is one of the monuments that hangs in the memorial.

The memorial for Eugene Hairston hangs in the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. (filed photo)

This new exhibit in Greensboro, featuring the college students’ works, is a continuation of the remembrance project’s overarching goal.

“The ultimate goal is to have all of these discussions in the community about racial terror and justice and that sort of thing,” says Dr. Deborah Barnes. “Focusing specifically on the monument is like going to graduate school to get the cap and gown. That’s part of it and that’s how you accomplish the thing, but the point is to bring people together into these difficult kinds of conversations so that people can understand what is really at risk.”

Barnes, a research fellow at the International Civil Rights Museum and an adjunct African-American Diaspora studies professor at UNCG, partnered with Dr. Asha Kutty, an interior architecture professor and Dr. Noelle Morrisette, the chair of the African-American Diaspora studies program at UNCG, to put this project together. The goal was simple: To bring students from different disciplines together and have them imagine a physical space that could tell Hairston’s story.

“African-American studies is by definition an interdisciplinary discipline,” Barnes says. “It’s not like African-American history or African-American literature. It’s all of those things and how they work together to critique and reify, like life.”

In several of the students’ works, a large tree makes an appearance in the landscape. Others invite visitors to envision the kind of person Eugene Hairston was, as well as the life he could have lived had it not been cut short.

In her project, Ruth Hullette, whose work is titled, “Guilford County’s Child,” places Hairston’s mother on a front porch where she talks to visitors about her son.

“This is the attempt to bring back Eugene’s humanity,” Hullette says in her video describing her project. “A lot of times we can focus so much on violence that we forget that the victim is human. Eugene Hairston had a favorite color, he had funny little sayings he would say, he had food that he didn’t like, he had memories where he had fallen and scraped his knee. All these things that made him human and we can so easily forget about.”

Will Harris, the principal scholar at the museum, said that staff had been asked by visitors where the museums the students designed were located in real life.

“They think these things actually exist,” Harris says. “They didn’t realize that we were speculating images. But the thing about younger people is that they understand that one of the crucial ways of communicating is essentially to create images of what it would look like if it were real…. So the fact that you can visually walk into these spaces is a big step toward communicating to our public what it would be like to be in a larger world where these sorts of things were taken seriously.”

And that’s the power of this exhibit, Barnes argues. Even though these spaces don’t exist yet, the mere creation of these ideas by the students can act as a ripple effect throughout the larger community.

“We know that the ways we have been addressing it don’t work; We’ve still got the same problems we had 100 years ago,” Barnes says. “So let’s ask another generation what they think. Who aren’t already consumed by the things that stop us and make us think, We can’t get it right, or We can’t change anything. The wonderful thing about being young is you don’t know you can’t do something.”

The exhibit of student works commemorating Eugene Hairston will be on display at the International Civil Rights Museum for a few more months. Learn more at sitinmovement.org.

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