How Today’s Youth Call Us to Heal from Historical Racism

By Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt & Howard Stevenson

When young people speak, we all should listen.

On June 23, 2019, a historical marker will be dedicated in Prices Corner, DE to memorialize the lynching of George White in 1903. This long-overdue dedication, sponsored by the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus, Delaware Public Archives, Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition, and Equal Justice Initiative, was sparked by the passion and actions of a young person.

Savannah Shepherd, a junior at Sanford High School in Hockessin, DE, attended the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL in April 2018. The Equal Justice Initiative spent many years researching lynching victims across the United States, then erecting the memorial to create a space to honor lynching victims and their survivors, and to tell the truth about America’s legacy of genocide, slavery, lynching, and racial segregation. The organization’s hope was that memorializing this history would start a meaningful dialogue, build understanding, and spark new vision that would all facilitate healing from our nation’s wounds.

Savannah was deeply moved by her experience and sought to learn more about the history of lynching in her home state. Savannah made a tragic and powerful discovery – a lynching that happened in 1903 in Odessa, DE.

“When walking through the Legacy Museum, we came upon the interactive map and clicked on the state of Delaware. That is when I first learned of the lynching of George White. My personal research process started immediately following my trip to Alabama. I began by looking up George White and reading up on the history of racial tensions in Delaware and then digging deeper into the specific locations and places where Mr. White was held.” ~ Savannah Shepherd

Savannah, at only 15 years old, founded the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition. As its first action, Savannah advocated to have her state acknowledge the historical dehumanization of lynching within its borders through placement of a memorializing marker at the site. Savannah had to complete the application process with Delaware Public Archives and provide sufficient evidence of the lynching and describe its impact on the course of history and cultural development in Delaware. Upon approval by Delaware Public Archives and the State Legislature, the General Assembly then supported placement of the historical marker. Senator Darius Brown funded the marker using his community transportation funds.

Across the United States, young people like Savannah are leading the charge to speak out against injustice and disrupt the dehumanization in their communities that normalizes treating people as less than human simply because of the color of their skin. Young people are demanding change to give everyone the opportunity to be their best selves and live their healthiest lives.

Naomi Wadler, at just 11 years old, stood before America and gave a rousing call to action at March for Our Lives that has helped to fuel gun reform.

Marley Dias, at age 10, spoke out against lack of representation in publishing. Her desire to see herself as a Black girl portrayed as the protagonist in more literary works pushed her to create the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign.

Grace Dolan-Sandrino, as an 8th grader, took a stand as a trans young person to live her truth. Now a high school student, Grace is a national advocate for trans youth of color. Under the Obama administration, she served as Ambassador to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, and helped create that administration’s federal guidance for protecting trans students from discrimination.

Each of these activists seeks to bring transformation so desperately needed for their communities – and they’re succeeding. They’re honoring the past, advancing a positive narrative about people of color, challenging oppressive systems, and creating safe and loving spaces for young people of color to heal, grow, and thrive.

Some will say that Savannah’s work to get the marker erected is symbolic and won’t lead to significant contemporary change in Delaware. Say that to the descendants of George White who now have a piece of their family history restored and honored, or to the families living in the Prices Corner community who will learn the history of the ground they walk upon each day, or to Savannah – for whom seeing the markers in Montgomery, AL honoring over 4,400 Black people who had been lynched ignited a flame in her to learn and do more.

Savannah shares

“I plan on partnering with the Delaware Historical Society to uncover the stories of others like George White and document other lynchings and acts of racial terror that happened in the state. I also want to continue to speak to different student groups to explain the process that I have gone through and hopefully motivate and inspire them to fight.”

Because young people see the world from different angles, lenses, and passions, they bring truths that we as a society are often blind to or afraid to face. They not only bear the burden of our decisions, but they are too often the most vulnerable victims. When they speak, they call all of us to wake up, to see, and then to act.

These historical moments are catalytic for us as a nation to understand our past and learn to plan together in the present. The conversations sparked by acknowledging the dark past of lynching and genocide are not just a re-hashing of tragedy. They are opportunities for teaching the next generation how to make things right, to create a brighter tomorrow, and most of all, to heal.