The Past Is Never Past

Whether we like it or not, we are in a constant conversation with the past. As a country, we long to be free of the ugliest parts of our history, and yet, the past seems to haunt us like an unruly ghost.

I thought of this on Saturday when I went to the unveiling of a historical marker memorializing the lynching of Fred Rouse in downtown Fort Worth 100 years ago. Mr. Rouse worked as a butcher for Swift & Co. in what is now known as the Fort Worth Stockyards. During a time when labor unions often barred Black workers from membership or used their power to exclude Blacks from employment, Mr. Rouse was a non-union worker who continued to work when white union workers went on strike. (This 1913 Atlantic article by Booker T. Washington provides an interesting look into how white unions treated Black workers at the time).

Photograph of a mock-up of the historical marker that will mark the place from whence Fred Rouse, a Black butcher, was abducted before his eventual murder in December 1921.
A mock-up of the historical marker that will mark the place from whence Fred Rouse was abducted before his eventual murder.

In response to Mr. Rouse’s refusal, a mob of white union workers threatened him and told him to abandon his post. When Mr. Rouse, a father of three, went to work anyway, the mob stabbed and beat him nearly to death, and a different mob of white men abducted him from the hospital and lynched him. Though three white men were charged, including the police chief and a police officer, no one was ever brought to justice for Mr. Rouse’s murder.

I couldn’t help but think of my great-uncle, Porter Turner, a Black father and taxi driver who was stabbed and left for dead in Dekalb County, Georgia 76 years ago. A member of the KKK would later boast of committing the murder, but no one was ever charged.

The wounds of this murder run deep for his grandson Fred Rouse III, who spoke at the ceremony. He said that when we imagine our grandparents in eternal repose, we like to think of them at peace, having died from some natural cause. But what if your grandfather died from an unnatural and inhumane cause? What if a mob of white men stabbed your grandfather and beat him until his skull was fractured and his body bloody? What if your grandfather was healing in the hospital, and then the mob burst through the hospital doors and abducted him—still in his hospital gown—before shooting him? What if they drove him across town and then hung his lifeless body from a hackberry tree? These are the memories that Fred Rouse’s descendants have of their grandfather’s terrifying final hours.

I found myself getting choked up throughout the service. I couldn’t help but think of my great-uncle, Porter Turner, a Black father and taxi driver who was stabbed and left for dead in Dekalb County, Georgia 76 years ago. A member of the KKK would later boast of committing the murder, but no one was ever charged.

As I listened to Fred Rouse III speak, I thought of the terror my uncle must have felt in his final hours. I thought of how his family members and descendants felt that terror second-hand, understanding what could happen if you got crossways with the wrong white person. I thought of how they did their best to survive this racial terrorism, and how they tried to protect their children from its reality.

I am not unique; many others in this country live with the specter of racial terrorism. The NAACP documents 4,743 lynchings in the U.S. from 1882 to 1968; because most jurisdictions have not kept formal records about lynchings, the actual number is likely much higher. Seventy-two percent of documented lynching victims were Black, with the remaining including immigrants from places like Mexico and China, as well as white people who fought for Black causes. These numbers don’t include victims of sanctioned state violence, victims of forced sterilization, or victims of Native American boardnig schools.

When considering all these figures—all these souls—many of us who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color are descended from people directly touched by racial terrorism. As I’ve written before, the racial violence we think of as being distant is near to those of us who still feel its effects; the blood of these victims still cries out.

On Saturday, many people spoke of the Fred Rouse historical marker as an important step of racial healing for our city. They are right that healing must start with acknowledgment, and that acknowledgement must start with education. (I didn’t know about Mr. Rouse’s death until some concerned citizens and arts groups joined his descendants in memorializing his life). They are right, also, that it is healing to have a city finally acknowledge the truth of Mr. Rouse’s death, as well as the value of his life.

But healing is a long process. In the meantime, the wound still festers. I know this because many of us held our breath during the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers and had a bittersweet feeling of relief at their conviction. Sweet, because a wrong had been acknowledged, and bitter because our country has a long history of acquitting perpetrators of lynching. This history is so long, that had Mr. Arberry’s murderers been acquitted I, like many Black people, I expect, would have been enraged, but not surprised.

That’s because, as William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As a white child of the South with complicated racial views, Faulkner would know.

As a Black child of the South, I certainly know. Indeed, the ghosts of the past still haunt us as a country. I could see the ghosts of the Confederacy and Reconstruction and desegregation as I looked in horror at a white mob storm the U.S. Capitol nearly a year ago. I could hear the ghosts howl when a political party and its publicity engines did their best to pretend the attempted coup wasn’t an insurrection, was some sort of patriotic necessity, or was the work of progressives in disguise. I could feel the ghosts turn my blood cold as I closed my eyes and wondered: if a white mob can storm the Capitol and emerge largely unscathed, what is to stop a white mob from storming through my neighborhood or any neighborhood?

Pretending these ghosts don’t exist doesn’t make them go away. On the contrary, it only makes them stronger.

4 responses to “The Past Is Never Past”

  1. Thank you for this Irie. I feel very sad that I did not get to share any part of this with 5 th graders over the years. Perhaps if we could have begun to tell this story to those 500 or so fifth graders a few years ago perhaps we would be little further down the road to understanding in some areas. Thank you for this.

    1. The good thing is we can start now!

  2. I’m so sorry for what your great-uncle went through, Irie. I can’t imagine what that did to your family, or what Fred Rouse’s lynching did to his family.

    The hatred is still there, and is frightening. I draw hope and courage from God, from small victories, and from friends.

    1. Thank you, Beth. I think the memory was so painful that my family didn’t talk about it. I learned about his death as an adult.

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