On Sept. 29, 1935, Elwood Higginbotham was pulled out of a county jail and murdered by a white mob as a jury deliberated his potential innocence verdict becoming the seventh and last known lynching victim in Oxford.
On Oct. 28, roughly 83 years later, Oxford took the first steps in recognizing its troubled past by erecting a plaque to honor one of the last victims of racially influenced mob “justice”. The plaque will be located at the “Three Way” intersection of Molly Barr Road and North Lamar Boulevard — the location where Higginbotham was killed.
The unveiling ceremony took place in a packed Second Baptist Church Saturday afternoon. Many of Elwood’s relatives were able to attend the event. Some traveling from the nearby Memphis area but a few coming from as far as Ohio or Texas.
“I am glad to know that they had the fortitude to want to try and bring closure on somethings that were still open down through the years,” Retired pastor of the late Higginbotham’s church Rev. William Woods said. “This is an opportunity to have people to look at both sides of the pictures, to know that it has happened and to know that the family can have total closure.”
The Equal Justice Initiative worked with the Winter Institute, the Higginbottom family and the Lafayette County community to develop a plan for the plaque and donated the funds to assure its completion.
“[The plaque] says there are people in Oxford who are willing to engage in a conversation,” Kiara Boone, Deputy Director For the EJI said. “It says there are people in Oxford who are willing to engage in a dialogue and I think that is a great starting point. That is a great foundation and its something that gives Oxford something to build upon. ”
Boone was joined by her fellow EJI Representative Evan Milligan, both of whom used their time to discuss some of the steps that still need to be taken to truly build a more inclusive United States.
“Why are we so comfortable having a system where so many people are thrown away,” Milligan asked. “Why are we so comfortable with a system with young people born into conditions of homelessness? We have a problem with that. In order to address that problem, we can’t only talk about laws and policies. We have to talk about our hearts and cultures and stories that we tell each other. The desire to have that conversation is why we began to work with this (Higginbotham) case.”
The line up for the event included a litany of speakers and performers beginning and ending with performances from the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir.
The other performers included local singer Effie Burt Rendition of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” and a performance from some of the late Higginbotham’s descendants.
Some of the other speakers included, Cynthia Parham, a current member of Higginbotham’s church, Louis Burroughs who recently learned of his relation to Elwood Higginbotham and Professor Diane Harriford of Vassar College in New York.
A common theme among the speakers was the idea of noting that this is just a stepping stone and that their was still work to do.
Louis Burrough has made it his life’s work learning about lynchings and other aspects of African American history and using his art to help people visualize them. During his time behind the podium he shared his experience of learning about his deceased relative and his disapproval of the original account and details of the story.
“I have no doubt that somebody wanted something Elwood Higginbotham had,” Burrough said before going on to list the inconsistencies in the original story.
Burroughs finished his time onstage asking for the confederate monument to be replaced with a statue to the brave blacks who were able to survive and thrive in Oxford.
“The visualization of our genes has to go along with the struggle,” Burrough said. “It can’t just be words and preaching and poetry. If you don’t see that information that looks like you, reminds you of you, then you are diminished.”
The EJI held an essay contest for local high school students that asked participants to compare a historical injustice to contemporary issues. The top four winners were recognized at the ceremony, and Jupiter O’Donnell—a junior from Oxford High School— read his aloud to the crowd.