A Community Remembrance Project Reckons with the Past: A Nineteenth-Century Lynching in Ohio

Jordan Zdinak

When I first joined Ohio University’s History Department as a graduate student, I knew I wanted to specialize in gender and race relations in the United States to have the ability to teach students and the public about systemic racism and sexism for the purpose of improving society. Upon my arrival in Athens, Ohio, my advisor, Dr. Katherine Jellison, introduced me to a local coalition that was interested in learning more about a lynching that occurred near where Ohio University’s Baker University Center stands today. Becoming a member of this coalition integrated my political activism with research and gave me the chance to assist on this issue of bringing forward the past and present issues of racial violence.

Picture of a road marker commemorating the lynching of Christopher Davis.

Picture of the marker taken in July 2020. Courtesy of the author.

The members of this coalition included other academics, local teachers, genealogists, and members of the Southeast Ohio History Center, who informed me that the lynching of Christopher Davis in 1881 was not common knowledge to most students and faculty at Ohio University—or even people who have lived in Athens their entire lives. We knew that we needed to spread awareness about this case of racial violence to inform the public how widespread racist views were outside the South and in an area thought to have good race relations. Our coalition became “The Christopher Davis Community Remembrance Project,” and we reached out to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to see if they were interested in collaborating with us to erect a marker that commemorated Davis.[1] The EJI agreed to help us by funding the creation of a marker, which is now placed near the lynching site outside the John Calhoun Baker Center. As this location is on Ohio University’s property, we needed the university’s consent to erect the marker, and they were more than willing. However, our coalition first needed to complete more research in order to decide what to write on the plaque.

Portrait of Christopher Davis.

Portrait of Christopher Davis printed in the Ross County Register. 24 November 1881.

I took on the role of diving into research to find out more about Christopher Davis’s life and his murder. Christopher Davis was a 24-year-old, mixed-race American. He worked as a laborer and had a wife named Kenziah, and two children, a three-year-old girl named Robertie and an infant son named Silas. In 1881, a white woman named Lucinda Luckey accused Davis of assault, which was an all-too-common accusation made during the lynching era (approx. 1870–1950). Despite numerous local newspaper articles attesting to his character and the inaccuracies of Luckey’s accusations, Davis was arrested. Members of Luckey’s family convinced 30–50 other community members that justice would be best served by a lynching. This desire to harm Davis became so widespread that sheriff Tim Warden moved him to Chillicothe, Ohio, for safekeeping. When it came time for Davis to attend his trial, Sheriff Warden returned him to Athens. Davis never made it to his trial. On November 21, 1881, the mob, led by Luckey’s family, broke into his jail cell, dragged him to the South Bridge, and tied a noose around his neck. Davis, “after muttering some words to his Maker, he was cast off the bridge, and was in seconds in eternity. The body was watched until life was extinct.” Despite the outcry against the extralegal killing, law enforcement never investigated anyone involved in the mob.[2]

Reverse side of the Christopher Davis road marker.

Picture of the marker taken in July 2020. Courtesy of the author.

One side of the marker recounts this story while the other side, titled “Lynching in America,” examines the United States’ history of racial violence and how the torture and murder of Black Americans was used to maintain white supremacy. Located in a prominent public place in between Ohio University’s Student Union and a bus station, the marker will inform those who engage with it and, I hope, spark conversations about remaining injustices in today’s society.

The perception that Black Americans are a danger to society has been perpetuated as a stereotype since slavery. Society took the white person’s word over the non-guilty plea of a Black American accused of a crime. When a white woman made an accusation of assault against a Black man, the white men in the community would use a false concept of chivalry as an excuse to lynch any Black man that was deemed a “threat” to the purity of white women. There tended to be an automatic assumption that the accused Black man was guilty of the crime. The lynching era promulgated the stereotype and association of Blackness with criminality. The marker projects that EJI funds not only commemorate lynching victims across the United States, but they also acknowledge the beginnings of these stereotypes that originated with slavery, expanded during the lynching era, and remain the perception many white people still hold today due to the media’s continued negative portrayal of many Black Americans accused of crimes.[3] These markers tell about the past, but are also the culmination of present-day political activism and are concrete reminders that “lynching” is not just rope and a tree but the criminalization of Blackness through forms of systemic police violence and mass incarceration. Law enforcement and the judicial system still often fail to acknowledge—let alone fix—the systemic reasons that Black Americans find themselves experiencing police brutality and mass incarceration at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.

It is important to inform members of society about historic injustices in order to expose these false narratives that still influence the biases people hold. We need to reconcile with the past if we are ever going to make positive changes in society today. The marker projects promoted by EJI are a form of public history that will help inform, promote change, and help correct prejudices that continue to harm Black Americans today.


Endnotes

[1] The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Alabama, that seeks to spread information about mass incarceration, police brutality, and other racial issues we see in the United States today. A major part of reconciling with these societal problems is the need to acknowledge America’s history of racial violence. Besides the Christopher Davis marker, there have been 67 other historical marker projects across the U.S. that EJI helped erect.

[2] State of Ohio Census, Inhabitants in Lee Township, in the County of Athens, Page No. 1, Supervisors Dist. No. 7, Enumeration Dist. No. 9, June 1880; “Mrs. Luckey’s Statement,” Meigs County Republican (Middleport, OH), Dec. 28, 1881; “Lynching at Athens,” Jackson Standard (OH), Dec. 1, 1881; “Mob Law Rules in Athens. The Negro Davis Receives the Dread Sentence, Death!: And is Cast Off Into Eternity by an Armed Mob,” Athens Journal (OH), Nov. 24, 1881.

[3] Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases” in Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900, ed. Jacqueline Jones Royster (Boston, 1997), 55–62.

1 March 2024

About the Author

Jordan Zdinak is a PhD candidate in Ohio University’s History Department specializing in the history of gender and race relations in the United States with an emphasis on historical memory.

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  • Rachel says:

    A great idea to bring attention to the historic and still ongoing injustice in this country – hoping the plaque will achieve its goals in informing the student body and other visitor’s to the campus! A somber but important achievement for the coalition and author.

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