Historic marker commemorating lynched Alabama man sparks controversy along racial lines

The fate of a historical marker commemorating a black man lynched in Mobile, Alabama hangs in the balance as a controversy over whether it should even go up sparks an uproar.

Mobile is in the process of acknowledging its racist past, and its latest project, installing a historical marker to commemorate Richard Robertson, a black man lynched in 1909, has become as controversial an issue as the lynching itself.

“There were six lynchings in Mobile County during the racial terror era, now we know there were many, many more,” said Karlos Finley, a member of the Mobile County Community Remembrance Project, citing numerous undocumented lynchings that took place in the took place in the early 1900s.

The Mobile County Community Remembrance Project is spearheading the installation of historical markers over Robertson. On January 23, 1909, Robertson, who was working as a carpenter, was accused of an assault by two white plumbers. When deputies arrived to arrest Robertson, he fled, which resulted in a shootout.

“Mr. Robertson is alleged to have shot, killed and injured deputies from the Mobile County Sheriff’s Department whom he arrested for being shot himself,” Finley said.

Robertson was sent to prison, but as with many lynchings at the time, an angry white mob decided to take the law into their own hands.

“He was taken from prison about a block and a half from prison by a white lynch mob, lynched by both hanging and shooting,” Finley said.

It’s still unclear if Robertson actually killed the MP since he didn’t live to see a trial, but the larger point was to strike fear in the hearts of African Americans. “Lynching was not only a crime against the individual, it was also used as a factor of intimidation,” Finley said.

113 years later, the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, is working with communities across the country to commemorate documented victims of racial violence. Robertson was next on her list to be officially recognized in Mobile, which according to census data has a population of about 413,000 people, of which 36 percent is black.

Finley says the Remembrance Project originally planned to place the historic marker of Robertson’s lynching in downtown Mobile in a spot formerly occupied by a Confederate statue of Raphael Semmes.

“The mayor decided it was a contentious location because the statue of Admiral Semmes used to be there and it was removed, so we resumed negotiations and negotiated a different location,” Finley said.

Semmes was an admiral in the Civil War, and his statue once stood in downtown Mobile as a symbol of the Confederacy. During the summer 2020 race census, when many Confederate statues were torn down, Semmes was also removed and placed in a local museum, according to the WPMI.

The Remembrance Project returned to the city to negotiate a new site for the Robertson historical marker and chose the downtown courthouse because that was where the old courthouse was located, which was also close to the site where Robertson was lynched. The organization says it initially had the support of Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson for the new location.

“The lynching of Richard Robertson who was dragged from the jail which was actually inside the courthouse, we wanted to place this marker outside the Mobile County courthouse. We went through the process again, we got approved, and two days before the reveal, the other two county commissioners decided they wouldn’t support it,” Finley said.

When two of Mobile County’s three commissioners objected to placing the marker in the courthouse, controversy erupted and brought to light racial tensions. Opposing commissioners are Randall Dueitt and Connie Hudson, both white. The commissioners sent letters to Mayor Stimpson declaring their opposition.

Hudson’s opposition depends on the location of the marker, saying in her letter: “The main entrance to Government Plaza is a very busy pedestrian entrance and exit and presents an inappropriate location for any type of vertical structure on the way into the building. Hudson then asked the city to revoke the permit for the marker.

Commissioner Dueitt’s letter of objection stated: “Numerous and documented reports that Mr. Robertson shot and killed a Mobile County Deputy Sheriff and injured another Deputy Sheriff. It is my firm belief that regardless of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Robertson’s death, no one should be honored for taking the life of a law enforcement officer.” He continued, “I condone the circumstances of the death Robertson does not, but with my previous employment as a Chartered Law Enforcement Officer, I cannot support the placement of this Robertson manufacturer anywhere.”

“I don’t think any of those reasons should interfere with the meaning of the marker,” said Robert Clopton, president of the NAACP’s mobile chapter.

Clopton does not buy the opposing commissioners’ excuses for not supporting the marker’s placement at the site of the old courthouse. He believes the marker should rise as planned because too often history is whitewashed, especially African American history.

“From where we are we just want the truth to be told, that’s what we want the truth to be told, we’ve seen so many times where critical racing history has tried to eliminate history,” Clopton said .

Both Dueitt and Hudson said the only black commissioner on the board, Merceria Ludgood, who is also a member of the Equal Justice Initiative, told them about the proposed marker a few months ago, at the time they were also opposed to it.

Atlanta Black Star reached out to Ludgood for comment, but she declined our interview request.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson sent a statement to Atlanta Black Star on the matter.

“I fully support efforts to recognize the victims of extrajudicial killings that have occurred during some of the darkest times in our community’s history. There have been recent discussions about a suitable place to put a marker acknowledging the lynching of Richard Robertson in 1909, but in the meantime I didn’t want the city of Mobile to be an obstacle to the marker’s display. Two weeks ago, city officials installed the marker along Church Street at the closest and most appropriate location to the spot where the lynching took place 113 years ago. For now, marking is well maintained at this historic site near Mardi Gras Park. However, I remain open to moving the marker to another appropriate location in the future if that is the wish of EJI and the Mobile County Remembrance Project.”

Until a permanent home is established for the marker, a City of Mobile spokesman confirmed the marker is currently located “in the publicly accessible area closest to where Mr. Robertson was killed in 1909. It is near the corner of Church Street and Royal Street and the entrance to Mardi Gras Park.”

Clopton also wants this controversy resolved so that future generations in the mobile community can learn from past wrongdoings.

“I think at some point in the generations to come someone will preferentially look up and realize that a mistake was made, a man lost his life, he lost it to a mob who can be law, judge, jury and executioner and we were again will not tolerate such things in the future,” Clopton said.

https://atlantablackstar.com/2022/08/10/we-just-want-the-truth-to-be-told-historic-marker-remembering-lynched-alabama-man-sparks-controversy-along-racial-lines/ Historic marker commemorating lynched Alabama man sparks controversy along racial lines

James Brien

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