Elizabeth Queener does not pull punches when recalling her childhood in segregated Maury County.
“That is no way to start out in the world, because it either turns you into a prejudiced idiot or a very confused child,” she says.
She may have been a confused child, but decades later the 82-year-old woman has achieved a sense of moral clarity.
A few years ago, a friend of Queener asked for help finding information about an ancestor, whom they discovered had fought in the Civil War with the U.S. Colored Troops. Ultimately, Queener and others identified dozens of Maury Countians who died as members of the Colored Troops, and the group made it a mission to add the soldiers’ names to the war memorial in front of the county courthouse.
That effort kicked off a flurry of historical justice work by Queener, who calls herself “a buck private in the rear guard” of an ongoing statewide effort to track down as much information as possible about the innumerable racial murders committed throughout the state’s bloody history. Though Queener has lived in Nashville for most of her adult life, she’s taken on the task of researching her home county’s forgotten lynchings, beatings and other race-based murders, compiling dossiers with dates, witnesses and information about surviving descendants.
The work brought her into contact with John Ashworth, a Brownsville man who has turned his retirement into a quest for historical justice. He has done extensive work in Haywood and Shelby counties, and he’s the executive director of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis. Ashworth is also a board member of Tennesseans for Historical Justice, created last year by the state legislature to investigate civil rights crimes from Tennessee’s history and educate the public about them. In addition to the efforts in Shelby and Maury counties, similar projects are underway in Nashville, Chattanooga, Jackson and elsewhere across the state.
“We have a long ways to go, to be sure, but I think there is a groundswell of pent-up emotion that wants to deal with this, in both the black and white community,” Ashworth says.
As part of his research, Ashworth interviewed a Tennessee woman who witnessed her father’s lynching. The woman is still living, reminding Ashworth that this history is far from ancient. Tracking down descendants of racial violence victims has led to an unexpected consequence: the reunion of families ripped apart by the violence Ashworth is uncovering.
“When these lynchings occurred, obviously families fled in all directions in terror,” Ashworth says. “When you see relatives united that never knew the other relatives existed, but both of them know that something very horrible happened in their families, it’s a very cathartic moment.”
Both Ashworth and Queener believe uninhibited racism has become more common since Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016, and it’s part of the inspiration for their work.
“The atmosphere right now gives racist people a feeling of protection, a feeling that they can come out and get in your face, and I think that is very intimidating and very wrong,” Queener says. “We really have to know our history to see what can happen. We have to be very careful now.”
“I’m doing what I can,” she adds. “I can’t do much.”