by Melanie Taylor
In August 2017, a small group of community members gathered outside the Madison County Courthouse to host a candlelight vigil for a woman few have heard of. This black woman worked as a cook for a local white family and was accused of poisoning and murdering her employer’s wife. She was arrested and jailed but on August 18, 1886, a mob rushed the courthouse, dragged her from her cell, assaulted and ruthlessly murdered her on that same courthouse lawn.
This woman’s name was Eliza Woods, and she was lynched 133 years ago in Jackson, TN. Two years later, Woods’ accuser, J.P. Woolen, would confess to murdering his wife.
The Equal Justice Initiative, an organization dedicated to achieving racial justice in America, describes lynching as, “…violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and public officials. After the Civil War, our nation was marked by strategic, racialized terrorism as a response to emancipation. Lynching was intended to terrorize black people and other minorities into accepting the status quo of white supremacy. Black lives and livelihood could be taken with impunity, and based solely on accusation.
“The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them.”
-ida b. wells
Eliza Woods’ story helped catalyze the famed anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells. Wells is famously quoted as saying, “The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them.” She traveled from Memphis to Jackson to bear witness to what can happen when fear and terror are given ultimate authority in a community. Wells wrote in response to Eliza Woods’ lynching, saying, “Oh, my God! Can such things be and no justice for it!” Being black and a woman, she was particularly vulnerable to violence as she spoke out against the horrors of lynching. But her Christian conscience would not allow her to remain silent.
We set aside the Sunday before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day each year at City Fellowship to remember the church’s call to bear prophetic witness to the coming kingdom of God; we call this, “Freedomland” Sunday. While past years’ Freedomland Sunday services focused on a particular person from the Civil Rights Movement era (1955-1968), this year’s service will focus on this particular event following Reconstruction (1863-1877).
The lynching of Eliza Woods is noteworthy because it unified our community; men and women, black and white alike came together for the atrocity. Stories like Eliza Woods’, and acts of racialized terrorism that plague our world today, can flood our hearts with despair. But Freedomland is where the righteous Judge reigns. It’s where, “...nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken…” (Micah 4:3-4).
This already-but-not-yet kingdom is coming. Building a multiethnic family of faith on mission with King Jesus now means speaking and living as if it were already here.
This Freedomland Sunday, we want to follow the example of Ida B. Wells as a hero of the Christian faith. We want to shine the light of truth on an unspeakable wrong. We’ll remember Eliza Woods during the Sunday service on January 20th through special songs and readings, culminating in a prayer walk to the Madison County Courthouse. We’ll take communion together in the place where a woman was lynched. If our community could go out of its way to commit such a heinous act of terrorism, then we can go out of our way as a church family to remember it. We’ll declare with our voices and our actions,