The signs went up the same day as the inauguration. A royal blue background with an American flag heart and the words ‘Hate Has No Home Here’ in multiple languages. As winter slowly faded, I wondered if the signs would also fade, lost to either weather or people’s short attention spans. But through spring and summer, lawns, windows, and storefronts all continued proudly display them.
Less than 24 hours after the events of Charlottesville, people are gathered in the brick-lined walkway downtown, ready to march. They have brought their signs and piles of poster board and markers are provided for the rest of us to make our own. The police officer stopping traffic smiles warmly as he escorts two hundred marchers across the street to the lawn of the Quaker Meeting House for singing and hugs. Looking around, it is easy to believe that hate truly does have no home here.
I do not live in a big town. Some people may call it ‘one of those small towns’. You could only call it a city if you were feeling particularly generous. Even as the Mason-Dixon Line is not far from our Pennsylvania address, we are not a community with Civil War statues. A mural documenting our history as a stop on the Underground Railroad proudly adorns a downtown building. Every year we close down the street to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with our immigrant neighbors. A rally against hate does not feel foreign to us; in an ideal world, we live that motto every day.
This is not to say that we do not have our own issues. Since January, deportations have increased. School Board Meetings include arguments about ICE protocol. Almost 10% of our population lives below the poverty line. Yet, I can’t help but feel relieved. At least we are not them. We have our problems, but they are not emblazoned in stone or metal; a point for all the world to see. A privileged position from which to offer judgment, but feel no fear of receiving that judgment in return.
Exactly one week later I am standing on the ground floor of the Brooklyn Museum, staring at a map on a lit TV screen. The exhibit is titled The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America. The woman in front of me hits the ‘back’ button to revert to the larger map of the country and shades of red indicate the frequency of lynchings between 1877-1950. My eyes are completely focused on the almost wall of red that is the Southern states. Again, I am aware of how relieved I feel not to live in one of those places where the ground was perpetually soaked with blood. I am from a much safer place, both then and now. A place where slaves came for freedom and a place that offers me some freedom from the dark history of our country.
Finally, I tear my eyes away and investigate the North when I hear the woman next to me make a comment about New Jersey. Pennsylvania immediately grabs my attention because of the two red stains occupying territory on the Eastern side of the state. Leaning forward, I study a shape that I know too well. The shape that I know is familiar, but I don’t believe it until the words come up next to the name of my county: 1 reported lynching.
While I had never heard the name Zachariah Walker, a quick search fills in the gaps. A map on one of the websites shows a PA historical marker somewhere on the edge of a neighboring town. Once I find out about the marker, I become almost obsessed with seeing it. My obsession is tinged with guilt. How can I consider myself sensitive to these issues, if I don’t know the history in my own backyard? Maybe I would feel less guilty if the marker didn’t exist. The town trying to cover up a shameful past would take the responsibility off of me. If they refuse to acknowledge it, there would be no way for me to know.
Less than two weeks after Charlottesville, I am driving down a windy back road, wondering if I will make it to the marker before the sun sets. The soft hue of the sky tells me that it will be close. When I imagined the marker, I saw it on the edge of a field guarding a space large enough to hold a crowd that burned his body alive. But time does not stop, no matter how horrific the event. Instead of a field, the marker stands at the end of a driveway that seems to lead to a power plant; around a corner so sharp that I nearly missed it altogether. The gate is closed and locked, with just enough room for my car to edge off the road. I want to believe it is intentional. That someone estimated where to put the gate to ensure that people could stop and pay their respects. But I know it isn’t.
All PA historical markers look the same, but it is still jarring the see the word ‘lynching’ written in the same yellow font against the royal blue background. The same aesthetic as signs celebrating the bravery of the Revolutionary War or notable citizens, as if history is simply a collection of different events shaded in the same colors. I knew it would look like this. I knew that I would be joined by a sunset sky and the first twinkling streetlights. But, there, with power lines overhead and the occasional car passing by, were the words that I never believed would describe my home. The words that would no longer allow me to feel like I live in a safe haven without the weight of the country’s shadowy past: ‘The Lynching of Zachariah Walker’.
Hate had a home here.