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Lest We Forget

From the New York Times, January 2020 by Dan Barry

“She endured the horrors of the African American experience - lynchings, riots, and the Klu Klux Klan - and worked to ensure that they never slipped from collective memory.”

Mamie Lang Kirkland died last month at her home in upstate New York. She was the mother of nine, the matriarch of another 158, a longtime saleswoman for Avon Products, and, at the time of her death, at 111, the oldest resident of Buffalo. That only begins to describe Ms. Kirkland.

She was also the embodiment of the African-American experience of the 20th century, her life’s long journey altered repeatedly by the racial violence and bigotry coursing through the United States. Lynchings, riots, the Ku Klux Klan — she survived it all, and spent her centenarian years working to ensure that these realities never slipped from collective memory.

Her life helped inspire the creation, in 2018, of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Ala. Both document the country’s history of racial terrorism and encourage social justice.

Ms. Kirkland figures in two of the exhibits, said Sia Sanneh, a senior attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit that started the memorials. “Her life was such an inspiration to us,” Ms. Sanneh said. “It embodied all those things.”

Mamie Lang was born on Sept. 3, 1908, in the rural Mississippi town of Ellisville, the daughter of Edward Lang, a laborer and fledgling minister, and Rochelle (Moore) Lang, who minded the family’s rented home. Ms. Kirkland would remember the large peach tree in the yard, and the strange brew concocted by her grandmother that saved her from a typhomalarial fever when she was near death at age 5.

When she was about 7, her father awakened the family to announce that it was time to leave — some local white men were preparing to lynch him and his friend, John Hartfield. The two men slipped out of town that night; Rochelle and the five Lang children, including a nursing baby, escaped by train in the morning.

The family friend, Mr. Hartfield, eventually returned to Ellisville, and in the summer of 1919 he was accused of raping a white woman. Some townspeople set a date for his lynching, a public event that the governor of Mississippi claimed he was powerless to prevent. At an appointed time announced in The Jackson Daily News, crowds gathered near a large gum tree beside the train tracks. There Mr. Hartfield was strung up and hanged, after which his body was riddled with bullets and burned. Body parts became souvenirs. “Could have been my father,” Ms. Kirkland said in an interview with The New York Times in 2015.

Though the Lang family had fled to East St. Louis, Ill., they still could not outrun the racist violence. In 1917, white men responded to the pressures of changing demographics and job competition by rioting in black neighborhoods, burning down homes and shooting residents. Dozens died, thousands were left homeless, and 9-year-old Mamie was seared by the memory of seeing a deaf man shot dead because he could not hear an order to halt.The family moved again, this time to Alliance, Ohio, reflecting another aspect of the black experience: the Great Migration of the last century, when six million African-Americans left the rural South for the urban Northeast and Midwest — some seeking economic opportunity, others hoping to escape racial terrorism. Sometimes it followed them north.

In Alliance, in the 1920s, members of the Ku Klux Klan — whose rallies were casually announced in the local press — came to the family’s home, hoods donned and torches afire, to burn a cross on their lawn. The Langs always wondered what would have happened if armed white neighbors hadn’t arrived to chase away the aggressors.

At 15, Mamie married an itinerant railroad worker named Albert Kirkland, and the couple moved to Buffalo. He found work as a grinder at the Pratt & Letchworth plant; she gave birth to nine children, six of whom reached adulthood, and immersed herself in the First Shiloh Baptist Church, of which she was a foundational member.

After her husband died in 1959, Ms. Kirkland worked as a domestic helper and babysitter before becoming a door-to-door saleswoman for Avon. She never learned to drive, and often attributed her longevity to her faith and those many years walking the Buffalo streets selling beauty products. She was still taking orders until a few weeks before her death on Dec. 28, according to her son Tarabu Betserai Kirkland.

Mr. Kirkland, her youngest child at 70, said that his mother’s experience with Avon helped her to shed her shyness and embrace her ability to connect with people. Over time, he said, she became a kind of door-to-door life coach.

“Folks didn’t want her to leave the house,” Mr. Kirkland said in a phone interview this week. “She would help them figure out ways to manage.”

But there was one place that Ms. Kirkland refused to visit: the state of her birth, where the terror of racism had scarred her childhood. She often said that she didn’t even want to see Mississippi on a map.

Her son had been nudging her to tell her life’s powerful story, and in 2015 he showed her a report by the Equal Justice Initiative called “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” It included an image of an old newspaper’s headline: “John Hartfield Will Be Lynched By Ellisville Mob at 5 O’Clock This Afternoon.”

“We had never seen anything documented about John Hartfield,” Mr. Kirkland said. “For a long time we didn’t know if it was fact or fiction. But then she pointed to my laptop and said, ‘That’s him.’ And chills went up my back.”

A few months later, Ms. Kirkland returned to Ellisville with her son, who has been working on a documentary film about his mother’s journey. It was an emotional visit to a place that seemed to have erased the Hartfield lynching from memory. Ms. Kirkland took time to pray at the approximate spot where a mob had killed her father’s friend. “She always maintained this level of grace and forgiveness,” Mr. Kirkland said. “I’m not sure I could do that.”

In addition to her son, Ms. Kirkland’s survivors include her daughters Juanita Hunter, Beatrice Kirkland, Margaret Kirkland and Jeanette Clinton.

In 2016, the Equal Justice Initiative honored Ms. Kirkland at a fund-raising gala in Manhattan. She and her son worked for weeks on her short speech, in which she planned to tell the young people in the audience that stories like hers needed to be told again and again; that stories like hers were just as important now as they were a century ago; that she should know, because she had been there.

Her speech reflected a resilient optimism; a determination to triumph over tribulation. “I left Mississippi a scared little girl of 7 years old,” Ms. Kirkland said at the event. “Now I’m 107 — and I’m not frightened anymore.”

Organizers fretted about how their guest would ascend to the stage, and they offered her a wheelchair. She declined, saying that she intended to walk on her own. And she did.

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