Historical Lynching Markers Aim to Educate, Foster Healing in Shelbyville, Kentucky

Just an hour and a half southwest of Cincinnati, Shelbyville's six historical markers are the first in Kentucky to recognize the victims of racial-terror lynching.

One of six new historical markers in Shelbyville, Ky., commemorating victims of lynching incidents that occurred from 1878 to 1911. - Photo: Janice Harris
Photo: Janice Harris
One of six new historical markers in Shelbyville, Ky., commemorating victims of lynching incidents that occurred from 1878 to 1911.

Six historical markers have been erected in downtown Shelbyville, the first in the state to recognize the victims of racial-terror lynching in Kentucky.

The markers are part of the nationwide Community Remembrance Project by the Equal Justice Initiative.

Janice Harris, president of the Shelbyville Area NAACP and chair of the Shelby County Community Remembrance Coalition, said over the past few years, several community forums fostered public discussions of the town's history.

"And we were able just to talk through some of the pain and some of the hurt that people were feeling," Harris recounted. "Our community seems to have, you know, welcomed this. We really have not gotten any opposition."

It's estimated at least 168 lynchings of Black Kentuckians occurred between 1877 and 1950, according to an Equal Justice Initiative report, which also documents racial violence in at least 37 Kentucky counties. The state outlawed public executions in 1939.

The report also found the 25 counties with the highest rates of lynching Black Americans during this era were located in Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

Harris noted the markers have already sparked public conversation.

"And people are reading them," Harris observed. "They're walking from one to another, we've seen that, and it's helping us to realize that what we did was important; that it's a time for us to start talking about these things. And it's opened up a conversation that people can have. It's a talking point."

She believes the memorials will help foster community healing, and said plans are in the works for more.

"I just hope that we can come together and start to discuss the issues that we have," Harris explained. "And come on some common ground, and be able to work with one another and just start being a community of love."

It's estimated more than 4,000 lynchings occurred in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968. In about 3,000, the victims were Black Americans, according to the NAACP.