For young people, finding your "voice" is an essential part of the long journey into adulthood. For Savannah Shepherd, she found her voice while shining a bright spotlight on a dark part of the history of this country, the story of a man brutally lost to racial terror.
"It all started for me on a trip to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which was opened by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)," said Shepherd. "My whole family went down there for the opening of those two incredible places. It was there that I actually learned about the only documented lynching in Delaware."
George White, accused and imprisoned for allegedly attacking a white woman name Helen Bishop was never tried in a court of law. In 1903, a mob dragged him from the workhouse where he was awaiting trial. He was burned alive before a crowd of thousands. Spectators collected and sold his bones as souvenirs.
Learning this horrific truth about the state in which she grew up called Shepherd to action and she set about founding the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition. She was just 15-years-old at the time.
"Being in that space and being around people who were making big changes in the world; the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and people who are continuing the work today really inspired me to do what I could in Delaware and the country as a whole to make a change," said Shepherd, 18, who recently began studying at Swarthmore College. "It inspired me even as a young person with no degree, with no prior experience. I felt my story held a lot of strength and that I could at least see what I could do to help. The amount of support that I received very quickly showed me that I could do it."
Shepherd, along with Abra Lee, owner of Conquer the Soil, will be this year's speakers at the Ambler Arboretum's Annual Celebration of Women in Horticulture, which will be held online on Tuesday, March 16, from 6 to 8 p.m. Register Online. After you register, a confirmation email will be sent with a Zoom link to the event. This program is part of the Ambler Arboretum Speaker Series and is offered in a pay-what-you-can format to work toward creating equitable access to all of our programs.
This year's Annual Celebration of Women in Horticulture is all about telling untold stories. Shepherd will speak of her experience visiting the Equal Justice Initiative and the journey toward implementing its community remembrance project and fighting for social justice in Delaware.
"I'm also going to focus on the soil collection aspect of the Community Remembrance Project, Shepherd said.
The Community Remembrance Project is a community collaboration created by the Equal Justice Initiative to memorialize documented victims of racial violence and foster meaningful dialogue about race and justice. The Community Soil Collection Project, a significant part of the Remembrance Project, gathers soil at lynching sites for display in haunting exhibits bearing victims' names.
"The soil is another tangible representation of what people who were lynched went through. EJI teaches that the soil carries the blood, sweat and tears of people who were lynched at those locations," she said. "It's about showing gratitude to the places where you actually are and the ground that you are standing on. EJI hopes to gather soil from every documented lynching site, and there are thousands of them."
In her home state, Shepherd said, the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition may have started small, but it didn't stay that way for long.
"It started with just my parents and my aunts and uncles and my grandparents. Through their connections and talking about it, it just branched out from there, growing slowly over time. As different politicians started hearing about it, they would share information about the Coalition as well and it just kept expanding," she said. "Now just three years later, we have more than 300 members. We started very small and have become something that I think is very special for a small state like Delaware — we even have members who are not living in Delaware and I think that's awesome as well."
The goal of the Remembrance Coalition, Shepherd said, is "to have as many racial terror incidents in the state remembered and make sure everyone in the state has a good educational basis on the true history of Delaware."
"The most shocking part for me through this whole thing was realizing what I didn't know about the state. Especially as a Black person you would think that you would know this history," she said. "I just want everyone to have the opportunity to learn about it. I think the Coalition can do a good job of educating the public and creating a space where people can come and talk and bring up topics that they really care about in terms of social justice, not just racial justice. We want to be one of the leaders of this conversation in the state."
Sharing the story of George White "is essential because it is something that is so prominent in our history today, in current history," Shepherd said.
"I think we've seen that especially over this past summer in 2020, how lynching in still around today. The story of George White is very similar to that of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor and everyone whose names are not as widespread as theirs," she said. "I think that it is so crucial to hear what has happened to people and that this history of the justice system not defending Black people the correct way and not giving them justice is still current. It's been happening for centuries."
Seeing how it still effects lives today, "the amount of tears that have been shed for George White is so incredible," Shepherd said.
"There are so many people that are still feeling the pain," she said. "We have to deal with those emotions and we have to deal with the past before we are able to move forward. I'm hoping that is what learning about George White and remembering his story will do for the state."
Shepherd was instrumental in having an historical marker put in place to ensure George White would not be forgotten — not once, but twice in 2019.
"It doesn't seem real to me, even now. Usually, the historical marker process in Delaware takes about 5 years but we were able to do it in one. Being at the ceremony, it was very emotional — it was beautiful to see the community come together, people from all races, from all different parts of the state coming together to remember George White in a way that he never was before," she said. "That means so much to me. It's a tangible thing and it is something that will last a long time, something that you can visit and continue to learn even after this one little ceremony."
Six weeks following the ceremony unveiling the important remembrance, however, the marker was stolen. Despite this intentionally malicious act, the Coalition and its supporters were undaunted and a second marker was put in place in October 2019.
"I was certainly shocked at first, but I was never discouraged or felt like it was over. I knew we would work together to get it back up and if it is ever stolen again, we'll do the exact same thing," Shepherd said. "We will not be moved. That was the whole premise of the second ceremony — we're here and we're going to be strong as a community and George White's name will never be forgotten. I'll make sure of that, people in the community will make sure of that, the Coalition will make sure of that."
Things happen for a reason, Shepherd said.
"Having the marker stolen showed very clearly that the racial tension is still there. People who couldn't identify it before were able to see it," she said. "There was enough hate in someone's heart to remove a marker that was weighted into the ground with 400 pounds of cement; all of that effort just for a marker remembering someone's life. I think that reinforced the necessity of remembering incidents of racial terror and moving forward as a community and healing as a community."
Moving forward, the Coalition continues to host a variety of speaking engagements and projects," Shepherd said.
"We're working on uncovering the stories of two other lynchings that took place in Delaware. I'm hoping to go to the Equal Justice Initiative so that those individuals are recognized just like George White," she said. "The Coalition is also doing an essay contest for the coming school year for public high school students in Delaware, giving them the opportunity to use their voices and tell their story and have their writing recognized."
Shepherd and the Coalition are also working with the Delaware Historical Society and the University of Delaware on the Unequal Justice Project.
"We're working to do further research into the incidents of racial terror that happened in Delaware, learning about the truth, including issues within the criminal justice system," she said. "There is a lot of research taking place and a lot of truth-telling regarding old history. It's an exciting research project that will hopefully bring a lot of truth and reconciliation for the state."
For the March 16 talk, Shepherd hopes that what she shares helps the audience realize "the importance of the whole story of what a lynching is and how it holds great significance for the land that it occurred on, for the community that lives there now and the importance of these stories."
"These stories impact me, they impact people who are 60, people who have passed and people who will come after me," she said. "These stories are very long-lasting. We can continue to grow as a community intergenerationally in order to move forward."
To other young people working on discovering their own passions and their own voice, Shepherd's advice is simple — "You can do it."
"More than ever, I realize that you don't need tons of experience in order to affect change. You just need passion. Once you figure out what that passion is, it will drive you to do incredibly big things," she said. "For me, I used to be terrified of public speaking but now I do it all the time. Follow your passions and don't let anything stop you. You deserve a seat at the table. If you don't want to be in that room, you can create your own room. You can do that as a young person; our voices are just as strong as people who are older than us."
Join the Ambler Arboretum for talks and workshops highlighting sustainability, women's influence in horticulture and the healing power of plants during the monthly Ambler Arboretum Speaker Series. Information: firstname.lastname@example.org or 267-468-8400.