Kidada E. Williams, Ph.D. of Wayne State University, investigates African Americans’ experiences of and responses to racial violence–rape, night riding, and lynching. She is the author of They Left Great Marks on Me, “The Wounds that Cried Out,” and “The Aftermaths of Lynching,” research that has been supported by the Ford Foundation. Williams is completing a book on night riding’s impact on families transitioning from slavery to freedom after the Civil War. We asked her a few questions ahead of her May 18 Foundry Series lecture.
ACWM- How did you become interested in your topic?
KW- For this project, I’ve always wondered how people targeted by white supremacists experienced what happened personally, or in their inner lives (separate from our typical focus on political disfranchisement or racial terror’s impact on Reconstruction). From my research, I knew African Americans endured Ku Klux Klan raids after the Civil War. But it was only as I read African American victims’ testimonies before Congress’s Joint Committee Investigating the Affairs of the Late Insurrectionary States that I developed a deeper appreciation for the wide-ranging injuries witnesses described.
ACWM- What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?
KW- I think the most significant finding was that even though these survivors don’t enjoy the same vocabulary of trauma that we have today, they fully appreciated the long-term social, economic, psychic, and physical injuries they and their families endured as a result of strikes. They understood and tried to communicate to the investigating committee the ways night riding unmade their families, compromising their freedom, and making it more difficult for them to achieve their dreams as free people and as citizens. Historians assume Klan attacks hurt African Americans, but we have not fully excavated the consequences of this violence for families.
ACWM- Did you discover anything interesting that you did not publish?
KW- The book I’m writing now will include most of what I’ve discovered about African Americans affected by this violence. But, one thing I did not do, to the degree I could have or should have, was conduct an inventory of the men and women killed but who were not kin to any of the witnesses testifying before Congress. These people, who are briefly mentioned by witnesses but otherwise lost in statistical counts of African Americans killed during Reconstruction, represent another class of victims of this violence for whom I believe we need a historical accounting.
Another thing I did not cover, is the impact this violence had on white families that were targeted. I was looking specifically at African American victims, but nightriders attacked the families of white Union soldiers and white Republicans, too. There are some scholars who are looking into this. I hope that they will do more than document the occurrence of this violence by considering the ways these families experienced this violence in their inner lives.
ACWM- Are there any social media accounts that you follow, especially which relate to your work (its topic and/or your role as a historian)?
KW- Well, I’m @KidadaEWilliams. There are probably too many to cover, but I would say the Equal Justice Initiative @eji_org, Memphis Lynching Sites @lynchingsites, Black Perpectives @BlkPerspectives, Scene on Radio @SceneOnRadio, BackStory @BackStoryRadio, Process History @processhistory, Memphis Massacre Project @MemphisMassacre, & Smithsonian NMAAHC @NMAAHC.
ACWM- How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
KW- I see a line between Ku Klux Klan raids after the Civil War and the 2015 massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church and the failure to bring to justice police and vigilantes who kill unarmed African Americans like Walter Scott or Trayvon Martin. In both cases, violence occurred and the possibilities for justice were and are elusive. But more than that, I think that today we fail to fully appreciate the long-term implications of this violence not just on the larger society or even on black people as a whole but more specifically on the families at the epicenter of these killings. Researching what I do, whenever I see reports, I always wonder how the families are living with what happened to their loved ones while the rest of the world continues spinning.