Sanford student Savannah Shepherd’s work in memorializing a lynching landed her an invitation to Washington, DC, over the weekend, where she accompanied US Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester to the Congressional Black Caucus annual legislative conference.
The high school senior rubbed elbows with national political figures including presidential candidates Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg and Congressman John Lewis.
Shepherd led the effort to erect a historical marker memorializing a 1903 lynching in Wilmington. The marker was stolen weeks after its June installation, a ceremony attended by Sen. Chris Coons, Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, State Sen. Darius Brown and other local officials.
Shepherd was deeply troubled at news the marker had been stolen. “It was shocking. But there was never a time that I thought it was over.
“I knew I had to keep doing the work and educate the state and the country about the history of lynchings. I want them to know that it’s not an issue of the past — we have issues today about mass incarceration, racial profiling and the justice system that all need addressing,” she said.
Since then several private donors have contributed to the cost of replacing the marker, which will be reinstalled on October 20th.
Shepherd is planning that, too, as part of her work with the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition, an organization she founded to galvanize broad discussions about the state’s history in dealing with race. Already her organization boasts 200 members.
Although busy with a full slate of high school activities and college applications, Shepherd said she’s happy to find the time to pursue her interest in sharing history with others. “I have been working with a bunch of organizations to do a lot of research. And I am having meetings with [Congresswoman] Lisa Blunt-Rochester to find a better way to educate students about the history of lynchings and racial injustice,” she said.
Christine Yasik, retired as a full-time educator and currently a freelance writer, published the story below for Sanford News, just before the original marker was stolen.
When Savannah Shepherd ‘20 traveled with her family to Montgomery, Alabama, in April 2018, she was a fifteen-year-old Sanford Upper School sophomore excited about attending the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum.
This dedication ceremony was intended to acknowledge, recognize, and memorialize the more than 4,000 people of color who were burned, brutalized, and lynched during the post-slavery years, primarily from 1877–1950.
The museum and memorial were largely the result of work by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which was founded by Delaware native Bryan Stevenson, Shepherd’s cousin. Stevenson is an attorney, law professor, and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemptionand serves as EJI’s executive director.
Upon her return to Delaware, Shepherd did not simply share stories of meeting Congressman John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King, or Civil Rights Bus Boycott pioneer Claudette Colvin.While she loved telling others about being present to hear John Legend sing at the ceremony, Shepherd wanted much more than memories.
An unintended consequence of Shepherd’s participation was that her life was forever changed, as she was inspired to use the experience to become a passionate advocate for social equality and justice.
She shared: “My family and I were led to Montgomery for what we thought would be an amazing, inspirational experience. I had no idea it would be a life-changing one for me. I wanted to add to EJI’s work, and I was determined to start by memorializing an injustice that took place in my home state of Delaware.”
On June 23, 1903, George White a black man who had been accused of attacking the white daughter of the head of Ferris School in Wilmington, was dragged from the workhouse near Prices Corner where he was being held.
Without benefit of a trial, Mr. White was burned alive in front of a crowd estimated to be in the thousands. His bones were actually collected and sold as souvenirs. President Theodore Roosevelt and Russian Czar Nicholas II both denounced the act of heinous violence when they heard what happened.
New Castle County and the state of Delaware had never formally acknowledged the lynching of Mr. White, and this set Shepherd to work. She first met with Katie Hall from the Delaware Department of Public Archives, who said Shepherd would need funding and support to proceed with the plan to honor Mr. White. Shepherd’s next step was to reach out to the EJI, who approved her project and guided her through the process.
At age fifteen, Shepherd founded the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition, using EJI’s motto “To overcome inequity, we must confront our history” as her inspiration. She started slowly with family and friends, but the group grew and gained attention.
In February 2019, Delaware State Senator Darius Brown approved Shepherd’s request for a memorial marker to be located in Greenbank Park.
A crowd of over 100 people witnessed the dedication of Mr. White’s marker which took place, fittingly so, on June 23, 2019 — 116 years after his horrible death.
The marker is located near the only remaining workhouse tower, adding to its historical significance.
Additionally, there was a soil collection at the site, and this will be added to the others on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum. The soil is a reminder of the blood, sweat, toil, and tears of those who were lynched, and it acts as a reminder that from this sacred ground, good can be sowed.
Abbi Smith, head of the Upper School, stated, “Savannah has worked tirelessly to bring this historical marker to Delaware so our state can formally recognize Mr. White and acknowledge and reconcile this part of our state’s history. Her efforts have been impressive.”
So impressive that Shepherd was honored with the A.B. Banghart Individual Award during Sanford’s Class Day in early June. This is presented to a student who has done an outstanding piece of individual work.
For more information about Shepherd’s jurney, be sure to watch the iMovie that she created by visiting https://youtu.be/0NCPY2v46UA.