LISTEN: In February, a historical marker memorializing Black victims of lynching in DeKalb County was stolen, and organizers who worked to install the marker feel the disappearance is about more than just a missing piece of metal. It’s represents a larger threat to representations of Black history. GPB’s Pamela Kirkland explains.

A bullet-ridden historical marker memorializing the lynching of Mary Turner and the lynching rampage of 1918 will be on display at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

A bullet-ridden historical marker memorializing the lynching of Mary Turner and the lynching rampage of 1918 will be on display at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Credit: The National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Roadside markers can be found throughout Georgia. They dot the landscape with stories of the past, often marking an event or notable person in the area. 

Some historical markers are considered more controversial than others. 

“A marker in itself is just this mute object,” said Stan Deaton, senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society, which has sponsored thousands of historical markers since taking over the program from the state’s Department of Transportation in 1998. “It's made out of metal, it's got words inscribed on it. It doesn't do anything until you read it. And then it does something to all of us. It evokes emotion.”

Deaton said it’s not uncommon for the group to receive reports of markers damaged by car accidents, fallen trees, and construction. But Deaton has noticed that in recent history, at times when things are politically fraught, these markers can suffer more deliberate damage. 

“In  2020, when we saw George Floyd, when we saw the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, there's a visceral response to these markers,” Deaton said. 

That year, a marker to lynching victim Mary Turner and the 1918 lynching rampage was shot several times and vandals attempted to break the post, leaving large cracks in the marker’s base. That marker is sponsored by the Georgia Historical Society and was originally dedicated in 2010. The vandalized sign will be on display at the National Center for Civil and Human rights.

“To blatantly attempt to cover it up, or to act as if those stories shouldn't be told is to somehow be complicit in what happened originally,” Deaton said. “I don't think there can be any healing, which the best history does — attempts to do by creating understanding between the past and the present. And that's a real hard bridge sometimes.” 


A missing marker in Lithonia

A historical marker memorializing lynching victims was stolen from a DeKalb County park.

A historical marker memorializing lynching victims was stolen from a DeKalb County park in 2024.

Credit: DeKalb County NAACP

Donetta Smith spent years researching racial violence in DeKalb County to finally have a historical marker installed in Lithonia in 2021. She found four lynchings had occurred in DeKalb County post-Reconstruction: the lynching of Porter Turner in 1945, Reuban Hudson in 1887, and two unnamed Black men in 1892.

Born and raised in Lithonia, she had no idea the area had this history of racial terror.

“I grew up during the period of segregation not too far removed from when these lynchings actually happened,” Smith said. “The fact that nobody I talked to knew anything about these lynchings, told me that this had been covered up for quite some time.”

The NAACP DeKalb Remembrance Coalition, chaired by Smith, reached out to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative. The nonprofit’s community campaign memorializes victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites and erecting historical markers. 

After delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the marker in Lithonia was finally dedicated in February 2021. It honors Hudson, who was lynched by a white mob from Lithonia after being accused of raping a white woman, and the two other unnamed Black men.

Almost exactly four years after the marker's originally planned April 2020 unveiling, it went missing. 

Police have no leads on when it was taken or who might have stolen the nearly 200-pound marker. 

Donetta Smith believes the theft is about more than just a piece of missing metal. It symbolizes a deeper challenge.

“Black history is threatening to some folk,” Smith said. “There is a movement underway right now to rewrite, to whitewash, and even to eliminate African American history and we want to combat that.”

“This is almost like a double lynching,” said Albert Fields, communications director for the DeKalb County NAACP. “The first time we found out about it, we put a marker to remind everybody. Then, you turn around lynch them again by stealing the remembrance point.” 


Vandalism and theft of markers of Black history

Vandalism and violence against markers to Black history are fairly widespread.

A bronze statue of baseball great Jackie Robinson was found burned in a trash can in Kansas the same month the Lithonia marker went missing. 

A Rochester, N.Y., statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass was toppled off its pedestal in 2020.

And a marker for Emmett Till, where the 14-year-old’s body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River in 1950s Mississippi, has been destroyed three times. 

One of those markers is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

“That's not something that you lightly ask a community to let go of,” said Nancy Bercaw, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian. "That sign, for many down there. Is almost as precious as Emmett Till's very body."

The newest marker in Mississippi is bulletproof and surrounded by security cameras. Bercaw said the community first thought the vandals were children, out shooting up the sign for fun. But in 2019, security cameras filmed a white supremacist group gathering in front of the sign.

Bercaw said the vandalism of the Emmett Till maker, and some other markers honoring Black history, is deliberate.

“These are not random acts of violence," Bercaw told GPB. "It's a really active means to both suppress history, but also to terrorize the community there.”


Preserving the past 

Community members behind the marker in Lithonia wanted to honor the victims of racial terror in a county that is home to Stone Mountain, the largest monument to the Confederacy in the U.S.  

But the pole is all that’s left at the spot in William A. Kelly Park where the Lithonia marker was placed. Though the Georgia Historical Society is not a sponsor of the Lithonia marker, Deaton commented.

“The larger context of these kinds of markers is always, 'Why bring this back up?'" Deaton said. "'This is painful. This is unfortunate.' We don't have the luxury of forgetting.”

DeKalb County NAACP president Edwina Clanton agrees with Deaton that the history needs to be shared, no matter how ugly it may be.  

“People don't want them to remember what they was and what land they're standing on," Clanton said. "We want them to remember what injustice was done to our people."

The Equal Justice Initiative is working on a new marker for the Lithonia site but Donetta Smith said she worries about what the next step in erasing Black history might be. 

"This may be the first step," Smith said. "Who knows what the second step is going to be if we don't stop them and show them that, ‘Hey, we ain't going anyplace.'”