Eighty years ago, an 11-year-old African-American boy walked in the dark on an Alabama country road, listening for the sound of his uncle's truck and waiting for a promised ride home. But someone else came along, and the boy never forgot the terror of what happened next.
At first, Willie Thomas thought the men, carrying sickles and with their dogs tagging along, were hunting possums. Then one asked, 'Hey, Boy. What you doing out here?'
So began a night of taunts, false accusations, the fashioning of a noose for Thomas' hanging and the merciful intervention of a passerby.
In video and audio recordings being transcribed by Baylor University students and to be archived at Baylor, Thomas, now Elder Willie Thomas, 90, of Birmingham, Ala., and more than 70 other people recount how they narrowly escaped lynching, witnessed it or lived in fear of it.
Until now, not many African-Americans have been willing to speak openly about those experiences, said Angela Sims, assistant professor of ethics and black church studies at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. She conducted the interviews, which will be housed at Baylor's Institute for Oral History for public viewing and listening.
In her travels, she interviewed people, mostly elderly, across the country, in locations as diverse as Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; Richmond, Va.; Omaha, Neb.; and Bossier City, La.
No one, Sims said, can tell a story like the person who has lived it. As Sims listened to people relive their experiences, she felt their fear. But she also marveled at their faith and their forgiveness of atrocities.
Those first-person memories need to be preserved before it is too late, she said.
'Five of my interviewees have already passed,' Sims said.