In 1902 a black man named Alonzo Tucker was lynched from a bridge in the coastal town of Coos Bay, Oregon, a few hours south of my home. It is the only lynching on record in the state, and the limited known details were enough to catch my throat. Tucker had been accused of assaulting a white woman, and an angry mob had formed to take his life in the streets. He was jailed, partly to protect him from the crowds. But at some point, he panicked and somehow escaped, hiding for a night beneath some docks.
In the morning, a band of men found Tucker and shot him as he tried to run away. Tucker may have died from his wounds—no one knows for certain—but to make sure he was dead and to make a spectacle of the event, the crowd hung Tucker from the Fourth Street Bridge, right in the heart of that small Oregon coal-mining town.
I stumbled upon Tucker’s story while researching racial injustice in Oregon and couldn’t get it out of my mind. We had a family beach trip coming up, and I told my husband we needed to detour through Coos Bay to visit the site where Tucker died. He drove to the hardware store, bought some lumber, and made a large white cross to bring with us.
Once in town, I couldn’t find the Fourth Street Bridge. My husband dropped me at the local history museum and took our kids to play in a park. I awkwardly brought up the lynching with the man at the museum, who knew exactly what I was referring to. He gave me as much information as he had, making copies from local history books. I asked him if the museum would ever consider making an exhibit about Tucker, but the man shook his head sadly. “We just don’t have enough information” he said. “There isn’t even a single photo of Alonzo in existence.”
It turned out the bridge from which Tucker had hung no longer exists, consumed by shifting coastal topography. In its place is a relatively busy street next to the high school, a football field on one side and a baseball field on the other.
I rejoined my husband and kids at the park. I told him maybe we shouldn’t put up our memorial, that this was a stupid idea. But then in the park, I saw a large statue of a cross with a plaque underneath, a memorial to residents of the town who had fought and died in Vietnam.
Why did I think my own cross was stupid? Why did I falter in my plan to remember Tucker and acknowledge a dark day in Oregon’s history while a veterans’ monument seemed so acceptable? After all, memorials are a part of the American landscape. Less culturally obvious, I realized, are the criteria for selecting whom and what we memorialize.
More than 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and the rise of the civil rights movement in the early 1950s. Lynching was a brutal public tactic for maintaining white supremacy, frequently used with the tacit blessing of government authorities. It was a part of my heritage I had never been taught, despite my homeschool community’s heavy focus on American history and despite brave efforts by activists like Ida B. Wells, perhaps the 19th century’s most famous anti-lynching voice, to draw attention to the epidemic.
We went ahead with our plan and drove to the high school. This wasn’t what I had envisioned, I thought, as a steady stream of cars drove past us. It was lunchtime, and there were students everywhere—hardly a place of contemplative silence and respect. I wrote “Alonzo Tucker 1902” on the large white plywood cross. My husband tried to hammer it into the ground next to a chainlink fence by the baseball field while I stayed in the car, safely hidden from any stares. He couldn’t get it to stay planted in the hard ground, and we hadn’t thought to bring anything to tie it to a fence, so he leaned it up against the chainlink and took a few pictures.