Free State High School student wins Equal Justice Initiative essay contest

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“A Black body is the most disposable body in America. America has proved this time and time again.”

Free State High School student Ryan Brown on Tuesday read her first-place winning essay, “Disposable,” to a virtual crowd of nearly 30 — celebrating the conclusion of a contest for all public high school students in Douglas County put on by the Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Alabama.

Brown’s essay, which also awarded her a $2,500 prize, wove together the history of lynching in the United States from before the Civil War through her chosen topic of the July 1970 murder of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, a 19-year-old Black man killed by Lawrence Police Officer William Garrett.


Brown examined the differences between Dowdell’s murder — the full circumstances of which remain unclear due to a lack of witnesses — and the more recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rashad Brooks and Daunte Wright, which captivated the attention of America through social media and technology.

“It has become a modern day lynching. It’s traumatic watching the murders of innocent people who look like my family and I,” Brown read. “I find myself slowly becoming desensitized. It’s terrifying to imagine a family member be the next cause for a riot. I’m scared when my father goes out for a run or when I see my cousins wearing hoodies. I’m constantly wondering, ‘will one of my family members become a hashtag?'”

Brown was one of eight awardees recognized Tuesday by the Equal Justice Initiative and the Douglas County Remembrance Project. The county chapter of the NAACP began working with the Equal Justice Initiative in 2019 through the agency’s Community Remembrance Project, which seeks to document and memorialize the over 4,400 Black victims of racial terror lynching between 1877 and 1941.

“We’re currently in the process of literally changing the landscape in Douglas County, with a historical marker that memorializes and recognizes this history and confronts this history in a very tangible way — memorializing the lives of Isaac King, George Robertson and Peter Vinegar, who were all lynched by white mobs in Douglas County in 1882,” said Michaela Clarke, an EJI Justice Fellow, during Tuesday’s ceremony.

“A myth of Black inferiority and white supremacy was developed to justify slavery in the United States. Even though we ended chattel slavery, we did not end the myth of racial difference. EJI believes we need a new era of truth and justice that starts with confronting our history of racial injustice. Based on the theme or topic and historical event you selected, how does the history of racial injustice help to explain present-day injustice in our society? How can this history be overcome in order to change the challenges our nation is facing today?”

— Prompt for the Equal Justice Initiative contest

Including Brown’s $2,500 first prize, eight Douglas County high school students took home awards Tuesday totaling nearly $10,000 in prize money.

Here’s the full list of winners (grade level as of 2020-21 academic year):

1. Ryan Brown, senior, Free State High School: $2,500
2. Grant Lincoln, freshman, Free State High School: $1,750
3. Yejun Yun, freshman, Free State High School: $1,750
4. Zora Lotton-Barker, senior, Lawrence High School: $1,250
5. January Jackson, freshman, Lawrence High School: $1,000

Honorable mention, $500:

• Jackson Salmans, senior, Free State High School
• Madysen Stanford, freshman, Free State High School
• Roman Jasso, freshman, Free State High School

The EJI and the Douglas County Remembrance Project continue work on a historical marker documenting the lynching and burial of Vinegar, King and Robertson. Kerry Altenbernd, a Lawrence historian who chairs the county NAACP history committee, said Tuesday they hope to dedicate the marker on Juneteenth 2022.

More coverage:

Clay Wirestone: At memorial for Lawrence lynching victims, a crowd faces history head-on (Column)

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“On that Saturday morning by the Kansas River, as soil was scooped into glass jars and carnations placed on top of each, a spirit moved among the crowd. They had gathered there, near Lawrence City Hall, to commemorate the victims of a lynching nearly 140 years ago,” Clay Wirestone writes in this column for Kansas Reflector.

Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter, can be reached at cmitchell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-435-9264. If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell (at) protonmail (dot) com. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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