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 Redemption
and 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 for 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 that Shepherd would need funding and support in order 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.
Smith noted that Shepherd was selected because she “has been steadily, independently, and quietly working to impact the entire state of Delaware. Shepherd has founded the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition
, whose aim is to find ways to remember our painful past, so that we are aware, so that we can acknowledge the past horrors related to slavery and racial violence, and so that we can move forward together with a true understanding of the widespread inflicted trauma that remains. Savannah Shepherd felt inspired to make a difference and she took steady steps to achieve something that will educate and inspire others for years to come.”