2 Jefferson County Memorial Project Fellows share why their work is so important

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Jefferson County Memorial Project
Mayor Randall Woodfin joins members of the Jefferson County Memorial Project during a visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. Photo via the Jefferson County Memorial Project

Each year, the Jefferson County Memorial Project (JCMP) selects a class of current and recent college students to serve as JCMP Fellows for the year. Since I wanted to learn more about the mission of the 2021 Fellows, I reached out to two of them. Here’s what I learned.

What is the Jefferson County Memorial Project?

Jefferson County Memorial Project Fellows 2020
The 2020 class of Jefferson County Memorial Project Fellows. Photo via the Jefferson County Memorial Project

In 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative opened a groundbreaking memorial for victims of racial terror and lynchings called The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Inside, the memorial contains 805 steel, rectangular monuments corresponding to a county with documented racial terror lynchings. The Equal Justice Initiative has invited each county to retrieve and place their memorial in their community, in order to help reckon with the community’s past.

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Members of the Jefferson County Memorial Project visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Photo via the Jefferson County Memorial Project

That same year, community leaders in Jefferson County came together to organize the Jefferson County Memorial Project with the goal of retrieving the county’s memorial.

The Jefferson County Memorial Project’s Fellow program is integral to the success of the project. Each year, the Jefferson County Memorial Project accepts a handful of students from local higher education institutes—including Birmingham-Southern College, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Miles College, Lawson State Community College, Jefferson State Community College and Samford University. Throughout their Fall semester, these Fellows conduct research on the history of Jefferson County and publish an annual report on their findings.

You can view previous reports by the 2018, 2019 and 2020 Fellows here.

Meet two of the 2021 Fellows

Austin Lewter

Austin Lewter
Austin Lewter on the campus of his college, Birmingham-Southern College. Photo via Austin Lewter

Born and raised in Tanner, Alabama, Austin Lewter is a recent Magna Cum Laude graduate of Birmingham-Southern College with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science with a minor in Human Rights & Conflict.

How did you learn about the Jefferson County Memorial Project, and why did you join?

Austin: “I first learned about the Jefferson County Memorial Project while at Birmingham-Southern College. One of my professors handed out some materials on the recent report by past JCMP Fellows. I wanted to learn more, so my professor put me in touch with Joi Brown at the JCMP.

It’s hard to pinpoint a defining moment for me. Some of the other current Fellows have the unique and saddening experience of knowing someone in their family’s past that was a victim of lynching. For me, this experience was an opportunity to help bring light to this area of our history. More than anything, I wanted the opportunity to be on the right side of history.”

What have the 2021 Fellows been working towards this year?

Austin: “Our goal is to establish a lynching memorial for Jefferson County, to be placed in Linn Park. Our report this year aims to trace the history of Linn Park from the later 1800s to present day.”

Why Linn Park?

Austin: “Linn Park was the site of several lynchings in the past. The earliest we have found was Lewis Houston, a 20-year-old man who was lynched in Linn Park in 1883.”

Jareah Burrell

Jareah Burrell
Jareah Burrell, a 2021 Fellow for the Jefferson County Memorial Project. Photo via Jareah Burell

Born and raised in Birmingham, Jareah Burrell is a current Fellow at the Jefferson County Memorial Project and a recent graduate of the University of Alabama in Birmingham with a major in General Studies with a double minor in Mass Communications and Management with a Concentration in Journalism. A few of her favorite hobbies are writing poetry, watching documentaries, yoga and exercise.

How did you first learn about the Jefferson County Memorial project?

Jareah: “Since my sister was one of the original JCMP Fellows in 2018, I knew a lot about the program through her. I wanted to learn more, so I reached out to find volunteer opportunities. When the time came to apply for the 2021 Fellows program, I knew I wanted to participate.”

Why did you decide to join the 2021 Fellows program?

Jareah: “I’ve always been a lover of history, but this aspect of our past is often swept under the rug. I was born in 1995, so although I didn’t witness the events of the Civil Rights Movement, my grandmother has always instilled in us a sense of the history. She always wanted us to know that we matter—we have a backstory as a people. With the Jefferson County Memorial Project I get to learn even more our history, and share my research with others.”

What is the most rewarding aspect of your work with the Jefferson County Memorial Project?

Jareah: “Through my work with the Jefferson County Memorial Project, I get to act as the voice for someone who couldn’t speak. And everyone deserves a chance to be heard. I never thought I’d have the chance to share their stories decades later.”

Learn More About the Jefferson County Memorial Project

Jefferson County Memorial Project
Members of the Jefferson County Memorial Project at Sloss Furnaces, during the unveiling of a historical marker memorializing lynching victims. Photo via the Jefferson County Memorial Project

Want to donate, advocate, volunteer or learn more about the Jefferson County Memorial Project? Visit their website for a list of resources and information.

Stay tuned to the Jefferson County Memorial Project to learn more about the 2021 Fellow’s Annual Report, coming later this year. This year’s Fellows’ report release will be held virtually and live-streamed on Jefferson County Memorial Project’s Facebook and YouTube pages Thursday, February 25th at 6:30pm.

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  • Tennessee native who fell in love with Birmingham during college. Graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 2019. Passionate about Birmingham and its continued growth.