Indiana Remembrance Coalition

Acknowledged at last:

A whitewashed lynching in 1922 Indianapolis

— Indiana Daily Times, March 17, 1922

“We all have a responsibility to create a just society.” — Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative

A century after a 19-year-old Black man was found lynched in Riverside Park, his unmarked grave got a headstone and he got an official apology.

George Tompkins also was finally granted the recognition that his death was not a suicide.

After extensive research, the Indiana Remembrance Coalition petitioned the Marion County Coroner’s Office to take a fresh look at the case.

Chief Deputy Coroner Alfie McGinty on March 12, 2022, unveiled a corrected death certificate. Now it says “homicide.”

“The Marion County Coroner’s Office is honored to participate in correcting this injustice,” McGinty said to a gathering at Floral Park Cemetery in Indianapolis, where Tompkins is buried.

The 1922 death certificate said the young laborer had taken his own life, even though the coroner — just days earlier — had declared, “The man could not have hanged himself.”

The victim’s body was found hanging from a sapling. His feet touched the ground; his hands had been tied behind his back.

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett apologized on behalf of the city of Indianapolis.

“In 1922, teenager George Tompkins did not receive justice from his city – neither in life, nor in death,” Hogsett said at the memorial program.

“Today, by remembering and preserving our full history, we commit ourselves to a more just and humane future for all residents of Indianapolis,” the mayor said.

“We have to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations,” said Karrah Herring, Gov. Eric Holcomb’s newly appointed chief officer of equity, inclusion and opportunity.

“Even today,” she added, “the truth is that it has taken 100 years plus for the United States Congress to pass legislation on anti-lynching.”

Also speaking at the program were Professor Rebecca Shrum, an IUPUI historian familiar with the Tompkins lynching and its cultural context, and the Rev. Clyde Posley, senior pastor of Antioch Baptist Church. He also serves as the first civilian chairman of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s General Orders Board.

In an interview earlier, Clete Ladd recalled: “Even in the Black community, most people had never heard about this chapter in our city’s history.”

The veteran educator is a member of the Indiana Remembrance Coalition, the interracial, interfaith group that organized the memorial.

“We need to know these things,” Ladd said, “because the past has shaped the present.”

The March 16, 1922, death was front-page news for two days.

But then someone scrawled the word “suicide” on the death certificate and the story disappeared. No one was ever brought to justice.

“Early 20th century officials were reluctant to label African American deaths as lynchings, especially within the city limits,” according to Professor Paul Mullins, the IUPUI anthropologist who researched the Tompkins lynching. 

“We can’t undo the horror committed against this man – or against the more than 4,000 other Black Americans lynched during decades of racist terror,” said Betty Brandt, director of the Community for Contemplation & Justice at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, where the Indiana Remembrance Coalition is based.

“But we can acknowledge what was done, give him at least a headstone, and pledge to move forward together as a better country,” Brandt said.

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