Massachusetts Congregation aids in CRRJ’s cold case investigations

How members of a United Church of Christ congregation in Norwell, MA are helping to fill gaps in the history of Jim Crow racist violence.

The killing of George Floyd in 2020 led Jim Ianiri, Carl Isihara, Jack Spurr and Andrea Vizoso, members of the United Church of Christ (UCC) Norwell, to seek opportunities for greater involvement in racial justice work. 

“Awareness was starting to percolate when Black Lives Matter came around again after the killing of George Floyd,” said Ianiri, a family law attorney. “As a congregation we’ve been talking about this for a while.”

After forming a book club, where they read titles such as “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg, and “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism” by Jemar Tisby, several members of UCC formed a racial justice task force. The group soon became the Racial Justice Ministry Team in 2021.

This team, of which Ianiri and Spurr co-chair and Vizoso and Isihara are members, is “not just about donating money,” said Carl Isihara, although the group did generously donate $1,000 to CRRJ, which will support field research, restorative justice projects, and litigation expenses. “We’re proud to be building relationships with the wider community,” said Isihara.

In the spring of 2022, WCVB’s Chronicle program aired “The Lynching of ‘Peg’ Gilbert” on Channel 5, a documentary that tells the story of Henry Gilbert, a Black man murdered in police custody in 1947, whose case was investigated by CRRJ. Several members of UCC watched the program and reached out to CRRJ.

“It turned out that the show resonated with a whole bunch of us,” said Isihara, a retired primary care physician.

The Ministry Team contacted Professor Rose Zoltek-Jick, CRRJ’s Associate Director, to learn more about CRRJ’s work and build a relationship with the project that went beyond donations.

“When I learned about this opportunity with CRRJ I thought it was not just talk but it was something where we could actually act,” said Vizoso, a retired school teacher and former public radio fundraiser.

Professor Zoltek-Jick was struck by this group’s commitment to recognizing the complicated history of Christian slaveowners, who had used theology to justify owning people as property.

“This was the first time a faith group had reached out to us to put their faith into practice, and that was inspiring,” she said. Zoltek-Jick commended “their efforts to reconcile and acknowledge the role of Christian theology in slave-ownership,” and “the redemptive power of history.”

The group was trained by Zoltek-Jick, CRRJ’s program manager Lauren Hawkes, and CRRJ legal fellow Raymond Wilkes. They are working on a series of cases from Baltimore, Maryland. The members meticulously comb through newspaper reports, death certificates, advocacy group documents, legal filings and genealogy reports to find surviving family members of victims.

“The research conducted by the Norwell team deepens CRRJ’s understanding of the systemic nature of police violence in Baltimore and will further the work of state-wide initiatives to address these historical racial harms,” said Hawkes.

The group’s completed investigations will be included in the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, launched by CRRJ last fall, which houses more than 1,000 cases of anti-Black violence in the Jim Crow South.

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