During the summer of 2023 , CRRJ’s work was supported by three passionate and highly-motivated interns.
Sydney Wideman, a rising third year student at Pennsylvania State University, first heard about the project from her African American studies professor. After briefly meeting Professor Burnham a few months later while CRRJ’s director visited Penn State, Wideman joined the project in early June, and her time here is set to end August 4.
Originally from New City, New York, Wideman is studying criminology and sociology, with a minor in African American studies. While at the center, she has spent most of her time researching cases of anti-Black violence in Baltimore from the 1930s and 1940s. She has also been investigating cases in Mississippi and Virginia. Most recently, Wideman has begun looking into every lynching in Mississippi resulting from accusations of rape, assault and robbery, from 1900 to 1965, a task that is proving extremely time-consuming, she said.
“This opportunity has really broadened my perspective,” said Wideman.
By doing this work we’re also trying to uncover [victims’] histories as well as uncover the rest of America’s history.
— Sydney Wideman, CRRJ intern
Wideman has delved deeper into seven cases, reading newspaper articles and any primary or secondary sources, including the victims’ death certificates. She presented her findings to CRRJ staff and faculty on August 3.
Wideman said she will try using genealogy and ancestry databases to connect with living relatives.
“Hopefully I can reach out to family members and let them know about the research I’ve been doing so that they can find out more about their family history,” said Wideman.
Wideman said one of her biggest takeaways from her time with CRRJ will be a newfound understanding of the sheer scale of Jim Crow-era racist violence. “Once I started my in-depth research I found a lot of the cases I was looking at were connected to other cases,” said Wideman. “The reality of it is that I didn’t realize there would be so many cases and you want to report on all of them but there are just so many to go through.”
Marisa Belthoff, a 3L Northeastern University School of Law student, has also been working on cold case files. After taking Professor Deborah Ramirez’s “Race Justice and Reform” course in the fall, Belthoff said she was excited to see the co-op position at CRRJ advertised and applied immediately.
Belthoff, originally from Danvers, Massachusetts, studied politics and sociology at New York University. Her co-op position started May 8, and she will be working with CRRJ until August 18, investigating cases in Washington DC, helping expand the geographical scope of CRRJ’s work into the border states. This expansion and exploration into states outside of the former Confederate South, including Maryland and Missouri, began during CRRJ’s spring clinic this year, and is set to continue throughout 2023 and 2024.
“It has been surprising how much I feel like I know or am connected with the victims even though it was so long ago,” said Belthoff. “Reading all the newspaper articles and looking at their families, trying to find all of this information about them, it kind of feels like I know them.”
Belthoff has created border state resource guides for future students, both at Northeastern and in clinics around the country investigating CRRJ’s files. She said she has been documenting how to order birth and death certificates, finding out related fees, and making lists of local historic newspapers in each of the border states.
The work that has most interested her so far, she said, was some of CRRJ’s efforts to obtain post-houmous pardons in cases where Black victims were wrongly executed or experienced unfair judicial treatment. This has inspired her to pursue more experience in post-conviction and criminal law after her co-op ends, she said.
Dr. Cheryl Holmes, joined CRRJ July 3 and is with us until August 10, undertaking a research role at CRRJ in order to complete her master’s degree in higher education leadership from Bridgewater State University.
Holmes graduated from Boston University in 1975 with a degree majoring in sociology, minoring in pre-med, and earned her doctorate in sociology from Boston College. She has worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the special assistant for minority and women owned businesses, as a fellow at the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center, and as a professor at Cookstown University.
After a 15 year hiatus from professional scholarship, time Holmes said she spent deepening her spirituality and on self-development, joining CRRJ marks her return to academia.
“This is my first opportunity to re-immerse myself in higher education activism,” she said. “I was quaking in my boots before I came here because I’ve been off the grid.” While she said she worried about how effective she would be and how she would be received, she said working with CRRJ has been wonderful and “life-affirming.” Holmes is finding great joy in this work. “It gives me purpose and helps me to see the world differently,” she said.
Holmes’ main area of focus will be building out the educational segment of the Burnham Nobles Digital Archive by sourcing syllabi on Jim Crow era violence against African Americans and publicizing the Archive as an educational tool.
Holmes will also be reconnecting with families who have been in contact with CRRJ, since 2007, to see how their interaction with the project has impacted them. She will then create a concept paper and a qualitative interview template for all families who engage with CRRJ’s work.
A vocalist and lyricist, Holmes will also be connecting with artists who have been engaged with the work of CRRJ, and looking to further artistic programs.
“Without question, I am in awe of the work being done and the commitment of the individuals doing the work,” said Holmes. “It is never ending.”
Featured image: Sydney Wideman presented her impressive research to CRRJ staff and faculty Aug 3. Photo by Lauren Hawkes.