Bridge Project fulfills Terry Fear’s wish to recognize historic injustice in Vigo County

By Ken Turetzky

Injustice haunted Terry Fear and opposing injustice consumed her. She passed away Dec. 13, 2020, in the midst of a vigil to protest executions at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute.

'I want people to love one another,' says Terry Ward

Terry Ward broke the pattern of struggle that followed his great-grandfather’s death by the vigilante injustice of lynching. But the work for social justice continues.

Continue reading

Terry found no shortage of social justice causes in the present era — an oil pipeline on sacred Native American land in North Dakota, violent white supremacists in Charlottesville, migrant children detained in Florida — but died before she could help commemorate a sudden, brutal sequence of historic injustices perpetrated by citizens of her own community 120 years ago.

The violence claimed two victims — Ida Finkelstein, a Jewish schoolteacher just days short of her 21st birthday, and George Ward, a Black family man and foundry worker who was 25, according to census records.

On Feb. 25, 1901, someone attacked and murdered Finkelstein as she walked through a wooded area after leaving her school. A day later, authorities arrested Ward at his workplace as a suspect in Finkelstein’s murder.

The violence claimed two victims — Ida Finkelstein, a 20-year-old Jewish schoolteacher, and George Ward, a Black family man and foundry worker who was 25.

That afternoon, a mob of some 500 people stormed the county jail, seized and assaulted Ward and dragged him to the nearby wagon bridge across the Wabash River. There, the mob hanged and burned his body while about 3,000 gathered to watch.

Families suffered in wake of violence

Despite assurances from politicians, judges and law enforcement, none of the perpetrators faced charges in either crime. Ida Finkelstein’s mother and siblings, shaken by her father’s murder six years earlier, faced further grief upon her death. George Ward’s family, assailed with financial hardship, now broke up.

“No justice for either victim,” lamented Terre Haute historian Dr. Crystal Reynolds; “for either George or Ida, no justice.”

More than a century passed as Finkelstein’s grave, a tall stone column, drew little notice in the old Jewish section of Highland Lawn Cemetery. George Ward’s ashes, according to accounts, may have been scattered or buried anonymously. Degrees of fear, shame and embarrassment silenced the families and the community.

Unreliable facts come from digital archives of hyperbolic newspaper accounts, amplified in the era’s environment of virulent racism, reporting the only lynching to occur in Vigo County and the inadequate investigation that followed.

“No justice for either victim,” lamented Terre Haute historian Dr. Crystal Reynolds; “for either George or Ida, no justice.”

Interfaith program sought spiritual closure

Reynolds spoke Sept. 26, on a warm Sunday afternoon at Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church for the Bridge Project, an interfaith program to seek “spiritual closure for George Ward and Ida Finkelstein, twin victims of the vigilante injustice of lynching.”

Dr. Crystal Reynolds

Later Sunday, the wider community gathered just a few blocks to the west at Fairbanks Park for the unveiling of a historical marker, several years in the planning, to acknowledge the lynching of George Ward and many more African Americans during the decades after the Civil War.

“I don’t know how we can stop grading people by the color of our skin but we do in our society. And I don’t know how we can do that.”

The marker sits at the foot of the current bridge across the Wabash, where Terry Ward marched this day to a post designated with a large red ribbon and contemplated the site of his great-grandfather George Ward’s lynching.

“My mother had 10 of us. And in the 10 of us, we have every color and nationality you could imagine,” he said, addressing a group of onlookers. “And for that reason, we were always taught that love is the prominent thing in life. We try not to see a difference of you or you or you or you or you, because we want to be able to show the love and respect that we believe all human beings deserve.

“The reality of it is, that’s what life is really supposed to be all about. If we don’t strive to do those things, to lift anybody and everybody up just because they’re a person….

“I don’t know how we can stop grading people by the color of our skin but we do in our society. And I don’t know how we can do that.”

Facing Injustice pursued funding for historical marker

Terry Fear speaks at Allen Chapel (Crystal Reynolds)

Terry Ward met Terry Fear on March 1, 2020, when the Terre Haute Facing Injustice Project initiated its campaign to remember George Ward by conducting a soil-gathering ceremony near the lynching site.

Terry Fear had long envisioned a candle-lighting to remember Ida Finkelstein and George Ward together and recognize the historic link between Terre Haute’s Jewish and Black communities.

Facing Injustice won grant money for the George Ward historical marker through the Equal Justice Initiative Community Remembrance Project to “memorialize documented victims of racial violence.” EJI has documented more than 4,400 victims of racial terror lynchings between 1877-1950, including 18 in Indiana. Vigo County is the first Indiana county to acknowledge a lynching.

Terry Fear had long envisioned a candle-lighting to remember Ida Finkelstein and George Ward together and recognize the historic link between Terre Haute’s Jewish and Black communities.

“That was when she stood up in front of the NAACP, the Equal Justice Initiative, the George Ward family and some people from the Jewish community,” says Crystal Reynolds. Terry Fear “stood up and she gave this speech about her vision.”

And so Reynolds, Terry Ward, NAACP Greater Terre Haute Branch Education Committee chair Arthur Feinsod and United Hebrew Congregation board member Scott Skillman planned the Bridge Project, in memory of Terry Fear, to light a candle for “peace and reconciliation with our shared and troubled past and provide spiritual closure for George Ward and Ida Finkelstein” and “guide us toward a more humane and just society”.

Speakers told stories of George Ward and Ida Finkelstein

With an intimate, responsive audience filling the pews at Allen Chapel, Terre Haute NAACP President Sylvester Edwards spoke of Jewish contributions to the founding of the NAACP in 1909. Reynolds told The George Ward Story and Skillman spoke about Ida Finkelstein.

Kel Maleh is rooted in Jewish tradition as a prayer for those who lost their lives as victims of massacres, as martyrs of the community”

Sylvester Edwards addresses audience at George Ward marker ceremony

Feinsod and attorney and church deacon Brother William Morris delivered a Declaration of Innocence, now included in the Emmett Till Antilynching Act of 2021, exonerating lynching victims and instituting a presumption of innocence. Terry Ward spoke of his family’s legacy, broken by an atrocity affecting “generation after generation after generation”.

Then former UHC Student Rabbi Remy Liverman sang Kel Maleh Rachamim, “a memorial prayer for the departed that asks for comfort and everlasting care of the deceased.” Remy said, “Among the Jewish memorial prayers, Kel Maleh is rooted in Jewish tradition as a prayer for those who lost their lives as victims of massacres, as martyrs of the community….

“It is a prayer that allows us to remember those who were murdered at the hands of oppressors, nameless victims who died tragically without justice because of hate, bigotry and malice. Where we ask today the souls of innocent George and Ida find eternal comfort and rest. Such that was taken from them in life we ask God to grant them in death.”

Blacks and Jews walked arm in arm

At last fulfilling Terry Fear’s wish, Remy and and Pastor Tess Brooks Stephenson lit a havdalah candle, its twisted blue-and-white wicks representing Ida Finkelstein and George Ward, Jews and African Americans.

Similarly, the Bridge Project both symbolizes the site of a great injustice and the connection between Blacks and Jews.

“If you see an injustice, and you don’t speak out against an injustice, you’re just as guilty as the person who did it.”

“Blacks and Jews walked arm-in-arm in Selma, Montgomery, Atlanta and Memphis,” said Reynolds, who gave the project its name. “And that solidarity is present today in the 21st century as members of both the Black and Jewish communities come together to remember the victims and celebrate the Bridge — the bridge that has connected the two cultures for many years.”

The wider message, Terry Ward reminded those at Allen Chapel, is justice for all.

“We don’t want to condemn anybody for anything. The generations today, they had nothing to do with [George Ward’s and Ida Finkelstein’s murders]. But if you sit back and you see an injustice, and you don’t speak out against an injustice, you’re just as guilty as the person who did it.

“I only ask you who are here today, that you’ll stand up for justice, and whatever walk of life that we’re in, then we’ll be a better society, and we’ll be a better nation.”

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments