Colorado Billionaire Pat Stryker's Key Gift to National Lynching Memorial, Museum

As usual, Fort Collins's Pat Stryker appeared on the most recent version of the Forbes 400, an annual list of America's wealthiest people, and her net worth, estimated in mid-October at $2.6 billion, makes her the fifth-richest Coloradan. And while she personally keeps a low profile, she created a philanthropic splash by giving $5 million through her Bohemian Foundation to an ambitious Montgomery, Alabama-based project to honor and remember victims of lynchings and racial injustice.

Pat's brother, Jon Styker, donated $5 million of his own; he's the president and founder of the Arcus Foundation, whose missions include LGBT rights and conservation of great apes. Their cumulative $10 million gift represents nearly a third of the funding needed for the $35 million undertaking, which will include The Memorial to Peace and Justice, dedicated to lynching victims in the U.S., and a racial justice-museum to be called From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

The memorial and museum are the brainstorm of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery nonprofit. EJI founder and director Bryan Stevenson notes, "We started our campaign ten months ago, and thanks to the enormous gifts from Pat and Jon, we're now at $30 million — just $5 million away from our goal. And their support has really energized our efforts."

As we've reported, the Stryker fortune can be traced to Homer Stryker, Pat and Jon's grandfather, who invented the modern hospital bed and founded Stryker Corp., characterized by Forbes as a "$9.9 billion (sales) medical equipment supplier."

Their father, Lee, became president of the company in 1969, and when he and his wife died in a 1976 Wyoming plane crash, Pat, Jon and sister Ronda inherited the family stake in the firm. Pat and Jon have dedicated their memorial and museum donations to Lee, who was an active supporter of civil-rights causes.

EJI, for its part, is "a law office that provides services to people who have been wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced," Stevenson says. "We've done a great deal of work around excessive punishment, children prosecuted as adults and the death penalty. In our years of doing that work, it became clear that the racial disparities that seem so pervasive aren't being adequately addressed by the courts."

The firm attempted to draw attention to issues like these by way of "some reports on slavery and a massive report on lynching," Stevenson continues. "We documented 4,000 lynchings across the United States and started putting up markers — signs at lynching sites and places where the slave trade was very active. That gave birth to the idea of a memorial for the victims of lynching, because nowhere in America have we acknowledged that history or responded to that atrocity. In places like Germany and South Africa, the landscape is crowded with memorials and stones and markers about the Holocaust and Apartheid and the need to make changes. But in America, we don't really talk about what happened to native people or terrorism or segregation, and that has to change. We think cultural spaces can play a powerful role in creating a new relationship to this history that sobers us, but also motivates us to eliminate bias and discrimination wherever it manifests itself."

To that end, EJI partnered with Boston's MASS Design Group to come up with a concept for a memorial and museum "that will exist in Montgomery but live all over the country," Stevenson allows. "And we want to contextualize the history of lynching in a broader context. Montgomery was one of the most active slave-trading places in America leading up to the Civil War, but the history of slave auctions and slave trafficking isn't well understood. We'd like to connect that history with the era of racial terror and segregation and the contemporary issues we face today."

The Strykers got involved earlier this year.

"I met Jon probably eight or nine months ago and invited him to our annual dinner," Stevenson recalls. "He came and heard from a lynching survivor — a woman who was 107 years old. She fled Mississippi when her father was threatened with lynching. And he heard from one of our clients who spent thirty years on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Jon said he was very moved by these experiences and the opportunity to hear from the kind of people most of us never get to encounter."

Soon thereafter, Stevenson goes on, "Jon came to Alabama with members of his foundation, and Pat joined us. We spent a day really exploring this legacy and took part in a project where we go to lynching sites and collect soil and put it in a jar with the name of a victim and a date. It was a really moving experience, and that's when they started talking about supporting our work. Jon hosted an event for EJI in New York a couple of months ago — and then we got this extraordinary news that he and Pat were going to make these kinds of donations."

Other major benefactors have contributed to the project, including the Ford Foundation, which has provided a $2 million grant — and Stevenson is hopeful that the remaining $5 million can be raised over the next few months. In the meantime, construction is already under way on six acres of land in Montgomery. The plan is for the museum to open in the summer of 2017 and the memorial to be finished the following year.

When everything is complete, Stevenson hopes visitors "will do as they do when they come out of the Holocaust Museum — that they'll say, 'Never again.'"

In general, Pat's Bohemian Foundation has concentrated on funding music and youth programs in the Fort Collins area. But Stevenson doesn't see her latest donation as being completely dissimilar from her earlier efforts.

"Pat has done amazing work in helping communities move toward healthier ways of advancing," he says, "and I believe that confronting these issues can play a role in helping this country recover from the long, difficult and painful history of slavery and lynching. I'm really thrilled to have her as one of our supporters."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts