From the U.S. South, an Israeli’s Lesson in Racial Segregation

A journalist's search for a museum in North Carolina led to a lake in New York State and a link between lynchings of years past and the South’s legal system.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Slaves outside their shacks at a Virginia plantation, 1860. Credit: Getty Images
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

My Google search produced a promising result: a museum of African-American art at North Carolina Central University in Durham. My hosts at Duke University in the same city had never visited the museum, nor had they heard of it. And I received a quick lesson on the preservation of racial segregation.

North Carolina Central University started out in 1910 as a “National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race.” Chautauqua is an adult education movement that began in the late 19th century on the banks of Lake Chautauqua in southwestern New York State.

Chautauqua is an Iroquois word meaning “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together.” So you can picture the shape of the lake even without a map. The lake is still there, but the survivors of the original Indian nations were expelled.

The university is in a neighborhood called Hayti — a name whites gave to black neighborhoods — that was built after the Civil War. One of the first things local people point out with pride is that Durham had a close-knit middle-class black community.

One study claims that the community wasn’t as well-to-do as historians say, but there is agreement on the reason for its disintegration: In the 1960s a highway intended for whites bisected the place. Dozens of black homes were demolished, and people were forced to leave.

And so, without any effort on my part, several layers of American history were revealed in a single Google search for museums in Durham. Today, at the public university that started out for “coloreds” only, 80 percent of the students are African-American. And of course this school has far less money than neighboring Duke (which is private and mainly white).

One small piece of evidence: In the little museum it’s impossible to display the permanent exhibition’s 250 works or so. There isn’t enough money and manpower — as Kenneth Rodgers, the director of the museum and a professor of art, confirmed.

Did the slaves paint?

My unscheduled conversation with him lasted about an hour, his eyes sparkling as he described every exhibition by an African-American artist he has curated. And there was a raft of catalogs, compensation for my disappointment when I learned there was only one exhibition there: photographs and models of lovely public buildings by African-American architect Phil Freelon. He designed the National Museum for African American History and Culture that will finally be built in Washington.

In 2001 the little museum in Hayti held an exhibition on the works of sculptor and painter Elizabeth Catlett, who was born in 1915 and who according to Rodgers is the greatest artist of them all. The downtrodden, proud and noble people in her woodcuts and sculptures reflect a chapter in the struggle for rights.

Rodgers said that in the early 1940s she was hired as a lecturer at the black university. As a “Negro” her salary was lower than that of white teachers. At a board meeting she got up to protest the discrimination, so the university called the police to throw her out.

At the opening of the exhibition in 2001, the university officially apologized to her. “All her life she was also an activist,” Rodgers says proudly. She moved to Mexico, was declared persona non grata in the United States, and for 10 years was refused entry to the country of her birth.

Did the slaves paint? Rodgers says they didn’t because painting requires free time. The continuity of the creativity brought over from Africa was expressed in building, metalwork, medicinal plants, quilting and of course music.

A horrifying continuity in the paintings and artistic photographs is the motif of hanging, the rope, lynching. Rodgers was pleased to see that among the books I chose was a catalog of photos by Alexander Rivera. In 1948 he photographed the family of Isaiah Nixon, the last lynching victim in Georgia, whose sin was to promote black voting rights.

From 1877 to 1950 whites in the South murdered 3,959 blacks in lynchings. In North Carolina there were 102 lynchings. Georgia came in first at 548.

It turns out the continuity wasn’t only in the artistic representation. “In 1915, court-ordered executions outpaced lynchings for the first time in former slave states,” according to the report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” published in February by the Equal Justice Initiative, a group of legal scholars and activists based in Alabama.

“The decline of lynchings in the studied states relied heavily on the increase use of capital punishment imposed by court order following an often accelerated trial . More than eight in 10 lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in southern states, and more than eight in 10 of the nearly 1,400 legal executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South.”

A few more statistics from the Equal Justice Initiative: “All but 2% of the chief prosecutors in death penalty states are white; only 1% are black .... More than half of the people on death row in this country are people of color. Of the 3,261 condemned, 42% are black [blacks constitute about 13% of the population], 12% are hispanic, and 44% are white. Only 50% of murder victims nationwide are white. But in nearly 80% of the cases resulting in execution since 1976, the victim was white.”

Amira Hass tweets at @hass_haaretz

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