A Haunting Legacy of Racial Terror: The Thousands of Lynchings That Changed America

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From Brooklyn Museum's 'Legacy of Lynching' exhibition.
From Brooklyn Museum's 'Legacy of Lynching' exhibition. Credit: Brooklyn Museum's 'Legacy of Lyn
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

– Maya Angelou

This story begins on February 1, 1893, in the town of Paris, Texas, but it could just as easily have begun on 4,000 other dates and in dozens of other American locales. During the American Civil War, Paris had a population of fewer than 1,000 people. About a third of them were black slaves, who were eventually freed in the wake of the Union victory and the abolition of slavery in 1865. But despite passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which formally outlawed slavery, the postwar decades were rife with systematic, vicious violence against black communities in the South.

In early 1893, several white residents of Paris accused a 17-year-old black youth named Henry Smith of murdering a 3-year-old white girl. Smith, who denied the charge and feared for his life, fled to Arkansas, but was captured a week later and forcibly returned to his hometown.

On February 1, thousands of whites from across Texas gathered into the Paris town square to view Smith’s execution – although he had never been brought to trial.

Smith was put to death in the same manner as thousands of other African Americans, many of them freed slaves, who were publicly lynched between 1877 and 1950. He was stripped, beaten savagely and brought to the town square with his hands bound. In front of a crowd of about 10,000, including families with children, he was forced to climb onto a high platform and then tortured by the executioners for more than an hour. Finally, he was burned alive to the jubilant shouts of the mob, who immediately purchased his bones and organs, sold as souvenirs of the event.

People gather to watch the torture of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, 1893.Credit: Brooklyn Museum's 'Legacy of Lynching' Exhibition

Smith’s final moments were captured in a photograph that was displayed in a recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and can be seen on an interactive website, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” which was the basis for the show.

Both the website and exhibition are the result of years-long comprehensive research in which dozens of volunteers probed archives, interviewed family members of lynch victims, and visited the 12 American states in which most of the lynchings were perpetrated: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Additional lynchings took place in Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Maryland, Indiana and West Virginia.

In the wake of in-depth research conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative nonprofit, its director, human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, together with a number of historians, authored a report showing how public lynchings served as a tool of what they term “racial terror.” It was that phenomenon that set in motion a mass migration of the African-American community from the South to the North, permanently altering America’s demographics.

It was that phenomenon that set in motion a mass migration of the African-American community from the South to the North, permanently altering America’s demographics.

The long-term research, over two years, led to close cooperation between EJI and Google, which invested millions of dollars to develop an interactive website and fund the museum exhibition that accompanied the site’s launch. The show and website are the culmination of a two-year process, according to Stevenson, a 57-year-old law professor and prize-winning author.

“We put out a report in 2015 about lynching and we immediately saw that people were curious and reacted very strongly,” he told Haaretz, in a phone interview from EJI’s office in Alabama. “We heard from hundreds of people whose family members participated in lynching, and this tremendous response made us recognize that this was an open wound in America that hasn’t been given the attention it requires. So we began talking about ways to make this historical investigation accessible to people by, for example, putting markers at lynching sites. We began collecting soil from those sites and placing it in jars that carry the names of the victims and the dates of their murders. The impact of these jars when they were placed in our office was totally unexpected – I remember having visitors in tears when they saw them.”

Moved by the response, Stevenson and his colleagues looked for ways to broaden access to the stories. “That’s when we started to collaborate with Google in the creation of oral histories and videos featuring relatives of the victims and survivors of lynching. The initial plan was to create an interactive website that could be accessible worldwide online. But when we hired photographers to capture the voices visually, we thought of a museum environment and approached the Brooklyn Museum. The result was the exhibition, and we are very proud of it.”

The show featured video testimonies, a short documentary film and works in the museum collection by influential African-American artists, among them Jacob Lawrence, Mark Bradford, Sanford Biggers and Kara Walker.

A New Orleans paper announces a lynching. Credit: Brooklyn Museum's 'Legacy of Lynching' Exhibition

From slavery to jail

The recent resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members staged a march in August in Charlottesville, Virginia, can only be understood in the context of the period of slavery, the Civil War and the Jim Crow laws that barred blacks from interaction with whites in schools, places of leisure, restaurants and on public transportation – not to mention marrying whites or fraternizing with them in public.

To grasp the import of the “war of monuments” that has jolted the United States in recent months, partly in the form of demonstrations by white supremacists against removal of statues of Confederate heroes, it’s necessary to gaze unflinchingly at the disturbing photograph that documents the public lynching of Smith, and demonstrates that the perception among whites that blacks were inferior did not disappear together with the abolition of slavery. In the image, a motley group of white men, dressed in their Sunday best, crowds around a raised wooden platform on which the word “justice” is inscribed in large letters.

Bryan Stevenson.Credit: Angela Davis

'The commitment to never tolerating the kind of horrors that the Holocaust represents or the genocide in Rwanda represents is the responsibility of the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators.'

Bryan Stevenson

The exhibition also documented similar acts of violence that erupted in the wake of less serious allegations. For example, Jesse Thornton, a black man who forgot to address a white policeman as “Mister” in Alabama of 1940, paid for it with his life. Or Jeff Brown, who had the misfortune to bump into a white woman while trying to catch a train in Mississippi in 1916; he was set upon by a white mob in the station and lynched.

This isn’t the first time researchers have set out to tell the story of postbellum lynchings, but the report drawn up by Stevenson and his colleagues is the most systematic and comprehensive to date.

Stevenson: “EJI has documented 4,084 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, which is at least 800 more lynchings in these states than previously reported. We also documented more than 300 racial terror lynchings in other states during this time period.”

The horrific statistics were presented in the exhibition by means of an interactive map displayed on an outsized touchscreen that was hung on a white wall. At the show, for instance, a gentle tap on Jefferson County, Alabama, opened a video clip that tells the tragic story of an African-American woman named Elizabeth Lawrence. While walking home on July 5, 1933, Lawrence, a high-school teacher, encountered a group of white schoolchildren who taunted and threw stones at her. She scolded them and went on her way, but that evening an enraged mob burst into her home, burned it to the ground and lynched her. Her son, Alexander Lawrence, demanded that his mother’s murderers be brought to justice, but the rabble threatened him, too, and he fled to Boston. None of the killers was ever brought to trial.

An execution in Mississippi, 1940.Credit: Brooklyn Museum's 'Legacy of Lynching' Exhibition

The text that accompanies the narration explains that in the 1930s, blacks were vulnerable to systematic violence based on unfounded rumors, or for committing “crimes” such as refusing to step off a sidewalk to prevent any possible contact with a white pedestrian, using profanity or making any sort of direct contact with whites (such as writing notes, making eye contact or attempting to strike up a conversation).

The combination of systematic intimidation, lynching without trial and the fact that authorities turned a blind eye to such acts spurred the migration of millions of blacks from the South to slums in northern states.

At the entrance to the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, not far from the interactive map, was a black-lettered quotation from Stevenson: “Slavery didn’t end. It evolved.” In our conversation, he reiterated this concept repeatedly, explaining that since the abolition of slavery, racial violence against blacks has been manifested in more covert ways. He cited in particular the prison system, which is used to punish and execute African-American populations disproportionately.

That claim has a factual basis. Stevenson has devoted his life to proving the innocence of people on death row. His memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” recounts his legal activity, focusing on the story of a young black man named Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman but persistently denied having committed the crime. The book was named one of the New York Times’ best books of 2014 and reached the top spot on the paper’s nonfiction best-seller list.

Stevenson, who grew up in a poor neighborhood in Delaware but went on to attend Harvard Law School, represented McMillian for years, and succeeded in bringing about his full acquittal and subsequent release. EJI, the Alabama-based organization Stevenson founded to advocate on behalf of prisoners denied a fair trial, has represented dozens of inmates and has brought about the acquittal of many of them. During his judicial career, Stevenson has been a fierce critic of the death penalty in the United States.

In a TED Talk from 2012, which garnered more than 500,000 views, Stevenson relates that the person who most deeply influenced him was his grandmother. Born in 1880, she was the daughter of parents who had been born into slavery in Virginia. Stevenson’s mother was the youngest of 10 children. His childhood in the slums, he says, helped him realize the correlation between race and social status.

Within the EJI framework, Stevenson recently initiated construction of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – the first monument in the United States commemorating the thousands of African-American victims of lynching in the 19th and 20th centuries. The immense structure is currently being built in Montgomery, Alabama, where Stevenson makes his home, alongside a new EJI-sponsored museum to be called “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.”

“It will be a narrative museum that presents a very direct narrative about the domestic slave trade and its relationship to lynching, and the relationship between lynching and Jim Crow and segregation, and the relationship between segregation and mass incarceration and the contemporary issues that we deal with today,” Stevenson explained. “It will use a lot of technology and first-person narratives of survivors of slavery and lynching and segregation.”

As for the monument, he noted, it will use “sculpture, design and visual arts to bring people closer to the pain of lynching. The Holocaust Museum in D.C. is a narrative museum. It has a point of view about the horrors of the Holocaust. If you go into a room and you see piles of shoes on top of one another, this expresses the pain, the anguish, the loss, the brutality of what happened. Clearly, our memorial has a point of view; we are not uncertain about the horror and brutality of lynching. We want to show what it means to live in a space, and in a nation, where we were indifferent to this kind of pain and suffering. And this is something quite unique in the United States.”

'The lynchings were frequently held in broad daylight in front of thousands of people who cheered and celebrated, and had their picture taken with the brutalized bodies of the victims.'

Bryan Stevenson

You often mention the memorialization of the Holocaust in Berlin as a model. But most of the people involved in racial terror are long dead. What should we expect from the children or grandchildren of the perpetrators? Should they feel guilty for something that happened long before they were born?

Stevenson: “I think that the commitment to never tolerating the kind of horrors that the Holocaust represents or the genocide in Rwanda represents is the responsibility of the children and grandchildren of those who perpetrated these hideous crimes. If in Germany there was no discussion about the Holocaust and no one would talk about it or express their shame and anguish about what happened, I would be very worried about the nation-state of Germany. If there were Adolf Hitler monuments and statues all across Germany, that would say something deeply provocative and troubling to me about the heirs of this legacy.

“So I think we all have an obligation to memorialize these horrors and express our shame that we allowed these acts to take place. I think we all have to express shame about what we did not do to stop the genocide in Rwanda and to allow apartheid to continue. That’s why we have to be vigilant wherever there is an atrocity. And the descendants of the perpetrators have a critical role to play in this process.”      

‘Neglected’ voices

I asked Stevenson why he decided not to include testimonies by whites whose family members took part in lynchings. “Half of the Americans have been required to stay silent about slavery and its history,” he said. “They were forced to be silent about lynching and the damage being done by segregation, and for so many decades there has been no claim for their voice to be heard – so we absolutely articulated a priority to give spaces to these voices that have been neglected for over a century.”

One of the most disturbing realizations gleaned from the project is the scale and frequency of what you call “public spectacle lynching.” How do you explain the fact that white people drew pleasure from watching these hideous crimes?

“I appreciate this question, because I think it’s the one component of this history that is least understood and is most disturbing. Everyone was complicit in these acts of violence: teachers, pastors, law enforcement, religious leaders, elected officials. These acts of violence didn’t take place in the wee hours of the night by people who were masked. The lynchings were frequently held in broad daylight in front of thousands of people who cheered and celebrated, and had their picture taken with the brutalized bodies of the victims. They ate deviled eggs and drank whiskey and lemonade. They brought their children to bear witness to this torture, and it says something about how committed these communities were to racial hierarchies and how determined they were to make this bigotry part of their social, cultural and economic lives. This is why I find this work to be so critical in expressing the shame and the truth of what we’ve done to one another.”          

To set in motion what Stevenson – drawing on the post-apartheid model in South Africa – calls “processes of truth and reconciliation,” the website and exhibition document dozens of lynchings based on information discovered by Stevenson and his colleagues. The painstaking work of coming up with names and dates, and the circumstances of each lynching, together with the knowledge that not a single one of the murderers was ever tried, create a lingering sense of dismay, despair and anger.

So ingrained were the hatred and brutality that, in many cases, blacks in the South were executed even when it was clear beyond any doubt that they were innocent. In 1901, for example, a young black man was accused of deciding to keep a wallet he found containing $120. He fled Tennessee in fear of his life, but a murderous mob broke into his family’s home, where they found his sister, Ballie Crutchfield, who had never been accused of any crime. Dozens of white men lynched her in revenge for her brother’s alleged theft.

Accusations that black men had raped white women were often used as justification for lynching, even when the accuser refused to name the alleged victim. Indeed, the general view in the period studied was that any contact at all between a black man and a white woman constituted what we would call sexual harassment or rape. In fact, 25 percent of the victims documented in the EJI report were accused of having raped or sexually harassed white women.

In May 1892, Ida Wells, a black journalist and human rights activist (as she would be termed today), published an opinion piece in a local Memphis paper in which she argued that the possibility of consensual sexual relations between blacks and whites should not be ruled out a priori. The response was not long in coming. A few days after the article appeared, when Wells, to her good fortune, was in Philadelphia, a white mob burned down the building housing the offices of the newspaper, which was called Free Speech and Headlight, and threatened to kill her if she dared return to Memphis.

In addition to the archival documentation, the great power of the “Lynching in America” project resides in the connection that’s drawn between the past and the present, and in the effort to map the long-term implications of the acts of public violence that made the African-American community fearful for decades. The website and exhibition are constructed around short video testimonies, in which relatives of lynch victims return to the scene of the crime – places where today there is nothing indicating that blood was shed, motivated by racial hatred.

In the short film “Uprooted,” made for the project by EJI, a young black woman named Shirah Dedman, visits Shreveport, Louisiana for the first time in her life. She’s the great-granddaughter of Thomas William Miles, a black man who was born and grew up in Louisiana. In 1912, Miles was accused of passing a note to a white woman. He was placed on trial and acquitted, but was seized afterward by dozens of whites and lynched. His widow fled with their 6-year-old son, settling in Oakland, California.

‘A Negro Lynched’

In the six-minute film, Dedman relates that she and her family – suffering from a trauma that was passed from one generation to the next – did not visit the South for more than a century. A few months ago, Dedman, her mother and her aunt traveled to Louisiana to visit the local archive, in an attempt to shed light on the family history.

To their astonishment, they found a brief newspaper report, dated April 9, 1912, which described dispassionately what happened to Miles, under the headline “A Negro Lynched.” Subsequently, they found the now-abandoned site on which the family’s home had stood. In a heartrending scene, the women collect some soil and place it in a jar. It will be part of EJI’s memorial monument in Alabama. The film ends with the caption, “Between 1910 and 1970, over 6 million African Americans migrated north and west, away from the racial terror that characterized the South at the time.”

Sara Softness.Credit: JEWEL SAMAD / AFP

'We want to make the point that this legacy continues to haunt us, and that is why we have incidents like Charlottesville.'

Sara Softness

The curator of the Brooklyn Museum show, Sara Softness, told me – in a conversation at the museum in September – that the staff had no inkling that the historical events at its center would be so relevant in the summer of 2017, given the tempestuous demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, leading to the death of anti-fascist demonstrator Heather Heyer. The confrontation began in the wake of a protest by far-right activists against the intention to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States in the Civil War.

It seems that one of the biggest challenges in curating this exhibition was deciding what not to show. When engaging with such graphic violence, you run the risk of shocking, rather than educating, visitors. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?   

Softness: “I think that this is a part of our history that is deeply important to address. We wanted to educate and to shine a light on these events. It is not that we want to make anybody cry or feel traumatized. We have been working with both our staff and EJI in the understanding that this brings up a lot of emotion and is a highly charged topic. We had to find a fine balance between showing the work and not doing harm to our visitors. Eventually, we decided to show archival photos of the mob gathering, but not photos documenting the results of these atrocities. The emphasis was on the human impact of this history, and what this violence has wrought throughout this century.”   

Softness, who was born and raised in New York, explained that she trusted the artistic and semantic decisions made by Stevenson and EJI, such as the controversial decision to use the term “racial terror” and to call the white perpetrators “terrorists.”

“There was a great amount of trust in our relationship with EJI,” she noted. “Knowing the work that they do and where they are based, in Montgomery, Alabama – they are in a part of the country that we in Brooklyn might not be able to understand as far as the heterogeneity of political views and familial histories. It was really important for us to trust this process and the work they do, which is unbelievably important.”  

A lynching, 1920.Credit: Brooklyn Museum's 'Legacy of Lynching' Exhibition

Softness said that “curators from the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan have helped us in thinking about whether to include personal narratives and testimonies alongside art works.”

She added, “A constant tension between scale and the individual story exists in these museums, and we wanted to engage in this discussion. Early on, we decided that the backbone for the exhibit will be the personal narratives of the victims’ descendants. We wanted to provide various entry points into this history: poetic, aesthetic and personal. We were hoping to raise awareness for the EJI’s report and for the fact that there is a lot of work left to do.”

On September 14, in a painful reminder of the kind of work that remains to be done, an employee of the Brooklyn Public Library discovered two nooses hanging from trees in front of the library and the museum. According to media reports, the Hate Crimes Task Force of the New York City Police Department launched a criminal investigation, but no suspects have been arrested. An anonymous commenter on the New York Daily News website wrote in response to the report that someone just wanted to decorate the neighborhood ahead of Halloween. He also reminded readers that racism in America is far from being the exclusive preserve of the past.

“I think we have never been required to tell the truth,” Stevenson concluded in a wry tone. “Slavery evolved and we didn’t really abolish white supremacy in 1865 or in 1965, under the Civil Rights Act. We want to make the point that this legacy continues to haunt us, and that is why we have incidents like Charlottesville, which characterize so much of what’s going on in this country.

“Unlike in Germany and South Africa, the perpetrators in America have never been required to be truthful about their histories,” he continued. “And what we have done instead is to create a false history that honors the ‘good old days.’ Because of the failure to talk honestly about these histories, we are now challenging the iconographies of these monuments, and there is real tension around them. People have an identity crisis and we have to work through it. I don’t believe truth and reconciliation are simultaneous. We haven’t done much truth-telling in America about lynching and segregation. And until we begin to do so, there will be conflict and real pain over what this truth means. But on the other side of that there will be an opportunity for more freedom to build greater understanding and a new future.”

From Brooklyn Museum's 'Legacy of Lynching' exhibition.Credit: Brooklyn Museum's 'Legacy of Lyn