A history of American lynchings
A soil collection project is commemorating the forgotten victims of lynching and helping to tell their stories.
Alabama, United States – It’s a sunny day in early May, in Thorsby, a small town in rural Alabama.
As we make our way down Peachtree Drive, the houses begin to give way to trailers as the dusty road turns into a dirt track.
It leads to a lake, trees lining its banks.
This is where John B Smith, a 73-year-old civil rights activist from Atlanta, Fabian Medea, my South African husband, and I get out of the car.
We take in our surroundings. The serenity of this place – rippling water, rustling leaves and a clear blue sky – belies its ugly past.
On June 4, 1895, a young man by the name of Jim Powell was lynched here.
It must have been hot then, too, one of those sweltering summer evenings, when Powell, an African American farmhand, allegedly entered the room of 15-year-old Mary Bussey. According to accounts, she screamed and he ran.
Some hours later, his lifeless, badly beaten body dangled from a tree at this lake.
John is on his knees, digging vigorously with a small trowel.
“We recognise that you have lived, Jim Powell, and we feel your pain,” he says, before depositing some earth into a large glass jar with Jim’s name on it and the date and place where he died.
“The world now knows that you lived,” says John, pausing to look across the lake.
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John is participating in the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Soil Collection Project.
‘Drenched in their blood’
Earlier that day, John, Fabian and I are at the EJI’s office, in a former warehouse where slaves were kept before being sold at a nearby market, in downtown Montgomery.
Old people with walking sticks, teenagers with headphones on, people of all ages and races, are filing through the doors into the main presentation room.
The EJI was founded by Bryan Stevenson in 1994 to represent people on death row, but has since broadened its focus to include other issues pertaining to racial justice.
Stevenson thanks the 100 or so people who have gathered and begins his address.
“Lynching was racial terrorism. It is not true that 9/11 was the first domestic instance of terrorism. African Americans who lived through lynchings, bombings and persecution were terrorised on American soil,” he says.
The EJI started its soil collection initiative in 2015, as a symbolic commemoration of victims of lynching, Stevenson explains.
“Victims of lynchings were not recognised and not remembered. But the Earth is drenched in their blood,” he declares.
‘I am here’
Then Stevenson speaks about a woman he met while defending Walter McMillian, a black man who was wrongfully accused and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman in Monroeville in 1989. After a protracted legal battle, McMillian was exonerated in 1993.
He describes how an elderly lady, Mrs Williams, had walked towards the metal detectors at the entrance to the court and how she had retreated after spotting the sniffer dogs checking the bags of those entering.
The next day, she returned. Muttering to herself, “I ain’t afraid of no dog,” she walked through the detectors and past the dogs.
“Then she said to me: ‘I am here’,” Stevenson recalls. “I said I was so happy to see her back in the courtroom, so I welcomed her and I returned to my papers.”
“When McMillian was led into the courtroom, I heard Mrs Williams’ voice again. ‘You didn’t hear me, I said I am here’, she proclaimed in a loud voice. After the judge came in, Mrs Williams didn’t sit down, like everyone else. She again reiterated her mantra, ‘I am here.'”
In Just Mercy, his 2013 bestseller about racial justice in the United States, Stevenson writes about the moment he understood what Mrs Williams was trying to say. “I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness,” he wrote.
This notion of “being here” and bearing witness is central to the EJI’s racial justice work, and to its Soil Collection Project in particular.
“This is what you will be doing today,” Stevenson tells the crowd. “You will say ‘I am here’, you will bear witness.”
And with that, the EJI staff hand out leaflets with information about those victims we will be focusing on today, directions to the lynching sites, trowels and glass jars.
As we drive to Thorsby, with our jar on the back seat of the car, John begins to share some of his earliest memories.
“My parents were sharecroppers in Mississippi,” he says.
Sharecroppers had to pay rent to their landlords by giving them a share of the crops. This tied them to the land and often left them unable to harvest enough food to feed their families. But John’s parents wanted to escape the extreme poverty sharecropping had trapped them in. So they fled.
“I was about four years old and I remember that we had to flee when there wasn’t a full moon, because otherwise the night watch would catch and return us to the farmer,” John recalls. And that could lead to a lynching.
After he finished high school, John joined the army and served in Vietnam.
Upon returning home, he joined the Invaders, a Black Power group that was organising on behalf of the African-American population in Memphis.
In 1968, he met Martin Luther King Jr when he became involved in the sanitation strikes by black waste collectors in Memphis.
John explains how his journey to the site where Jim Powell was lynched is intimately linked to his own experiences of racial subordination, exclusion and hate.
Efforts to document the scale of lynchings in the American South started in 1882 when the Chicago Tribune published its annual list of African-Americans who had been lynched.
Shortly after its inception in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began publishing statistics of lynchings.
The Tuskegee Institute also kept track of lynchings and began releasing a list in 1912.
In 1995, sociologists Stewart Tolnay and E M Beck published a study, A festival of violence, which collated and, in some instances, corrected these earlier efforts.
The EJI’s February 2015 report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, is one of the most comprehensive attempts to document the scale of these murders. They found archival evidence of 4,075 lynchings that took place in the South between 1877 and 1950.
The four-year investigation saw EJI researchers and lawyers scour archives, newspapers and court records for evidence of lynchings. They also interviewed local historians and the descendants of victims.
As in Jim Powell’s case, the evidence was often minimal.
‘A posse gave chase’
On June 6, 1895, the Louisiana newspaper Times-Democrat reported: “Jim Powell went the way of all violators of the persons of white women … Ms Bussey was awakened from sleep by the presence of the negro, Powell, in her room. The negro having crawled into her room through an open window.”
The New Orleans-based Times-Picayune reported: “Her father ran in from another room, but in doing so stumbled over a sewing machine and fell, giving the negro time to escape. A posse was immediately organised and gave chase.”
The Constitution, a Birmingham newspaper, reported that “a posse was at once formed and pursuit was begun. The negro was overtaken … 15 miles from the scene of the attempted assault. The men looked like they were determined and the negro was in a badly frightened condition.”
According to the newspapers, Powell was caught and returned to Mary Bussey, who identified him. “The mob then marched to Clinton, the county site, ostensibly to jail the negro. This morning his dead body was found hanging to a tree,” the Times-Democrat read.
Beck has studied and documented lynchings in the south for 30 years. In his inventory, Jim’s lynching is listed as “ambiguous” as he found two newspaper articles on a convicted criminal called Oliver Jackson, who entered the room of a Mary Bussey around the same time.
According to the Atlanta Constitution newspaper on June 7, 1895: “When the negro was captured and taken before the girl, she stated that he had not attempted any assault and so the captors decided to turn the culprit over to the sheriff.”
But five other newspapers reported sightings of Jim’s dead body dangling from a tree.
How to define lynching
These discrepancies point to the inherent difficulties in researching lynchings, explains EJI researcher and lawyer Jennifer Rae Taylor.
“Part of the challenge of doing this research is that we are trying to document events that occurred many years ago, when standards of reporting and verification were different from how they are now, and communication was more difficult across distances, and many publications and individuals did not have much interest in collecting accurate information about lynchings,” she says.
A further complicating factor is that the definition of what constitutes a lynching can vary. According to Beck the definition developed by the NAACP is commonly used. This is that: “(1) there must be evidence that a person was killed; (2) the person must have met death illegally; (3) a group of three or more persons must have participated in the killings; and (4) the group must have acted under the pretext of protecting justice or tradition.”
But in their investigation, the EJI refined that definition. “We distinguish ‘racial terror lynchings’ – the subject of this report – from hangings and mob violence that followed some criminal trial process or that were committed against non-minorities without the threat of terror. “Racial terror lynchings” are “directed at racial minorities who were being threatened and menaced in multiple ways”, its report reads.
“The vast majority were black men murdered by white mobs,” explains Beck. “But there were a significant number of whites lynched – which EJI doesn’t count – by white mobs and a trivial number of whites lynched by black mobs, and a smaller number of blacks lynched by black mobs.”
Beck is one of only a few academics attempting to document lynchings in the US. This paucity in academic interest, he says, is a result of the shame attached to it for many white academics. It is the same shame that Beck felt when his father confessed on his deathbed that Beck’s grandfather had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
“Many white people did not and do not want to know what kind of atrocities were committed against black people, sometimes literally in their backyard,” he says.
Taylor thinks the actual number of racial terror lynchings that took place in the South is probably much higher.
“We definitely believe that there are countless victims of racial terror lynching whose deaths never resulted in a newspaper article, whose fates were only remembered through oral history and community memory, many of which have since faded,” she says.
“We are committed to continuing to refine and amend our list, but we believe it will always represent a significant undercount to the many lives lost and many, many more lives and communities impacted by racial terror lynching.”
A memorial to the victims of lynching
The EJI has so far organised three soil collection events, in which approximately 300 people have participated.
But its work on the legacy of lynchings goes beyond collecting soil.
The organisation purchased 2.5 hectares of land in Montgomery in 2015, where it intends to build a national monument to commemorate the victims of lynchings.
Stevenson has raised several million dollars of the total estimated cost of $20m to build the monument, which is scheduled to open in 2017 and was designed by the Boston-based MASS Design Group.
The collected soil will be deposited in the main feature: rows and rows of columns, some built from the ground up, others suspended, hanging in the air, evoking the victims of lynchings, who were often hung from a tree. The names of the forgotten victims will be engraved on the columns.
The EJI intends to erect identical columns in a field next to the memorial, one for each county where lynchings took place. The organisation hopes that local authorities will collect their column and turn it into their own memorial to the people who were lynched in their county.
Amnesia in a post-genocidal society
But it remains to be seen how well different counties will respond to this invitation. In many, the remnants of a racist past remain tangible.
Alabama is a case in point.
Confederate Memorial Day, a public holiday marked in Alabama on April 25, brought the county’s racial tensions to the fore. People dressed in Civil War-era outfits held a ceremony at the state capital in Montgomery to commemorate the Confederate soldiers who died – defending slavery – during the Civil War. The Confederate flag fluttered in the spring breeze. Black Lives Matter and Black Panther activists also gathered to protest against the celebration. The police intervened and a tense standoff ensued. Bulletproof vests were distributed among both groups.
Stevenson reflects on this in an interview in the EJI’s office. “The Germans built a monument in Berlin to commemorate the people who perished in the Holocaust and to remind everyone: never again,” he says. “But in the south of the US, the history of racial terror is not acknowledged. Here, we celebrate Confederate Memorial Day every year. Imagine if the Germans would commemorate the Nazis. That would be absurd. We are a post-genocidal society without any recognition for the atrocities of the past.”
That amnesia, he says, enables the perpetuation of abuse. The states where the highest number of lynchings took place currently have the highest number of executions – and those executed are disproportionately African American. According to Stevenson, it has also contributed to the mass incarceration of black men. While African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, more than a million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US are black. According to a Washington Post online database that tracks police killings, a black man in the US is seven times more likely to be killed than a white man.
Extrajudicial lynchings have simply been replaced by legal mechanisms, Stevenson postulates.
A public spectacle
Jim’s jar is filling up. John pats the light brown earth. Barely audible, he mumbles: “Which tree did they hang him from?”
I scan the horizon, assessing each tree for its age and sturdiness.
“It must be that one,” John concludes, pointing to a gnarled old oak tree. All of the trees suddenly look ominous.
Had they gouged out his eyes, I wonder. Did they chop off a finger and sell it as a souvenir? Did his family hear of what was happening to him and attempt to save him or had they already fled north, among the six million African Americans who did so during the Great Migration?
According to Beck, the public spectacle lynchings where picnicking families bought chopped off fingers, were relatively scarce. “This happened in about 10 percent of the lynchings I documented,” he says.
The brown sand suddenly looks bloody. I shiver. As an atheist on most days and an agnostic on others, I feel an unusual but desperate urge to put Jim’s soul to rest.
Protecting white women’s ‘honour’
The victims of lynchings were often black men who had been accused of raping a white woman. But, as African American journalist and activist Ida B Wells pointed out in her 1892 book Southern Horrors, Lynch Laws in All its Phases, addressing a white woman in a way deemed to be insufficiently respectful or failing to step off the pavement as a white woman approached could also lead to a lynching.
“The dark and bloody record of the south shows 728 Afro-Americans lynched during the past eight years,” she wrote in 1892. One-third of those victims had been charged with – but not convicted of – rape.
Merely walking into a room where a white woman was present could result in death. The EJI references the case of Keith Bowen in their report, a black man who in 1889 in Aberdeen, Mississippi, entered a room where three white women were seated.
“Though no further allegation was made against him, Mr Bowen was lynched by the entire white neighbourhood for his ‘offense’,” the report states.
“The idea of protecting a white woman’s honour stems from the notion of white supremacy,” Beck explains. “Black people were classified as an inferior species and having sexual relations with them would be an aberration of nature.”
The anger generated by the idea of black men and white women having sexual relationships ran deep. When Wells wrote an editorial about the myth of black-on-white sexual violence, pointing out that some relationships were consensual, her office in Memphis was burned to the ground.
White men, on the other hand, were at liberty to have sexual relationships – consensual or otherwise – with black women.
“The white man is free to seduce all the coloured girls he can,” Wells wrote.
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The federal government ignored the problem, failing to enforce anti-lynching laws such as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871.
“Efforts to define lynching as a federal crime were stopped by people in Congress from the South. Local governments also did close to nothing. Very few indictments or prosecutions took place,” Beck explains.
The Colfax massacre provides a stark example of this indifference. White Democrats in Colfax won a local election that was widely perceived to be fraudulent by black Republicans. When the Republicans staged a peaceful protest at the court, a white militia retaliated by slaughtering 150 African Americans in the worst racial violence recorded during the Reconstruction Era.
Charges were brought under the Enforcement Act and several white men were arrested, but they were subsequently either acquitted or the jurors in their cases failed to reach a verdict.
In his 1906 State of the Union speech, President Theodore Roosevelt appeared to offer implicit approval for lynchings when he said: “The greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape – the most abominable in all the category of crimes, even worse than murder.”
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I look at my husband who has taken the trowel from John. Jim’s jar is nearly full. He catches my eye and smiles. I think about how we met – in South Africa – where our relationship would once have been illegal. The 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act outlawed interracial marriages, while the 1957 Immorality Act banned interracial sexual relations, leading to the establishment of a special division of the police force tasked with peeking into people’s bedrooms. If caught in the act, a seven-year prison sentence could be imposed on both parties.
In the US, European settlers introduced anti-miscegenation laws in the early 17th century.
According to Rachel F Moran, a law professor at UCLA and author of the book Interracial Intimacy, the Regulation of Race and Romance, early anti-miscegenation laws only punished the white partner.
“In Maryland, ‘freeborne English women’ who married ‘negro slaves’ had to serve their husbands’ master during their husbands’ lifetimes,” she explains, referencing the case of Nell Butler, or Irish Nell, an indentured white woman who married a slave called Charles Butler and subsequently spent the rest of her life as a slave. Their children were also born into slavery.
Later, however, the punishments were made equivalent.
Charles Robinson is a history professor at the University of Arkansas and author of the book Forsaking All Others: A True Story of Interracial Sex and Revenge in the 1880s South. It tells the story of Isaac Bankston, a white man, and Missouri Bradford, an African American woman, who married in 1883 and were prosecuted under anti-miscegenation laws in 1884. During the trial, he successfully argued that his great grandfather was half Creek Indian and so the anti-miscegenation law did not apply to him. He later died in a fight with one of the lawyers who had prosecuted him.
It took several more decades to end the ban on interracial relationships. In 1958, a mixed-race couple named Loving were arrested and convicted in Virginia under the Racial Integrity Act, one of the many anti-miscegenation laws that 17 states throughout the South enforced. The Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in 1967 that these laws were unconstitutional.
It is unclear exactly how many people had been prosecuted under them by then. “The state by state nature of the enforcement greatly complicates any such computation,” explains Robinson.
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The same inhumanity
“You can’t stop the idea that people want to be together. Or, in Powell’s case, that people are just allowed to talk, allowed to sit down in the same room,” Fabian says as he continues to dig through the pebbles and sand. “They were so afraid of the idea that they would sit down and talk and realise, ‘Oh my God, we are actually the same, there is no difference between us, the difference I was told about was a lie’.”
John walks back to the car with Jim’s jar. “He is one of us,” he says. “The inhumanity that led to his death, still exists, to this day.”
We drive in silence for a while, mulling over John’s statement on the unfinished state of race relations in the 21st century.
Then, Fabian breaks the silence. “The only way we can truly evolve as a species is to acknowledge our wrongdoings, to acknowledge the horror that we have done to each other. You can’t really ever know who you are; you can’t really ever heal if you don’t acknowledge your past. If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’ll go,” he says.
The three of us return Jim Powell’s jar to the EJI’s office, where it is placed on a shelf next to the jars of other victims of lynching.
The EJI’s office is a testament to the treatment of African Americans throughout history. Framed pictures of sharecroppers, the Lovings, “whites only “or “coloureds only” signs and images of the mass incarceration of African Americans line the walls. They are a reminder that racial oppression is not a thing of the distant past.
Returning to Ellisville, Mississippi
One-hundred-and-seven-year-old Mamie Kirkland, who was awarded the Champion of Justice Award at the EJI’s annual benefit in New York in April last year, is a living testament to that past.
As she received her award, she recalled the events that had uprooted her life a century earlier, when she was a seven-year-old girl in 1916 in Ellisville, Mississippi.
Her father came home and instructed her mother to pack their bags and get the children ready, she recalled. A crowd had gathered, calling for him and his best friend, Mr Hartfield, to be lynched.
Her father left immediately, her mother ushered her five children onto a train the next morning. The family made it to East St Louis, Illinois.
But Mr Hartfield, her father’s friend, decided to return to Ellisville to be with his white girlfriend. The mob made good on their threat: shooting, hanging and burning him.
“He could have been my father,” said Mamie.
“I didn’t even want to see Ellisville, Mississippi on a map,” she added.
But the EJI’s lynchings report changed her mind. When her son read about the lynching of Mr Hartfield in it, he contacted the EJI. Then, he convinced his mother to return to Ellisville.
So, last year, on the spot where Mr Hartfield had been hanged from a gum tree, Mamie, several of her relatives and EJI lawyer Jennifer Rae Taylor held hands and prayed together.