History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names

Campbell Robertson, New York Times, February 10, 2015

A block from the tourist-swarmed headquarters of the former Texas School Book Depository sits the old county courthouse, now a museum. In 1910, a group of men rushed into the courthouse, threw a rope around the neck of a black man accused of sexually assaulting a 3-year-old white girl, and threw the other end of the rope out a window. A mob outside yanked the man, Allen Brooks, to the ground and strung him up at a ceremonial arch a few blocks down Main Street.

South of the city, past the Trinity River bottoms, a black man named W. R. Taylor was hanged by a mob in 1889. Farther south still is the community of Streetman, where 25-year-old George Gay was hanged from a tree and shot hundreds of times in 1922.

And just beyond that is Kirvin, where three black men, two of them almost certainly innocent, were accused of killing a white woman and, under the gaze of hundreds of soda-drinking spectators, were castrated, stabbed, beaten, tied to a plow and set afire in the spring of 1922.

The killing of Mr. Brooks is noted in the museum. The sites of the other killings, like those of nearly every lynching in the United States, are not marked. Bryan Stevenson believes this should change.

On Tuesday, the organization he founded and runs, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., released a report on the history of lynchings in the United States, the result of five years of research and 160 visits to sites around the South. The authors of the report compiled an inventory of 3,959 victims of “racial terror lynchings” in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950.

Next comes the process of selecting lynching sites where the organization plans to erect markers and memorials, which will involve significant fund-raising, negotiations with distrustful landowners and, almost undoubtedly, intense controversy.

The process is intended, Mr. Stevenson said, to force people to reckon with the narrative through-line of the country’s vicious racial history, rather than thinking of that history in a short-range, piecemeal way.

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Around the country, there are only a few markers noting the sites of lynchings. In several of those places, like Newnan, Ga., attempts to erect markers were met with local resistance. But in most places, no one has tried to put up a marker.

Efforts to count the number of lynchings in the country go back at least to 1882, when The Chicago Tribune began publishing each January a list of all executions and lynchings in the previous year. The Tuskegee Institute began releasing a list in 1912, and in 1919, the N.A.A.C.P. published what its researchers said was a comprehensive list of lynchings in the previous three decades. In 1995, the sociologists Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck researched the existing lists, eliminated errors and duplicates, and compiled what many consider the most accurate inventory to that time.

The report released Tuesday says that the new inventory has 700 names that are not on any of these previous lists, many of which Mr. Stevenson said were discovered during the compilation of the report.

Professor Beck, who teaches at the University of Georgia, has not reviewed the new list. But he pointed out that, with racial violence so extensive and carried out in so many different ways, compilers of lists may differ on what constitutes a lynching; the new list, as opposed to some previous ones, includes one-time massacres of large numbers of African-Americans, such as occurred in Arkansas in 1919 and in Louisiana in 1887.

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