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New York photo exhibition focuses attention on the horror of lynchings

Sunday, March 05, 2000

By Michael D. Sallah, Block News Alliance

NEW YORK CITY -- Dangling at the end of a chain, Jesse Washington twisted and convulsed as his body was lowered into a crackling fire.

Just as his legs dipped into the flames, a crowd of spectators cheered in a deafening roar that was heard across the town.

The moment -- stark and bone-chilling -- was captured in a snapshot.

Like an old scrapbook in an attic, the picture postcard of the lynching in Waco, Texas, in 1916 was buried in time.


"Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America"

Dates: March 14 through June 18 at the New York Historical Society, 77th Street at Central Park West, New York City.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays.

Admission: Suggested donation of $5 for adults; $3 for students and senior citizens. Information: (212) 873-3400.


The spectacle was never written in the history books, nor did it survive in the collective memory.

Until now.

Powerful and tragic, it is one of dozens of photographs that have been discovered in the past decade. The images show American lynchings that took place between 1883 and 1961. All but a few are black victims.

One graphic postcard portrays a 35-year-old mother -- a wedding ring on her finger -- hanged by the neck in 1911. Close by is her 14-year-old son, also hanging, with his pants pulled down.

Most of the photos are postcards -- once a tradition -- that were mailed to friends and loved ones at the time.

An inscription on one of the cards reads: "This is the barbecue we had last night," with the charred body of Jesse Washington on the other side.

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The images were collected over the past 15 years by antique dealer James Allen, 45, a native Southerner who recently allowed the photos to be shown in a New York gallery. That show, which ended Feb. 12, drew thousands of people, with an even larger number turned back because of long lines. Many people left the exhibit crying, saying they were deeply affected by what they saw.

Because of the critical acclaim of the show, the New York Historical Society has agreed to display 60 of the photos between March and June. The exhibition -- "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" -- opens March 14.

Historians are already hailing the images -- published in a book called "Without Sanctuary" -- as the most important collection ever gathered chronicling America's most shameful ritual.

"These are materials that have been ignored by historians for years, but they speak very powerfully," said Stewart Desmond, of the New York Historical Society.

The history of lynchings has been written into books since the early 1900s. An anti-lynching movement beginning in the 1890s helped inspire the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.

Between 1882 and 1962, 4,743 people -- most of them black -- were killed at the hands of lynch mobs, according to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. And that's a conservative figure, since many went unreported.

But the images -- with mutilated and tortured people hung from trees and telegraph poles -- evoke a far more emotional response than what is written, say curators of the exhibit.

For years, the postcards were discarded or buried in family estates and courthouses, relics of another time.

No one knows that more than Allen, who became obsessed with acquiring the images after buying an antique desk in 1985, he said.

Buried in the bottom of a drawer was a postcard of Leo Frank, a Jew, hanging at the end of a rope in Georgia in 1915.

What stunned him was not the body, but the reaction of the people surrounding the corpse. "They were standing next to it like they were getting their picture taken for an ice cream social," he recalled. "There was no remorse, no shame, nothing.

"I was horrified. I couldn't put it down. I would set it aside, then found myself picking it up again. I would put it away, and then get it out again."

He began combing the country looking for the souvenirs. He phoned numerous historical societies, but most of them did not have any such images.

"I figured that since these were postcards, it must have been a tradition or practice at the turn of the century. We advertised in collectors' magazines -- newspapers, you name it," said Allen, who lives in Atlanta.

He soon learned the postcards of lynchings flooded the mail in the early 1900s. In fact, the making of the souvenirs was considered a "lost art." Two years passed before he bought another image: a 35-year-old mother hanging from a bridge in Okemah, Okla., with her son dangling from a rope nearby.

After researching the background of the 1911 event, he learned that Laura Nelson and her son had been suspected of stealing meat. When an angry mob stormed the family's log cabin -- the father working in the fields -- the young boy shot the sheriff as he barged inside.

Like so many lynchings, the mob kidnapped the mother and son from the jail and dragged them 14 miles from the back of a wagon, according to historical accounts.

The woman was later raped, and hanged side by side with her son.

In the photo, a crowd is gathered on the span, with some people waving for the photographer, who later sold the images as souvenirs.

Allen said he discovered that many of the lynchings were rituals, especially in the South.

Described as carnival atmospheres, the events were often advertised in advance and described in great detail by the local newspapers -- some collected by Allen.

One headline in the Memphis Press on Jan. 21, 1921, reads: "May Lynch 3 to 6 Negroes This Evening."

"Hundreds of people took trains to these events," said Dr. Donald Nieman, dean of the Bowling Green (Ohio) State University history department who wrote the civil rights book "Promises to Keep."

"They were major spectacles, and they often drew people from miles away. You would get little kids, parents, older people."

A professional photographer was usually close by to record the event, often selling postcards that same day for $2.

Historians report that people in the crowds would often scrounge to get body parts -- knuckles and bone chips -- and hair as souvenirs.

Several years after starting his collection, Allen ran into what he calls one of his most gripping sets of pictures. In a series of three images, a man named Frank Embree, accused of the 1899 slaying of his boss in Missouri, was made to stand on a wagon, naked and bound, as a group of men hovered close as if he were a trophy.

He had been tortured and whipped, but he stared defiantly into the camera as he awaited his grim fate.

In the second picture, his back is turned, with deep, bloody gashes from a whip.

"Five men spent a half hour flogging him," said Allen, who researched the ordeal. "He never once begged for mercy."

In the third frame, Frank Embree is hanged from a tree, his neck grotesquely stretched and a blanket pinned around his waist.

The price of the images: $30,000, said Allen.

"We bought the pictures in New York from a collector who did not want to sell them initially," he said.

In many cases, the victims were dragged from jails or from the courtrooms after being declared guilty of crimes.

At first, lynchings were performed to protect Southern white women against black males, according to biased accounts. But historians have already debunked that claim, saying the deadly punishments were often performed because a person had broken a social code.

"Sometimes it could be for something as simple as bumping into somebody on a sidewalk or not moving out of the way," Allen said.

That was the fate of Joseph Richardson, who was shot and hanged from a tree in Richfield, Ky., in 1913 for accidentally running into a young girl.

"He was basically the town drunk, and he wouldn't have hurt her," Allen said. "A mob dragged him away and hung him with his casket in plain view." The picture, with a casket nearby, supports the research.

"The irony is that it was not the townspeople who did it. It was a [traveling] mob. When the white townspeople saw Joe Richardson hanging from the rope, they were upset, because he never hurt anyone."

By the early 1990s, collectors in several states were aware that Allen was searching for the lost postcards. "I started to get calls, and I began buying more," he said. Some of the postcards were found in family estates.

Of all the known lynchings, 79 percent took place in Southern states, according to the Tuskegee Institute, with Mississippi recording the highest number, 581, followed by Georgia, 531, and Texas, 493.

Most of Allen's collection was bought in the South, but he also found several in Western states. There, the majority of the people lynched were white cattle and horse thieves.

Of the 4,743 known lynchings, 73 percent were black and 27 percent were white. But the overwhelming number of postcards depict black victims.

To Allen, the most visceral images were of Jesse Washington, 17, a mentally disabled boy who was accused of killing a man in Waco in 1916.

He went to trial without a lawyer and was pronounced guilty by a white jury after only four minutes of deliberation, according to historical accounts.

A mob immediately dragged him out of the courthouse. And with an estimated 10,000 people watching in the town square, he was hanged by the neck over a fire.

"Each time they would drop him into the fire -- and then raise him again--the crowd would go into a screaming frenzy," said Allen, who dug up extensive newspaper accounts of the event.

"When he tried reaching over his head to climb up on the chain to avoid the flames, they cut off his fingers," Allen said.

After years of these pictures flooding the mail, the postmaster general -- in response to strong sentiments -- banned the postcards in 1908.

But the cards continued to be printed -- sometimes 1,000 at a time -- and sold at souvenir stands in the South.

This was confirmed by a person who bought one of the cards around 1908, and wrote on the back: "I bought this in Hopkinsville 15 cents. They are not supposed to sell them openly ... a law was passed forbidding these to be sent thru [sic] the mail."

Some of the photos sold well into the 1940s, with an especially graphic lynching of a man in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1935.

By the 1970s, the cards were either thrown away or hidden.

Reactions to the images on display evoke many emotions. A columnist for The New York Times who attended the recent showing, wrote that the photos "send shock waves through the brain," but they are not intended just to shock, insisted Allen and several historians.

"People, black and white, have thanked me for spending years putting this together, because they felt it was so important to see this, and to understand what happened," Allen said. "So many people have only read about these things, but they have never actually seen them."

At first, many people are struck by the gruesome depictions, and then there's a sense of outrage and even guilt, said Stewart Desmond of the New York Historical Society.

"It's like: How could this be America? And how could people have allowed this?" he said.

"But by the time you have absorbed these images, there's a sense of resoluteness that we can never, ever allow something like this to happen again."

The Block News Alliance is a joint venture of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, both Block newspapers. Michael D. Sallah is a writer for The Blade.

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