In many respects, Americans have begun to face the gruesome threads of history that are sewn into the country’s fabric. The mass genocide of indigenous peoples is generally understood to have been cruel, ruthless, murderous, and without humanity. The enslavement of African people and their descendants has been widely accepted as a despicable and vile institution that was leveraged to build the economic and physical infrastructure of the country. As of late, virtually all monuments to the Confederacy have been identified as inherently racist and rooted in the preservation of anti-black sentiment.
But in the United States, there are still horrors that we’ve yet to fully grapple with as we work to confront our racial past and its effects. At the top of that list is lynching, a form of often-racialized terror where an individual or group is put to death – especially by hanging – for a perceived offense, with or without a trial. The act is usually carried out by a mob, and it happened with great frequency throughout U.S. history.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), tells Teen Vogue that lynching was so common because “slavery didn’t end in 1865, it just evolved,” ushering in a new era of terror for black Americans. Stevenson and the EJI recently partnered with the Brooklyn Museum on an exhibit titled “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America,” in which photographers show the long legacy of slavery and its subsequent manifestation in lynching through the personal stories and accounts of black people.
Nearly 4,100, black Americans were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950, according to a report from the EJI, and those are just the ones on record. Most of these “racial terror lynchings,” as the EJI describes them in its report, remain undocumented because white people generally had no incentive to record the senseless, extrajudicial murders of black Americans at the hands of vigilante white mobs. Initially, many of these acts of racial terror were a direct response to the period of Reconstruction, between 1865 and 1877, when black American political, economic, and social access was temporarily invigorated. While most lynchings occurred in the South, they were also common in states such as Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio.
During this period, many newly freed black Americans worked as “sharecroppers,” or farmers who essentially rented space on the plantations where they used to be enslaved. Of every crop they reaped, a portion was owed to their former masters. This process of debt and commodity transaction, where black Americans had no claims to their labor or land, created a system of “debt peonage,” or labor exploitation, which journalist Douglas A. Blackmon calls “slavery by another name” (also the title of his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning book on conditions following the Civil War). It was under these conditions that “vigilantes whipped and lynched black freedmen who argued with employers, left the plantations where they were contracted to work, or displayed any economic success of their own,” according to the EJI. Lynchings were rarely random acts of passion – far more frequently, they were warnings to black Americans who were working to better their economic and social stakes not to step out of line with an existing racial hierarchy that placed them squarely at the bottom.
Many white Southerners saw the end of slavery as a formality rather than a rule – and while black Americans had symbolic freedom, they were never truly free.
“The 13th Amendment ends involuntary servitude and forced labor but it doesn’t say anything about narratives of racial difference or white supremacy,” EJI’s Stevenson tells Teen Vogue. Though it brought a formal end to the practice of slavery, it was just the beginning of a period of racial terror stemming directly from this country’s preexisting overall commitment to white supremacy. In fact, it was this enduring and systemic nature that undoubtedly laid the groundwork for lynching and mob violence against black Americans.
“Lynching functioned as a tool of domination meant to coerce (and not rough-handedly correct), to deny (and not merely restrict), and to subjugate (not only banish or dispatch) black people, depriving them of political, economic, social, and cultural opportunities promised by emancipation,” Yale University professor Jacqueline Goldsby writes in A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature. As such, the purpose of lynching was essentially about undermining the legal frameworks that declared black Americans full and free citizens.
These lynchings were frequent and public acts, often attended by high-society types and with family themed festivities, as if they were preplanned weekend affairs. “People would sometimes come to these lynchings, bring their children, bring their snacks, sip lemonade, eat deviled eggs, and create a carnival atmosphere while black men and women were being tortured and burned alive sometimes literally on the courthouse lawn,” Stevenson says, citing his research.
Some have estimated that, on average, there was a lynching in the United States at least once a week in the 1890s. The summer of 1919, following the end of World War I, is referred to as “the Red Summer” because of rampant riots that took place to crack down on black protests. It was also a time of rampant lynchings meant to restore the prewar status quo of black American subjugation to whites. These killings were performed during the day or at night, and black Americans accused of attempting to vote, loitering, interracial sexual relations, or failing to pay debts were maimed in the most lurid of ways. And women and children weren’t protected from the mob’s wrath.
The scenes of these killings were vicious. Bloodied bodies – sometimes missing limbs, exposed to the elements, lit on fire, or even, according to at least one account, with babies still kicking in their uteruses postmortem – would be the main attraction for hordes of white crowds. Often, postcards were made to commemorate a lynching, and ” souvenirs” were cut from maimed bodies to be kept by members of the crowd.
Black activists worked to draw attention to the unique atrocity of lynching, most notably activist and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who gave the earliest and most thorough accounts of the terror of lynching when she told the stories of her friends Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart in the 1892 pamphlet Southern Horrors.
On March 9, 1892, the three black men who ran the People’s Grocery, Memphis’s first black-owned grocery business, were violently confronted by a white rival grocer, who recruited plainclothes officers to seize the store. When the young men armed themselves and defended their business from retaliation, 31 black men were arrested before Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were “secretly taken from the jail and lynched in a shockingly brutal manner,” according to Wells-Barnett’s account in Southern Horrors.
Wells-Barnett noted in her many works that these forms of macabre violence were meant to tamp down black American economic and social mobility. Acts like these – unbridled, extrajudicial murder – were not just about punishing presumed offenses, which were often baseless. They were fundamentally about striking fear into the hearts of black people who dared think of themselves as more than three-fifths of a human, eliminating black leaders who challenged the existing racial order, and reinscribing white people as the de facto “superior” race.
Black people weren’t the only victims of lynch mobs: Native Americans, Italian immigrants, Mexican-Americans, and Asian-Americans were all victims of such violence. Even white people were killed in this way – but Stevenson argues that those deaths were less about terror and more about breakdowns in the criminal justice system, he tells Teen Vogue. “They were mostly hanged in places where there was no functioning criminal justice system. That was ‘frontier justice,'” he says. “When a white person was hanged, it wasn’t in an effort to terrorize white people. In that respect, the lynching of African-Americans occupies a unique historical space.”
That’s why Wells-Barnett’s work was, and continues to be, so critical to understanding both the role of lynching in everyday life in the late-19th and early-20th centuries and the overwhelming silence from the mass media and the government in response to the terror she documented. Because of Wells-Barnett’s efforts, social organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched successful anti-lynching efforts. Wells-Barnett wrote under a pseudonym and risked her own life to ensure the truth of lynchings saw the light of day.
In this political moment, many are still wrestling with the modern manifestations of black subjugation and repression, such as mass incarceration and police brutality. As young black people assert their identities and personhood through activism and resistance, there remains a question of when or, rather, if black lives will start to matter in truly meaningful ways in the United States. Until we tell the truth about lynching and its role in forming this nation, we won’t get there.
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