Strange fruit 

A collection of lynching photos holds a painful mirror to Southern history

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood on the root

Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

-- Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," lyrics by Lewis Anderson

The photograph shows a man suspended from a tree. Arms bound behind his back, his feet dangle and his head hangs with eyes closed. His trousers have been jerked down his legs, exposing buttocks pressing against tree bark. His naked front has been covered with a piece of cloth.

Whatever his innocence or guilt, the image bears witness to a brutal death and an ultimate violation of human dignity. What makes the image truly perverse are the faces of his ad hoc executioners, posing behind a freshly hewn pine coffin for a photographer who saved their deed for posterity. Above their grins, a horizontal shadow across the top of the tree -- unintentionally created by a light leak in the camera -- casts the image of a cross.

The photograph looks as if it could have been taken in Rwanda or Kosovo, but it shows the death of John Richards at the hands of a lynch mob outside Goldsboro, N.C., on Jan. 12, 1916. Accused of robbing and murdering a farmer named Anderson Gurley, Richards was pulled by a crowd of 100 people from his cell in the Wayne County jail. He apparently was castrated and then shot to death after being dragged to the site of the murder. Purchased several years ago by Atlanta collector Jim Allen at an auction in California, the photograph and 97 similar images are part of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, a collection of postcards and photographs documenting an epidemic of vigilante violence and racial killings, particularly in the South, at the turn of the 20th century. Long a taboo subject intertwined with the original sin of slavery, America's penchant for lynching was exposed by jazz great Billie Holiday in her Depression-era rendition of "Strange Fruit," a song named "Best of the Century" by Time Magazine in December of 1999.

Without Sanctuary is again dragging those memories into mainstream consciousness. Allen's book has drawn a strange mix of horror, shame and fascination -- and national and international attention -- since its publication in January. An exhibit of the Allen-Littlefield collection, including the photograph of John Richards, stunned record crowds earlier this year at the New York Historical Society Museum. Without Sanctuary has been the subject of a New York Times editorial hailing its significance. It has been featured on nearly every American television network and the BBC. Produced by Twin Palms Press, a small art press in Santa Fe, N.M., the book is in its third printing and has reached as high as No. 4 on Amazon.com's best seller list in Germany. Response to an online magazine that presents the book in full has been overwhelming.

"We knew this project was powerful and had potential to change things, or at least stir up conversations," says Allen, who loaned his collection to Emory University several years ago. "As a Southerner, I really wanted this effort to come out of the South. We were offered a lot of money for these photos by someone who wanted to donate the collection to Harvard, but I didn't want to do that. I would have liked the exhibit to open first somewhere in the South, but no one wanted to talk about it."

That didn't happen. But, now, Emory's gingerly exploring the possibility of displaying the photographs in Atlanta.

Shocking, potentially incendiary, the book has received marginal attention in the South and been virtually ignored by the conservative press. Some critics have asked why Allen's nearly century-old post cards are relevant, while others have wondered whether they would have been better left buried. According to Allen, The Wall Street Journal was the first national newspaper to interview him -- weeks before the book was released -- but the story was killed without explanation.

The book has arrived, however, as a number of cities across the South are making amends for the history it documents, through posthumous exonerations, reparations to surviving victims of racial violence, and long overdue prosecutions of suspected murderers from the civil rights era. For a culture trying to come to terms with its past -- in a time when hate crimes are still headline stories and debate rages over Confederate flags flying over some Southern capitals -- Without Sanctuary seems to have struck a nerve.

"I don't think there's ever been a collection like this, and the phenomenon of the book is fascinating," says Jacquelyn Hall, director of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. "I think part of it is not just that these are photographs, but many of them were postcards -- the idea that people bought them, wrote on them, sent them to people, used them as souvenirs. There's also something about the visual image that breaks through the sense that history is ancient and something that doesn't affect us today. One thing that happens in our culture is we face each other with different memories, layers and layers of memories. These things are part of the collective memory of the black communities, but they aren't the memories of white communities. These aren't the stories that are handed down."

Allen's collection offers a horrifying meditation on that forgotten past, a time when lynchings were community rituals, usually carried out with the complicity of local sheriffs and elected officials, and widely covered by the local press. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 4,700 Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1944; approximately 3,000 were African-Americans in the South. An equal number of blacks are believed to have died in uncounted racial beatings, shootings, hangings, draggings and "disappearances" during the same period, while hundreds more were legally executed after receiving death sentences from all-white juries. Lynching victims had often been accused, though rarely convicted, of serious crimes. Many others were lynched for being "disrespectful" to a white person. Historians have documented numerous instances of lynchings of the relatives of accused criminals, of cases of mistaken identity and random lynchings solely because of race.

Often treated like festivals, some lynchings were witnessed by thousands. The brutality often went far beyond merely inflicting death -- many were shot repeatedly, mutilated and burned before or after they were strung up by rope or chain. Pieces of rope, clothing and body parts were sometimes saved as relics -- one photograph in Allen's collection is framed with a lock of a victim's hair. Commercial photographers, who otherwise might have been at weddings or reunions, made souvenir photographs and postcards. Many of the images in Allen's collection bear a photographer's business stamp and the missives of lynching participants. "This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your sone [sic] Joe," a scrawled message reads on the back of a postcard showing the charred body of Jesse Washington. A mentally retarded 17-year-old who confessed to the murder of a white woman, Washington was burned alive in front of a crowd of 15,000 people in Robinson, Texas, in 1916. The postcard tradition continued even after the U.S. postmaster general banned them in 1908 after their prolific numbers became an embarrassment.

A collector of antiques and African-American folk art, Allen began his career as a "picker," scouring flea markets and antique shops for unusual finds. He started his photographic collection 15 years ago after coming across a postcard -- found in the bottom of an antique desk he purchased in Macon -- of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta.

At first, he didn't know what the postcard portrayed. He didn't know who the hanging man in the photo was. Frank, wrapped in what appears to be a bedsheet, having been dragged by a mob from a hospital bed at a prison in Milledgeville, is suspended above a crowd of men, some of them looking squarely at the camera, identifiable, if not to the police at the time, certainly to today's descendants.

A few years later, he came across another -- the lynching of an Oklahoma woman named Laura Edwards and her 14-year-old son -- and realized that lynching postcards and photographs were a turn-of-the-century convention. He began painstakingly collecting the images through newspaper ads, fliers, trips to gun shows and Civil War memorabilia shows, and on the Internet. Some images came from collectors of racist memorabilia -- including a gun dealer in Florida who offered to show Allen a photograph of a black man he claimed to have killed himself. Others were family secrets that otherwise would have been destroyed. "We've bought quite a few from families who have expressed regret and shame for their ancestors," says Allen, who is still collecting the material through his website. "Some had no idea their father or grandfather belonged to the Klan, and then they open up a trunk and find a robe and a photograph. It's disturbing to them."

Although most of his collection shows lynchings that occurred in the South, the incidents recorded in the book range from Ft. Lauderdale to Minnesota to San Jose, Calif. Reflecting census bureau statistics, about a quarter of the victims are white.

"I think this is a really important book and something people need to see -- but also problematic," says historian Hall, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Jessie Daniel Ames, a Texan who led a Southern women's campaign against lynching during the 1930s and '40s. "The image it conveys of African-Americans is of helpless victims, mostly anonymous. People have to respond to the reality, but they also need to realize what was behind [lynching], and that the history and culture of black American's is much broader. The book also reinforces the notion that racism is a purely Southern phenomenon, something that took place in some blighted region, rooted in a pathological culture. The photographs represent the period when racism was at its height not just in the South, but in the country and around the world."

Fear, intolerance, self-righteousness and an innate lust for blood have long been motivations for man's inhumanity to man. Lynching as an American phenomenon can be traced from the atrocities of the Roman Empire to the excesses of the British Crown. Near Raleigh, N.C., for example, visitors to Hillsborough are pointed to the spot where Royal Governor Tryon gruesomely executed six leaders of a pre-Revolutionary War anti-tax militia, the Regulators, in 1771 after their defeat at the Battle of Alamance County. According to historical records, they were sentenced "to be hanged by the neck, cut down while yet alive, that your bowels be taken out and burnt before your face, that your head be cut off, your body divided in Four Quarters." America's own brand of justice at the end of a rope earned its name from Virginia farmer Charles Lynch, who strung up Tories during the Revolution.

Often associated with the rough justice of the Western frontier, lynching became a Southern phenomenon in the post-Reconstruction era, as Southern Democrats regained political control, industrialization brought turmoil to the region and former slaves were subjugated under the rule of Jim Crow.

Also documented in Without Sanctuary is the 1906 lynching of five black men in Salisbury, N.C. -- The New York Times reported they were tortured with knives and "riddled with bullets" before their hanging. And in 1885, outside Pittsboro, in Chatham County, N.C., three black men and a woman were lynched, an incident documented by UNC doctoral candidate Patrick Huber in the April 1998 issue of The North Carolina Historical Review. In both incidents, the victims had been accused of murdering whites and taken from jail by mobs as authorities stood by. In the Pittsboro lynching, one victim -- Harriet Finch, wife of another victim -- was killed because of her relation to a suspect.

Many reviewers have pointed to Without Sanctuary's resonance with contemporary hate crimes, invoking such names as Rodney King, James Byrd, Abner Louima and Matthew Sheppard. Allen, whose companion John Littlefield financed many of the purchases for the collection, acknowledges that his own sexuality shaped his impulse to pursue the project. "I'm sure my book does the same thing for African-Americans that it does for me -- it gives a face to their nightmares," says Allen, adding he has gay friends who have been the victims of random assaults. "This isn't ancient history. Vestiges of this are alive today and these things happen because of a community. People feel they have approval to do it, and their masculinity demands it and is enhanced by it."

Essays by U.S. Rep. (and civil-rights leader) John Lewis of Atlanta and Pulitzer-prize winning historian Leon Litwack help place the photographs of Without Sanctuary in context. Hilton Als, a writer for The New Yorker, obliges to explain how -- as a black man -- the photos are relevant to his own life: "You can feel it every time you cross the street to avoid worrying a white woman to death ... or every time your car breaks down anywhere in America."

Jerry Ward, an oral historian and professor at historically black Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., said while he has reservations about Als' "New York attitude" (see Als' essay on Journal E's website), he also wonders how different things really are now. "We have had very important changes in the South since I was a child, but in some strange sense maybe the South is still like this," says Ward. "Things like the death of James Byrd [who was dragged behind a pickup truck in Texas last year] still happen, but people don't want to talk about it. We still have an epic battle going on over the Confederate flag. [Without Sanctuary] is something I have to learn to use in the classroom, especially if I'm talking about lynching. As horrifying as it is, we need to look at it as history."

Earlier this year, Ward and his colleague Kim Rogers were fellows this year at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, where they worked on an oral history project recording the memories of elderly members of rural black communities in the Mississippi Delta. "Many of the families we talked to in the Delta still carried the fear, the anger, the resentment, toward white people, and that will not go away until we deal with it," said Rogers, a history professor at Dickinson College. "The photographs in Without Sanctuary are not something I want to look at, but it's something as a culture we need to face up to. Unless we can deal with the violence, we can't get past it."

In several Southern states, steps toward dealing with the past have begun. In February, a commission established by the Oklahoma legislature recommended reparations for the survivors of a 1921 riot in Tulsa in which hundreds of blacks were killed. The state of Florida already has paid reparations to the survivors of a white race riot that destroyed the town of Rosewood in 1923. Earlier this year, a judge in Chattanooga, Tenn., exonerated lynching victim Ed Johnson, concluding that he was falsely accused of rape and convicted unfairly before his death at the hands of a mob in 1905 -- the day after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered he receive a new trial. In Alabama, two former Klansmen have been arrested for the notorious 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls.

And, next month in Georgia's Capitol, legislators are expected to give serious debate to a proposal to restore Georgia's pre-1956 state flag, which in the heat of the civil rights era was replaced with one bearing the Confederate battle emblem.

In his afterword for Without Sanctuary, Allen offers his own reflections on how he came to create this collection, how it has affected him and how the dead faces in the photographs, such as John Richards, haunt him. "African-Americans have been gracious about the book, but it's unlocked a lot of boxes," says Allen. "A man at the exhibit in New York pulled me aside and asked 'What's wrong with you -- don't you understand that the feeling I have for those people in the photos are the same feelings I have when I see you?' I said, 'Yeah, I bet you do. But I think you can get through that.' I hope we all can."

This article first appeared in The Spectator, CL's sister paper in Raleigh, N.C. Stephanie Ramage contributed to details for Atlanta readers.

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Latest in Cover Story

Bye-bye Airbnb?
Bye-bye Airbnb?

Search Events

  1. Airbnb, meet the Georgia General Assembly 6

    Gold Dome study committee to examine short-term rentals in the state
  2. Give the homeless a home 9

    Talk of closing and building shelters misses best way to get people off the street
  3. Riding high 1

Recent Comments

© 2015 Creative Loafing Atlanta
Powered by Foundation