Strange fruit 

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

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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."


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