This Is the End

They gaze out at us, the victims and the victimizers alike, actors in a form of fatal public spectacle staged, according to numbers compiled by the Tuskegee Institute, some 5,000 times in America between the years 1880 and 1930. Jesse Washington, a mentally retarded 17-year-old black boy lynched on May 16, 1916, in Waco, Texas, after confessing to the murder of his white, female employer, hangs from a chain in front of a hardware store, his legs burned away below the knees, his features charred beyond recognition. ”This is the barbeque we had last night,“ wrote young Joe Meyers on the back of a post card that depicts not just Washington‘s disfigured body but the author (”My picture is to the left“) and scores of other spectators, most grim-visaged, a few stunned, several grinning.

The images snapped at the Waco lynching compose just three of the 98 plates in Without Sanctuary, as disturbing and mesmerizing a book as one might see in a lifetime. The work owes its existence to an Atlanta antiques dealer named James Allen who, in the course of his travels across the country searching for pie safes and sideboards, amassed a trove of far more significant artifacts. First displayed in January at the Roth Horowitz gallery in Manhattan, where crowds lined up around the block, then moved to larger quarters at the New York Historical Society, where it is still on view, Allen’s collection of lynching photographs is, in the end, probably best appreciated between hard covers. This, because it rewards extended contemplation.

Again and again, the heavy, vellum pages of Without Sanctuary offer up shots of startling poignancy. Garfield Burley and Curtis Brown, both youthful black men, dangle in tandem from a telephone pole in Newbern, Tennessee. They were lynched on October 2, 1902, by a mob of 500 for the murder of a well-known white farmer. Sixteen-year-old Lige Daniels -- barefoot, black and surrounded by a throng of gaping children -- twists from the limb of an oak tree in Center, Texas. He was strung up on August 3, 1920. Explains ”Aunt Myrtle“ in a note on the back of a post card that records the scene: ”He killed Earl‘s Grandma. She was Florence’s mother. Give this to Bud.“ Then there‘s Will ”Froggie“ James, a middle-aged black man lynched and burned in downtown Cairo, Illinois, on November 11, 1909, for the slaying of a white woman. Such a celebrated event was James’ demise that it is commemorated in a sequence of 15 pictures -- most of them presented here -- which, taken together, form a macabre flashbook beginning with a studio portrait of James from happier days and, coming full circle, concluding with a study of his roasted head on a stake.

As the Will James lynching makes clear, ”necktie parties“ and ”coon cookings“ were not exclusive to old Dixie. Indeed, following the summary executions in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1920 of three black men wrongfully accused of rape, The New York Times reported that the ”lynchings of Negroes in Duluth is far from the first that occurred in the North. Human nature is much the same in both sections of the country.“

Similarly, as several images in Without Sanctuary attest, hundreds of white men met their maker at the end of a mob‘s rope, particularly in the West during the 1870s and 1880s, where, in the absence of established courts, vigilante justice often constituted the only vestige of law and order. Once the frontier was settled, the practice came to a halt -- but not entirely. On November 26, 1933, Jack Holmes and Thomas Thurmond, both youthful white men, were lynched in San Jose after having been arrested for the abduction and murder of a local boy. In according the executioners’ work his tacit approval, Governor James Rolph proclaimed, ”While the law should have been permitted to take its course, the people by their action have given notice to the entire world that in California kidnapping will not be tolerated.“

For all this, however, the injustice and grief of lynch law was overwhelmingly visited upon American blacks, just as the shame and its burden fall overwhelmingly upon Southern whites. What was it, asks UC Berkeley‘s Leon Litwack in his introduction to Without Sanctuary, that prompted God-fearing whites who believed they had ”the best interest of their fellow men and women at heart“ to act with such ”bestiality and savagery?“ Conversely, inquires New Yorker writer Hilton Als in a companion essay, how do the costs of 50 years of terror manifest themselves in the minds of contemporary blacks? That neither of these pieces offer satisfactory answers to their respective questions is, considering the book’s overall excellence, a disappointment.

Though Litwack‘s effort, lifted almost in whole from his 1998 work Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, does a credible job of surveying the subject, it settles for superficial explanations and is guilty of reverse racial stereotyping. Yes, there’s some validity to his comment that ”victims of lynch mobs, more often than not, had challenged or unintentionally violated the prevailing norms of white supremacy.“ And yes, there‘s also some truth to the observation, quoted authoritatively by the historian, that as far as many whites were concerned, ”’When a nigger gets ideas . . . the best thing to do is get him under ground as quick as possible.‘“ But the assumption behind such assertions -- that racism and racism alone sparked lynchings -- is far too simplistic. Racism existed both before lynch law’s reign and after, a reality suggesting that other factors, chief among them societal upheaval, were equally important.

The South between 1880 and 1930 was in tremendous flux. Poor blacks and whites alike had been uprooted. Long-prevailing rules of conduct between the races had been shredded, yet no new and more just order had been devised. It was in this climate that fearful whites felt compelled to make a hideous example of black miscreants, particularly those alleged to pose a sexual threat to white women. As Jacqueline Dowd Hall illuminated in Revolt Against Chivalry, her award-winning 1979 study of lynching, the white Southern matriarchy gave implicit and at times explicit approval to extralegal atrocities. None of which justifies even one lynching, but it does make the plague of them that took place over half a century ago more comprehensible. To give such crucial subtext short shrift is to present an overly polarizing view of the past.

Litwack‘s sins, however, pale beside those of Als, who can’t get beyond his concern that he was chosen to contribute to Without Sanctuary for no other reason than that, as he puts it, ”I am a Negro.“ After much inane noodling on the accident of his skin color, Als finally takes up his assignment, citing the ”lynchings“ he‘s suffered from white editors, women, guests at parties and casual acquaintances. Another, more talented -- or less self-indulgent -- black writer might have been capable of making something of this, but Als is so keen on striking an ironic tone that he not only embarrasses himself, but demeans the fates of his thousands of brothers and sisters for whom lynching was more than a metaphor. He should be ashamed of what he has written here.

Not that any of this, in the end, mars Without Sanctuary. The book succeeds because of the images James Allen so scrupulously assembled and documented, and Twin Palms has so beautifully published. Here is a visual record of a horrible wrong men and women once did to each other in this country in the name of right. On almost every page are photographs that will bring tears. Steve Oney’s forthcoming book on the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank near Atlanta will be published by Pantheon.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >