I grew up familiar with "lynching" as subject matter that was more than just a history lesson delivered by my parents. I knew the meaning of the mournful lyrics to "Strange Fruit," written by Abel Meeropol and sung by Billie Holiday.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees...
I remember reading Mark Twain's essay "The United States of Lyncherdom" that was published after his death, which was a plea for people to stand up and resist the mob.
Though in the early days of lynching in the West of the U.S. many of those lynched were white—during the period of reconstruction, in the South and border states—lynching became a tool of terror against blacks and any whites who associated with them or married them.
Thousands of Victims
In the South, an estimated two or three blacks were lynched each week in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Mississippi alone, 500 blacks were lynched from the 1800s to 1955. Nationwide, the figure climbed to nearly 5,000.
Killed for Being "Insolent"
Although rape is often cited as a rationale, statistics now show that only about one-fourth of lynchings from 1880 to 1930 were prompted by an accusation of rape. In fact, most victims of lynching were political activists, labor organizers or black men and women who violated white expectations of black deference, and were deemed "uppity" or "insolent." Though most victims were black men, women were by no means exempt.
What I didn't know when I was younger was the fact that among those lynched there were women. Nor did I learn, until I was older, that woman played a major role in attempting to stop this scourge—spearheading anti-lynching campaigns and pushing for anti-lynching legislation. I was raised on stories of my grandfather and great uncles who armed themselves to resist white mob violence in Salisbury, Maryland. At age nine I watched my dad do the same in a stand-off with the Klan in Louisiana.
I don't remember how old I was when I first saw a photograph of a lynching. It was seared into my mind, and each time I view James Allen's collection of "postcards" from lynchings at Without Sanctuary, the same nausea floods back ... I have a hard time breathing as I view those pictures of white people celebrating as if at a barbeque with burnt blacks as their main course. I revisit that history, no matter how disturbing, because I refuse to listen to those who would relegate the crop that virulent racism sows and reaps to the distant past that we, as a people should just "get over."
To wind up this series for Women's History month I dedicate this last essay to the memory of those women and men who died awful deaths, some whose names we may not know, and to those women and men who mounted a crusade over decades to stop lynching.
Follow me below the fold for more ... WARNING ... graphic violence depicted.
The first anti-lynching crusader I learned of was Ida B. Wells-Burnett, who risked her life countless times to wage a battle against the plague of lynching, and she placed a strong emphasis on the bogus targeting of black men as alleged "rapists" in her campaign.
If you have never seen this documentary on her life by William Greaves, "Ida B Wells: A Passion for Justice," with readings by Toni Morrison, it is available for online viewing or from California Newsreel for schools, libraries and community organizations.
When the Anti-Lynching Crusaders were organized as part of an NAACP campaign:
[T]he Crusaders spelled out their position on lynching and sought to dispel prevalent myths about lynch victims. Typically lynch victims were black men, but in this document, like several others reproduced in this project, the Crusaders emphasized the incidence of lynchings where women -- black and white -- were the victims. They asked: "how many people realize that since 1889 eighty-three women are known to have been lynched?" and included graphic descriptions of selected lynchings alongside statistics revealing the numbers of black and white women who had been lynched. The authors also sought to undermine the belief that lynching was typically a punishment doled out to rapists or attempted rapists. In only 16.6 per cent of lynchings, they argued, were lynch victims accused of rape. Moreover, the narratives they provided pointed to the prevalence of white men's sexual abuse of African-American women and its connection to mob violence against blacks.What ignited a firestorm of protest was the gruesome death of Mary Turner. (photo)
In May, 1918, a white plantation owner in Brooks County, Georgia, got into a quarrel with one of his colored tenants and the tenant killed him. A mob sought to avenge his death but could not find the suspected man. They therefore lynched another colored man named Hayes Turner. His wife, Mary Turner, threatened to have members of the mob arrested. The mob therefore started after her. She fled from home and was found there the next morning. She was in the eighth month of pregnancy but the mob of several hundred took her to a small stream, tied her ankles together and hung her on a tree head downwards. Gasoline was thrown on her clothes and she was set on fire. One of the members of the mob took a knife and split her abdomen open so that the unborn child fell from her womb to the ground and the child's head was crushed under the heel of another member of the mob; Mary Turner's body was finally riddled with bullets.Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching by Julie Buckner Armstrong tells not only the story, but the reaction and response.
It led to both an entrenched local silence and a widespread national response in newspaper and magazine accounts, visual art, film, literature, and public memorials. Turner’s story became a centerpiece of the Anti-Lynching Crusaders campaign for the 1922 Dyer Bill, which sought to make lynching a federal crime. Julie Buckner Armstrong explores the complex and contradictory ways this horrific event was remembered in works such as Walter White’s report in the NAACP’s newspaper the Crisis, the “Kabnis” section of Jean Toomer’s Cane, Angelina Weld Grimké’s short story “Goldie,” and Meta Fuller’s sculpture Mary Turner: A Silent Protest against Mob Violence.Thanks to the efforts of the Mary Turner Project and other groups in 2010, an historical marker was dedicated in her name.
Like those of Emmett Till and Leo Frank, Turner’s story continues to resonate on multiple levels. Armstrong’s work provides insight into the different roles black women played in the history of lynching: as victims, as loved ones left behind, and as those who fought back. The crime continues to defy conventional forms of representation, illustrating what can, and cannot, be said about lynching and revealing the difficulty and necessity of confronting this nation’s legacy of racial violence.
The marker, titled “Mary Turner and the Lynching Rampage of 1918,” was installed because of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Women and Gender Studies Program, The Mary Turner Project, Valdosta State University and the Georgia Historical Society.The marker was placed "at Folsom's Bridge over Little River between Barney and Hahira. Somewhere in the nearby woods is the tree where historians say Mary Turner was lynched."
“We hope to make it an annual event,” Rogers said. “It’s been great to connect with the family ... they’ve really jumped in there.”
Before unveiling the marker, over 100 people filled the Webb-Miller Community Church, remembering Mary Turner and the past through song, reflection and prayer. Family members spoke in honor of Mary Turner.
“I lived almost 50 years of my life not knowing the names of my grandmother and grandfather ... We did not speak of these names because of the lynching that took place,” one man said.
We know from news reports and another postcard photo what happened to Laura Nelson.
An Associated Press dispatch in 1911 reads as follows:Laura Nelson's brutal death was immortalized in the song "Don't Kill My Baby and My Son" by Woody Guthrie, whose father Charley reportedly took part in her lynching.
"At Okemah, Oklahoma, Laura Nelson, a colored woman accused of murdering a deputy sheriff who had discovered stolen goods at her house, was lynched together with her son, a boy about fifteen. The woman and her son were taken from the jail, dragged about six miles to the Canadian River and hanged from a bridge, The woman was raped by members of the mob before she was hanged."
O, don't kill my baby and my son,Henrietta Vinton Davis was a "Shakespearean actor, elocutionist, dramatic reader and activist." On the blog named in her honor is a detailed partial listing of Black Women who were Lynched in America:
O , don't kill my baby and my son.
You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge,
But don't kill my baby and my son.
Maggie Howze and Alma Howze -Both PregnantAnother text detailing this herstory is Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, by Crystal Feimster.
Maggie Howze cried, “I ain’t guilty of killing the doctor and you oughtn’t to kill me.” Someone took a monkey wrench and “struck her In the mouth with It, knocking her teeth out. She was also hit across the head with the same instrument, cutting a long gash In which the side of a person’s hand could be placed.” While the three other Blacks were killed instantly, Maggie Howze, four months pregnant, managed to grab the side of the bridge to break her fall. She did this twice before she died and the mob joked about how difficult it was to kill that “big Jersey woman.” No one stepped forward to claim the bodies. No one held funeral services for the victims. The Black community demanded that the whites cut them down and bury them because they ‘lynched them.” The whites placed them in unmarked graves.
Alma Howze was on the verge of giving birth when the whites killed her. One witness claimed that at her “burial on the second day following, the movements of her unborn child could be detected.”
Cordella Stevenson Raped and Lynched
Wednesday, December 8, 1915 Cordella Stevenson was hung from the limb of a tree without any clothing about fifty yards north of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad outside Columbus, Mississippi. The gruesomely horrific scene was witnessed by thousands and thousands of passengers who traveled in and out of the city the next morning.
She was hung there by a bloodthirsty mob who had taken her from slumber, husband and home to the spot where she was raped and lynched. All this was done after she had been brought to the police station for questioning in connection with the arson of Gabe Frank’s barn. Her son had been suspected of the fire. The police released her after she convinced them her son had left home several months prior and she did not know his whereabouts.
After going to bed early, a knock was heard at the door. Her husband, Arch Stevenson went to answer, but the door was broken down first and his wife was seized. He was threatened with rifle barrels to his head should he move. The body was left hanging until Friday morning. An inquest returned a verdict of “death at the hands of persons unknown.”
Between 1880 and 1930, close to 200 women were murdered by lynch mobs in the American South. Many more were tarred and feathered, burned, whipped, or raped. In this brutal world of white supremacist politics and patriarchy, a world violently divided by race, gender, and class, black and white women defended themselves and challenged the male power brokers. Crystal Feimster breaks new ground in her story of the racial politics of the postbellum South by focusing on the volatile issue of sexual violence.For all the victims of rape, racial vigilantism and terror—past and present—let us vow, today and in the tomorrows to come, to continue the battle that is not finished.
Pairing the lives of two Southern women—Ida B. Wells, who fearlessly branded lynching a white tool of political terror against southern blacks, and Rebecca Latimer Felton, who urged white men to prove their manhood by lynching black men accused of raping white women—Feimster makes visible the ways in which black and white women sought protection and political power in the New South. While Wells was black and Felton was white, both were journalists, temperance women, suffragists, and anti-rape activists. By placing their concerns at the center of southern politics, Feimster illuminates a critical and novel aspect of southern racial and sexual dynamics.