When 11 Italians Were Lynched in New Orleans

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In 1891, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans.  It was the largest mass lynching in American history.  Now, the city and its African-American mayor will apologize for the incident.  Meagan Flynn is covering the story at The Washington Post.  A taste:

The mob assembled promptly at 10 a.m., crammed so tightly on the pavement that the streetcars couldn’t run.

Thousands of people, among them the most prominent businessmen, lawyers, merchants and politicians in New Orleans, marched in circles around a statue of Henry Clay. The crowd was “yelling itself hoarse,” bent on a kind of justice that would be called murder today but that The Washington Post and numerous other newspapers called “vengeance” in 1891.

The mob’s victims awaited in the Orleans Parish jail, all of them Italian immigrants or children of immigrants who had just been acquitted in the shooting death of the New Orleans police chief; others still awaited trial. To this day, the chief’s killer or killers have never been identified. But on the morning of March 14, 1891, despite the not-guilty verdicts, the mob seemed certain.

“When the law is powerless,” William Parkerson, the mob’s leader and mayor’s former campaign manager, yelled to the crowd, according to a 1991 New Orleans Times-Picayune article, “rights delegated by the people are relegated back to the people, and they are justified in doing that which the courts have failed to do.”

Once the speeches finished, The Post reported then, everyone stood still for a moment, quiet just long enough for one man’s voice to catch the agitated crowd’s attention: “Shall we get our guns?”

The verdict was decisive. That morning, anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 vigilantes armed with Winchester rifles, axes and shotguns broke down the door of the parish jail and trampled past the passive sheriff’s deputies until they captured 11 defenseless Italians and riddled their bodies with bullets. Two were dragged outside and hanged, one by a tree limb and the other by a lamp post.

Historians have called the massacre the largest mass lynching in American history. The vigilante mob escaped any consequence, and the city of New Orleans refused to take responsibility.

But now, 128 years later, the city is trying to make amends On April 12, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) is expected to apologize to the Italian American community for the infamous killings — a concession that Michael Santo, special counsel to the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy, said will shore up “long-lasting wounds” among Italians. The mayor is expected to issue a formal proclamation, according to the group. A spokesman for Cantrell confirmed the pending apology to the Associated Press on Sunday.

Read the rest here.

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Cover of Puck magazine on March 25, 1891

“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row”

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Cindy Hyde-Smith is a Republican politician who represents Mississippi in the United States Senate.  On November 27 she will face Mike Espy, an African-American Democrat and former Mississippi Secretary of Agriculture, in a run-off election.  Donald Trump has endorsed Hyde-Smith.

At a campaign stop on Sunday, Hyde-Smith referenced a local rancher with these words: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

Patrick Connelly, a history professor at Mississippi College in Clinton, provided some historical context on his Twitter feed:

 

Two New Sites Dedicated to the History of Lynching Open in Montgomery, Alabama

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April 26, 2018 marks the opening of two public history sites in Montgomery, Alabama:  The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  Both sites are operated by the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson’s non-profit organization dedicated to providing legal services to prisoners who may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes.  You can learn more about Stevenson here.  He is perhaps best known for his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Here is a round-up of articles devoted to the grand openings of these two sites:

NPR

Washington Post

New York Times

Los Angeles Times

The Conversation

VOX

Time

Montgomery Advertiser

CBS News

Strivings In Their Souls

Du BoisCheck out historian Ibram X. Kendi‘s recent piece at The Paris Review on the cultural context in which W.E.B. Du Bois’s wrote his famous work The Souls of Black Folk (1903).  Kendi situates the work in the context of the Sam Hose lynching of 1899.

No lie circulated as far and wide over space and time as the original racist one that prefigured the Negro a beast. “No other news goes out to the world save that which stamps us as a race of cut-throats, robbers, and lustful wild beasts,” Ida B. Wells wrote in her 1892 antilynching manifesto, “Southern Horrors.”

Beasts, most agreed, did not have souls.

A beast could be traded and enslaved. A beast should be segregated and lynched. A beast cannot stop raping and killing. A beast could be subdued by only a mob or a jail cell. A beast so brutal even trained police officers fear for their lives. The Negro a beast.

“They lived like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings,” wrote Gomes Eanes de Zurara in his 1453 cradle of racist ideas, defending Portugal’s pioneering slave trading of Africans. A century later, pioneering British slave trader John Lok described Africans as “people of beastly living.” In 1899, the Wilmington Messenger reprinted an 1898 speech of Georgia’s Rebecca Felton, who in 1922 would become the nation’s first female U.S. senator. If “it requires lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts,” she said, “then I say lynch a thousand a week.” In 1900, the best seller of segregationist demagogues was the Mississippi professor Charles Carroll’s Mystery Solved: The Negro a Beast. Thomas Dixon brought this thesis to life in his best-selling 1902 novel, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, the first step in the march toward D. W. Griffith’s fanciful film The Birth of a Nation.

It is difficult to comprehend how daring it was for W. E. B. Du Bois to publish the most acclaimed book of his career in the face of this avalanche of beastly labels rushing down onto the Negro. Du Bois stared into the grisly faces of the racist past and present and decreed that blacks were not soulless beasts. “Ain’t I a human?” he seemed to be asking, just as fifty years earlier the legendary black feminist Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”

In publishing The Souls of Black Folk, on April 18, 1903, Du Bois argued, implicitly, that the world needs to know the humanity of black folk by listening carefully to the “strivings” in their souls….

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Donald Mathews

Altar Cover.jpgDonald Mathews is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This interview is based on his new book At the Altar of Lynching: Burning Sam Hose in the American South (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: In preparing to write a sequel to Religion in the Old South, I realized that lynching and religious participation in institutions, collective action, and media were increasing at the same time. I discovered an article by a former minister’s wife, Corra Harris, defending the lynching of a laborer called Sam Hose in 1899. At about the same time I was asked to write an essay on why I [born in Idaho] wrote about religion in the South. The short answer was, I realized: “Because my grandfather was lynched for defending a black family from being lynched.” He wasn’t exactly “lynched,” to be sure, because he survived a beating that damaged his brain, soul, and wealth. My father, however, remembered the event as a “lynching” and his family lived with the psychological fallout from my grandfather’s encounter with American populism and violence. Christians had seized him at prayer and destroyed his life. I thought I should think about Harris’s defense of violence within the context of her religious life and that of people like her.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: Religion enveloped the burning of Tom Wilkes: participants lived it, they shouted it, they enacted it in a grotesque carnival of violence and celebration. Tom Wilkes was not Christ, but his burning as Sam Hose was supposed to resolve matters far beyond and above homicide and rape: black equality, black autonomy, black defiance: His burning was thus a sacrifice to the savage god of White Supremacy.

JF: Why do we need to read At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: “Need” is subjective and I find it difficult to tell anyone what they need. I do invite them

* To understand the historical background of violence against African Americans;

* To understand the religious character of segregation as Lillian Smith understood it;

* To understand how the culture of White Supremacy criminalized black people, used sex and gender to create lies about American society and blacks, and how popular white religion was caught up in those lies;

* To think about how people of African descent condemned the lies told about them, how they were so alienated from the white-controlled “criminal justice system” built on those lies that they could see the execution even of those who were actually guilty of capital crimes as “crucifixions”;

* To understand why W E B Du Bois and concerned white clerics thought of lynching as “crucifixion”;

* To understand how the human compulsion to make signal acts as meaningful as possible even when they are illegal reveals the human capacity for making religious even the most heinous acts imaginable.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DM: In college I was always interested in American history; I can’t explain the why of that. In seminary, I was transfixed by the implications of two things Helmut Richard Niebuhr said in class: 1) The first question to be asked when addressing ethical issues, he noted, was “What is/was happening?” 2) When we think of the meaning of the Cross and crucifixion, he once said, we have to sift that meaning through the “Gas ovens. . .” That second comment is one of the most penetrating observations I have ever heard. The first one was prelude. I have to add, I suppose as confession, that I fully understand the homiletic style of my writing. Gene Genovese in a passing conversation once asked me partially in jest, partially in criticism, “Are you ever going to stop preaching?” I answered as I laughed, “No. I guess not.” He replied, “I didn’t think so.” And we went off to a seminar at the National Humanities Center.

JF: What is your next project?

DM: I hope to think about how the memory of violence against a loved one or family member affects those who struggle with its effects. There is a growing number of important books or articles on the memory of lynching, and I need to read as many as I can and come to terms with them. I suspect this is an article, but it could be a small book. I had thought to follow up on an article I wrote about the suicide of a Methodist minister in 1910 as a way to get inside the traumas of “modernity” and I may still do that.

JF: Thanks, Donald!

A Monument to Lynching in America

EKI

I am glad to see Christianity Today tackling this issue.  Some of you are familiar with the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Imitative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. I had a chance to visit EJI this summer.  Stevenson was also the Messiah College commencement speaker in May 2017.  He is the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

EJI is a fascinating and moving place that combines the history of lynching in America with the reform of the criminal justice system as it relates to death row inmates.  I wrote about my visit here.

When I was in Montgomery I learned about EJI’s plans to build a monument to lynching in America.  D.L. Mayfield writes about it in Christianity Today’s September 2017 cover story.

Here is a taste:

Stevenson became enamored with the idea of creating spaces for truth telling. “We don’t have many places in our country where you can have an honest experience with our history of slavery, and there are no spaces where you can have an honest experience with lynchings and racial terror,” he said. (There are outliers in unexpected places, such as a memorial in Duluth, Minnesota, honoring three black members of a traveling circus who were lynched there in 1920.)

So Stevenson decided to make one. Next summer, EJI will unveil a memorial where visitors will be confronted with large tablets hanging from a square structure, visual reminders of more than 800 counties where lynchings took place. The visual—so many markers engraved with so many names—will transform a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery, Alabama, into a place of mourning and remembrance, a place to lament and perhaps even to corporately confess.

The Memorial for Peace and Justice, as it will be called, will also encompass a field spreading next to the main structure. In that field, each hanging tablet will have an identical twin resting on the ground, invoking an eerie similarity to headstones. These markers will be for the counties themselves to collect. Stevenson dreams of groups journeying to Montgomery, collecting their rightful part of lynching history, and displaying it prominently back in their towns and cities. If people from a particular locale choose not to claim their piece, it will sit in stark relief on that Montgomery hilltop, a conspicuous token of unowned sin.

Read the entire piece here.

Lynching in America

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Each jar contains dirt from the sites where Alabama lynchings took place.

Earlier this week I was at the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama.  I am participating in a Civil Rights bus tour and this was one of our stops.  I wrote about the visit here.

The day of our visit was the day EJI went live with its new digital project on lynching in America.

USA Today took notice of the new project.  Here is a taste of Rog Walker’s article:

Visitors to the website can search a map of 4,300 lynchings in 20 states and hear how Elizabeth Lawrence, a school teacher in Alabama, was murdered in 1933 for reprimanding white schoolchildren for throwing rocks at her. Or how in 1893, 17-year-old Henry Smith, suspected of killing a white girl, was burned alive before a mob of 10,000 in Texas, his ashes and bones sold as souvenirs.

Another map shows the seismic population shift of the Great Migration as families were forced to leave to escape racial violence. A century ago nearly all African Americans lived in the South. By 1970 most lived outside of the South, many of them in industrial cities in the North and the West.

Read more here.

Historical Thinking at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama

EJI 1Yesterday I was in Montgomery, Alabama as part of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour.  We spent a couple of hours at the headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

EJI was founded by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned.  Some of you may be familiar with his best-selling book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionEJI’s offices are located in the heart of Montgomery’s 19th-century slave trading market. This is a fitting location for an organization committed to fighting the narrative of racial difference in America.

During our visit we heard a presentation from two EJI “Law Fellows,” Luke Fredericks and Evan Milligan.  Fredericks started the presentation by describing four eras in the history of race in the United States.

  1. Slavery.  This was the period when the “narrative of racial difference” was born. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but it did not erase this narrative. We are still dealing with the legacy of this narrative.
  2. Racial Terror:  This was the period between Reconstruction and the World War II when whites employed violence to keep the races separate.  EJI is particularly interested in the history of lynching in America.  It has uncovered 360 race-based lynchings in Alabama history.  In order to remember these lynchings, EJI has created an exhibit of glass jars filled with dirt and clay gathered from the sites where the lynchings took place (see picture below).  It is a powerful exhibit–perhaps one of the most moving exhibits I have ever seen.  EJI is interested in lynching because it believes this practice was the historical antecedent to the death penalty.  Fredericks argued that sometime in the 1930s southern politicians realized that the practice of lynching was giving the South a bad name in the world.  In response, they used the death penalty as a means of dealing with the race problem in a more official and sanctioned way.  This, according to Fredericks, just might explain why a disproportionate number African Americans have been executed over the last 75 years. Since EJI lawyers are in the business of helping death row prisoners, the history of lynching in American is a usable one.
  3. Segregation
  4. Mass Incarceration.  Today 2.3 million people in the United States are in prison. Most of them are people of color.  EJI wants to address some of the systemic issues behind these statistics.

Fredericks, who was a history major at the University of Maryland, kept reminding us that the pursuit of justice does not happen in a vacuum. In the process, he put his history degree to good use by challenging us to understand the problems of race and mass incarceration in America through context, change over time, and continuity.

In order to provide such context, EJI is getting into the museum and monuments business.  It just released a new website on the history of lynching in America and will soon open a permanent exhibit on the subject.  EJI also plans to create a memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery.

Everything about the work of EJI draws heavily on the skills and practices of historians. EJI’s legal activism relies on the connections between the past and the present.  Granted, history can only take us so far when it comes to changing the world (or advocating for death-row inmates), but activism is often superficial without understanding the historical context out of which social ills arise.  EJI uses archival research, oral history, and storytelling (“we use individual narratives to change the way people think and feel”) to provide the necessary context for its advocacy work on behalf of death-row inmates.

So if you want to change the world, start by reading history.

 

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Lynching exhibit at EJI

Was Michael Brown "Lynched?"

My colleague Jim LaGrand  has some very thoughtful things to say about the way we use historical analogies in our public statements about race in America .  Check out Jim’s piece entitled “Selma Is Now? No Not Really.”  It is up today at History News Network.

Here is a taste:

Statements similar to Legend’s “Selma is now” have been made many times in the months since Michael Brown’s tragic death at the hands of policeman Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, Ferguson has become a Rorschach test – not just on the state of race relations today, but on the past as well through the power of historical analogy. Like John Legend, congressman and civil rights veteran John Lewis has compared Ferguson to Selma in 1965. On college campuses, analogies comparing Ferguson to 1950s Little Rock and Michael Brown to Emmett Till have been heard.
Some have gone deeper into America’s history of race relations looking for analogies. James Lawson, who during the 1950s and 1960s trained hundreds of young people in non-violence resistance, today calls “what happened in Ferguson lynching.” So too historian Jelani Cobb writes about “the long shadow of lynching” in Ferguson. Some protesters in St Louis and Berkeley dramatized their frustration at events in Ferguson through mock lynchings.
These statements and actions are all rooted in the belief that little to nothing has changed in race relations from the Jim Crow era of the 1890s-1950s to the present day. If one of the tasks of History is to assess the complex relationship between change and continuity over time, these voices suggest that on the issue of race and race relations, the answer is pretty simple. 2014 = 1965 or 1955 or the 1890s.
But in looking at the past, it’s hard to make these claims hold up. The Jim Crow era stands as a distinctly grim, brutal period in America’s history for its Black citizens. After the end of Reconstruction, Black men who had recently won the franchise had it effectively taken away. The promise that Black Americans would own the product of their labor too became a bitter lie. All public spaces in the Jim Crow South became divided by the color line.
This racial code was enforced through lynchings and other forms of brutal violence. The Equal Justice Initiative has recently documented 3,959 African-Americans lynched between 1877 and 1950. Lynch mobs cast a wide net. They targeted Black men accused of crimes, those accused or suspected of sexual relations with white women, and those seen as being “impudent to white man,” in the words of one lynching record. Lynchings were barbaric, often involving the ritualistic burning and dismemberment of dead bodies. Not for nothing do many historians refer to 1890-1920 as the nadir of African-American history.

And he concludes:

…We don’t live in a post-racial America. But neither do we live in Jim Crow or 1950s America, despite what many recent analogies would suggest. Not every overbearing authority can be a Bull Connor, not every place of tension is Selma in 1965 or Little Rock in 1957. Not every mistreatment can be labeled a lynching. Otherwise, the power and influence of these historical people and places and practices may be lost.
The moral capital of the civil rights movement risks going bankrupt if it’s drawn on excessively and unconvincingly. I hope that when future Black History Months come around, my students (and all Americans) will have retained the capacity to look at the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement with the accuracy needed for genuine knowledge and informed passion.  

Lynching in the South: 1877-1950

Today’s New York Times is running an article on a report chronicling the history of lynching in the American South.  The report was recently published by Equal Justice Initiative out of Montgomery, Alabama.  The report has found almost 4000 victims of lynching in the South between 1877 (the end of Reconstruction) and 1950.

According to the accompanying map, the most lynchings in this period, by far, occurred in Phillips County, Arkansas the site of the 1919 Elaine Race Riot.  Four Louisiana parishes rounded out the top five.

Here is a taste of the Times article:

On Tuesday, the organization he founded and runs, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., released a report on the history of lynchings in the United States, the result of five years of research and 160 visits to sites around the South. The authors of the report compiled an inventory of 3,959 victims of “racial terror lynchings” in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950.

Next comes the process of selecting lynching sites where the organization plans to erect markers and memorials, which will involve significant fund-raising, negotiations with distrustful landowners and, almost undoubtedly, intense controversy.

The process is intended, Mr. Stevenson said, to force people to reckon with the narrative through-line of the country’s vicious racial history, rather than thinking of that history in a short-range, piecemeal way.

“Lynching and the terror era shaped the geography, politics, economics and social characteristics of being black in America during the 20th century,” Mr. Stevenson said, arguing that many participants in the great migration from the South should be thought of as refugees fleeing terrorism rather than people simply seeking work.

The lynching report is part of a longer project Mr. Stevenson began several years ago. One phase involved the erection of historical markers about the extensive slave markets in Montgomery. The city and state governments were not welcoming of the markers, despite the abundance of Civil War and civil rights movement memorials in Montgomery, but Mr. Stevenson is planning to do the same thing elsewhere.