Digital History

Along the Color Line

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Digital History ID 3178



A crowd of nearly 2,000 people gathered in Georgia in 1899 to witness the lynching of Sam Holt, an African American farm laborer charged with killing his white employer. A newspaper described the scene:

Sam Holt...was burned at the stake in a public road.... Before the torch was applied to the pyre, the Negro was deprived of his ears, fingers, and other portions of his body.... Before the body was cool, it was cut to pieces, the bones were crushed into small bits, and even the tree upon which the wretch met his fate were torn up and disposed of as souvenirs. The Negro's heart was cut in small pieces, as was also his liver. Those unable to obtain the ghastly relics directly paid more fortunate possessors extravagant sums for them. Small pieces of bone went for 25 cents and a bit of liver, crisply cooked, for 10 cents.

From 1889 to 1918, more than 2,400 African Americans were hanged or burned at the stake. Many lynching victims were accused of little more than making "boastful remarks," "insulting a white man," or seeking employment "out of place."

Before he was hanged in Fayette, Mo., in 1899, Frank Embree was severely whipped across his legs and back and chest. Lee Hall was shot, then hanged, and his ears were cut off. Bennie Simmon was hanged, then burned alive, and shot to pieces. Laura Nelson was raped, then hanged from a bridge.

They were hanged from trees, bridges, and telephone poles. Victims were often tortured and mutilated before death: burned alive, castrated, and dismembered. Their teeth, fingers, ashes, clothes, and sexual organs were sold as keepsakes.

Lynching continues to be used as a stinging metaphor for injustice. At his confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas silenced Senate critics when he accused them of leading a "high-tech lynching."

Lynching was community sanctioned. Lynchings were frequently publicized well in advance, and people dressed up and traveled long distances for the occasion. The January 26, 1921, issue of the Memphis Press contained the headline: "May Lynch 3 to 6 Negroes This Evening." Clergymen and business leaders often participated in lynchings. Few of the people who committed lynchings were ever punished. What makes the lynchings all the more chilling is the carnival atmosphere and aura of self-righteousness that surrounded the grizzly events.

Railroads sometimes ran special excursion trains to allow spectators to watch lynchings. Lynch mobs could swell to 15,000 people. Tickets were sold to lynchings. The mood of the white mobs was exuberant--men cheering, women preening, and children frolicking around the corpse.

Photographers recorded the scenes and sold photographic postcards of lynchings, until the Postmaster General prohibited such mail in 1908. People sent the cards with inscriptions like: "You missed a good time" or "This is the barbeque we had last night."

Lynching received its name from Judge Charles Lynch, a Virginia farmer who punished outlaws and Tories with "rough" justice during the American Revolution. Before the 1880s, most lynchings took place in the West. But during that decade the South's share of lynchings rose from 20 percent to nearly 90 percent. A total of 744 blacks were lynched during the 1890s. The last officially recorded lynching in the United States occurred in 1968. However, many consider the 1998 death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, at the hands of three whites who hauled him behind their pick-up truck with a chain, a later instance.

It seems likely that the soaring number of lynchings was related to the collapse of the South's cotton economy. Lynchings were most common in regions with highly transient populations, scattered farms, few towns, and weak law enforcement--settings that fueled insecurity and suspicion.

The Census Bureau estimates that 4,742 lynchings took place between 1882 and 1968. Between 1882 and 1930, some 2,828 people were lynched in the South; 585 in the West; and 260 in the Midwest. That means that between 1880 and 1930, a black Southerner died at the hands of a white mob more than twice a week. Most of the victims of lynching were African American males. However, some were female, and a small number were Italian, Chinese, or Jewish. Mobs lynched 447 non-blacks in the West, 181 non-African Americas in the Midwest, and 291 in the South. The hangings of white victims rarely included mutilation.

Apologists for lynching claimed that they were punishment for such crimes as murder and especially rape. But careful analysis has shown that a third of the victims were not even accused of rape or murder; in fact, many of the charges of rape were fabrications. Many victims had done nothing more than not step aside on a sidewalk or accidentally brush against a young girl. In many cases, a disagreement with a white storeowner or landowner triggered a lynching. In 1899, Sam Hose, a black farmer, killed a white man in an argument over a debt. He was summarily hanged and then burned. His charred knuckles were displayed in an Atlanta store window.

The journalist G.L. Godkin wrote in 1893:

Man is the one animal that is capable of getting enjoyment out of the torture and death of members of its own species. We venture to assert that seven-eighths of every lynching part is composed of pure, sporting mob, which goes...just as it goes to a cock-fight or prize-fight, for the gratification of the lowest and most degraded instincts of humanity.

Opponents of lynching, like the African American journalist Ida B. Wells, sent detectives to investigate lynchings and published their reports.

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