The photographs are nauseating. Shot after shot capturing horrific scenes from Americas not-so-distant past. They depict people, mostly African-Americans, hanging from trees, light poles, whatever was nearby. Some had been charred beyond recognition.
The photos document gruesome murders, but as stomach-churning as the corpses are the onlookers. Smug adults showing off their prize, naïve children, knowing no better, smiling in the foreground as theyre indoctrinated into a culture of prejudice, violence and fear.
These dozens of photos will be the heart of an exhibit opening at Charlottes Levine Museum of the New South on Saturday. Without Sanctuary has traveled around the country for the past decade. Charlotte is its last stop before it lands permanently at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
The exhibit forces us to confront a history that some know nothing about, others only partially understand and still others would like to think is a myth. Almost 5,000 people were lynched in vigilante executions in the United States from 1882 to 1968, most for minor or fabricated offenses. The killings took place across the country, including hundreds of times in the Carolinas. One of the most brutal episodes the lynching, shooting and mutilation of several men dragged out of a jail took place in Salisbury.
The echoes of what some call Americas holocaust reverberated for generations. Blacks, recognizing they were always in season for intimidation and terror attacks, migrated to the North. Over the years, the violence and memories of it kept families apart, fostered mistrust and dissuaded blacks from living in places where they could have gotten jobs. They also hurt the South, depriving it of people who could have been valuable to the regions progress. Ultimately, the events forced this country to live up to its founding creed and values, with whites and blacks joining forces to achieve that goal.
Now, these photos some reminiscent of the contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq bring a tragic chapter of U.S. history to life. Its an uncomfortable topic, but the Levine Museum and President Emily Zimmern are providing a community service. First and foremost, its a point of decency and respect to recognize the victims humanity and the pain it caused for families. And as Zimmern points out, only by understanding history can we move forward. To write a new narrative, we have to understand what got us here, Zimmern told the editorial board Tuesday. Having a shared understanding, she said, can lead to healing and vigilance.
This part of our history is rarely taught in school, and many young people know nothing about it. Even some older people dont fully grasp what an accepted part of America it was at one time. The photographs show that, far from being sporadic crimes perpetrated by a handful of thugs, the lynchings were a community event. Many of the photos were turned into postcards, proudly mailed to friends. James Allen, who collected the photos over decades, wrote that Lust propelled their commercial reproduction and distribution, facilitating the endless replay of anguish. Even dead, the victims were without sanctuary.
On a wall outside the exhibit is a quote from Maya Angelou: History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. Which raises a crucial question: Who is without sanctuary today?
Editors note: Observer Publisher Ann Caulkins is the Levine Museum of the New South chair. She was not involved with the writing of this editorial.