Levine Museum of the New South confronts era of lynching

Most provocative exhibit in museum’s history shows bigotry in Jim Crow South

09/23/2012 1:17 AM

09/24/2012 9:58 AM

Levine Museum of the New South will unveil the boldest and most provocative exhibit in its 20-year history this week, an unsettling chronicle of lynching in America and in the Carolinas.

Based largely on photo postcards that circulated as gruesome mementos, the exhibition – “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” – confronts the phenomenon of vigilante executions that peaked around the dawn of the 20th century.

Dealing with sensitive social issues is nothing new for the Levine, which created in 2004 the long-running and nationally recognized “Courage” exhibit detailing the struggle for school desegregation in the South.

But in “Without Sanctuary,” the Levine takes a step further by displaying graphic images of lynchings to confront the theme of bigotry in the Jim Crow era.

“We present complex history,” said Emily Zimmern, the Levine’s president. “This is an important topic that profoundly affected American society.

“We bear witness to the atrocities and teach this history to facilitate cross-cultural discussions in the hope we’ll promote healing – and vigilance about bigotry and violence today.”

Said Levine historian Tom Hanchett: “If you only talk about the happy part of history, no one believes you’re telling the truth.”

In 2000, the museum became aware of the traveling exhibit and expressed interest in hosting it then. It became available this year, and Charlotte will be its last stop before it is permanently installed at the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

Among the community events scheduled in conjunction with the exhibition is a panel Oct. 13 with descendants of both lynching victims and participants organized by Jeffrey Leak, director of the Center for the Study of the New South at UNC Charlotte.

“What’s striking is the fact it’s clear that this is our history,” he said, “not just blacks or whites, but our history collectively speaking.”

“It’s interesting to see how people locate themselves or try to distance themselves from what is obvious but painful. They’re trying to find their place in a narrative that’s disturbing, alienating in some ways. We want to acknowledge the violence and the brutality of it, but also the humanity, those who were killed.”

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More than 4,700 people have been confirmed killed in lynchings between 1882 and 1968, mostly in the decades around the turn of the 20th century and mostly in the South. More than 70 percent of those killed were African-Americans. There are at least 100 recorded cases in North Carolina and 160 in South Carolina. Among offenses used to justify lynchings: pilfering crops, refusal to pay a note, “annoying a white woman.”

–Levine Museum of the New South

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Collector moved to action

“Without Sanctuary” was sparked by a curious event. Atlanta antique dealer James Allen was once offered a post card depicting a lynching.

Until the U.S. Post Office banned them from the mail in 1908, they were circulated as casually as post cards of Niagara Falls. Allen had never seen such a thing before. He found them repellent, but was moved to spend the next 25 years collecting similar artifacts and finally publishing them in a book with essays about victimization.

His collection grew to dozens of cards showing lynchings from Duluth to Fort Lauderdale. Victims were blacks and whites, men and women. Some were criminals, some were innocents. Some were drunks who had the misfortune of blundering into the sober; some vice versa.

As visitors tour the exhibit, they learn about the roots of lynching in a time of economic imbalance. A section on the self-authority of lynch mobs examines the common themes of sending messages through violence, the ritual humiliation of the victims and the macabre entertainment value bystanders found in the slow, torturous deaths.

As ghastly as the corpses are in the photos, it is the faces of the spectators where the monstrosities lie, the smug vigilantes gathered around their trophies like fisherman showing a prize catch.

Men, women – even children in their Sunday best – pose by corpses dangling from trees, lamp posts and the bony ironwork of bridges. Some mug at the camera with cocky pride, thrill seekers at a carnival of horror strangely celebrating the festivity.

Some visitors may seek comfort in the notion that barbarianism in the human heart has been exterminated in the modern age, at least among Americans.

Others will be reminded that the hideous leers of olden times are mirrored in the face of Army Spc. Lynndie England, photographed smirking over the mutilated corpse of an insurgent at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison in 2004.

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“I believe the photographer was more than a perceptive spectator at lynchings. Photographic art played as significant a role in the ritual as torture or souvenir grabbing Lust propelled their commercial reproduction and distribution, facilitating the endless replay of anguish. Even dead, the victims were without sanctuary.”

– James Allen, who published the post cards in “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.”

Horror in Salisbury

Where the “Without Sanctuary” exhibition toured, historians would add exhibits on local connections.

Among events in the Carolinas that the Levine staff cite is an atrocity in Salisbury that shocked the nation.

On Aug. 6, 1906, a mob coagulated outside the Rowan County Jail. Indictments had just been issued against six suspects in the bludgeoning deaths a month before of a white farmer, Isaac Lyerly, his wife and two of their young sons in their home in Unity Township.

Vigilantes broke into the jail and hauled out three of the accused – Nease Gillespie, John Gillespie and Jack Dillingham, black laborers from the Lyerly farm.

Hands bound, they were swept down Main Street as some of their abductors fired shots into the air. A roaring crowd estimated at 2,000 followed for eight blocks to Henderson baseball field.

Beneath a towering oak, the men were given a chance to confess. Both Gillespies refused to talk. Dillingham, 16, proclaimed his innocence.

Ropes were tossed up to a man blowing smoke rings from his cigarette on a low bough of the oak.

Dillingham was hanged first, then the Gillespies. What effect the nooses had was irrelevant. As each was hoisted, a volley of shots came from the mob.

When examined, the corpses were riddled by bullets enough to kill a score of men.

“We think the sentiment of the people of the South regarding this affair will be one of profound disgust and humiliation. Other sections of the country will view the affair with contempt which will be all the more bitter for us to bear because we cannot avoid the feeling it is deserved. We sincerely hope that in North Carolina there will be a general sensation of shame.”

– Richmond News Leader

“We are confident that such a lynching that occurred at Salisbury could not have taken place in this state.”

– The State, Columbia, S.C.

“Lynching in North Carolina will never stop until the killing of lynchers begins.”

– J.P. Caldwell, editor of The Charlotte Observer

Historic verdict

Newspapers from New York to California carried accounts of the violence. Multiple lynchings were rare, and the fact the victims were in custody and ready to stand trial magnified the outrage.

Within days, four men were arrested and charged with a variety of crimes. George Hall was identified as one of the ringleaders of the violence. He was tried and found guilty of conspiracy, and it was a landmark case. Hall’s conviction was the first in North Carolina for anyone involved in a lynching, and one of the earliest in the nation.

Hall was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor and fined $500.

“While lynching would not disappear completely from North Carolina prior to World War II, the number of incidents diminished greatly over the four decades following the Salisbury murders,” writes historian Claude Clegg, a Salisbury native who wrote a book on the case, “Troubled Ground,” and who will speak Oct. 11 at a community program.

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“At 2 o’clock today, the bodies of the Negroes were still hanging on the tree. Thousands of people have seen them. The heads are earless, the hands fingerless and the feet toeless. Souvenir hunters had mutilated the corpses. The red tape of the law kept the gruesome things there for women and children, as well as men, to gaze upon.”

– The Charlotte Observer, Aug. 8, 1906

Courage needed today

Janeen Bryant, the Levine’s vice president of education, held focus groups to gauge reaction, including one that included young volunteers and docents at the museum.

Some college-age students, whites and blacks, told her they’d never heard of lynching and didn’t understand what the term meant.

“As a former CMS teacher, I can believe that in the classroom some can circumvent this chapter of history,” she said.

In listening to other sessions, she found a generational divide. For many older people, lynching was a taboo topic.

“Not everyone was a ‘Go’ on this,” she says. “Some people were disgusted. Others thought it was historically relevant.”

But Bryant says the legacy of racial violence still plays a role in the lives of young people through issues like bullying, discrimination against gays and anti-immigrant sentiments.

At the end of the exhibit, visitors are invited to write in a journal about their reactions and how they might stand up against people who seek to take the rights of others.

“Individuals,” she said, “have the power to make changes.”

Staff researchers Marion Paynter and Maria David contributed.

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