The hangman’s legacy

Jul 28, 2004 at 12:00 am

Three black men dangle like grape leaves from a tree. They await you. In fact, they beckon you — dare you, almost, to come closer.

Their dares, however, are silent and motionless. Not like the menacing taunts of a “gangsta” rapper.

No, these black men have been rendered completely harmless by the ropes from which they lifelessly hang. They are no longer to be feared, as Southern welfare and propriety have been further ensured by their extermination. Still, they dare you — dare you to face the sad and horrifying truth of their life and death as victims in the legacy of American injustice.

The life-size image of the three figures marks the entrance of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, a new exhibition at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the boldest and most widely discussed exhibit in the museum’s four decades of existence, let alone its 17 years as a major Cultural Center institution. On display through Feb. 27, 2005, Without Sanctuary includes more than 100 images of violent acts committed from 1882 to 1981 and is based on a photographic book of the same name by antique collector James Allen.

Christy Coleman, museum president, says the exhibit is the culmination of three years’ worth of effort to bring it to Detroit, which is also the first presentation of Without Sanctuary in the Midwest. It first opened at the New York Historical Society in spring 2000, attracting 50,000 viewers, one of the largest audiences for any of the society’s exhibits. It drew more than 30,000 viewers at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh a year later, and more than 50,000 saw the exhibition in its first two months alone at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, the first showing in the South. In venue after venue, audiences have responded with a gamut of reactions from shock at the explicitly violent images themselves to praise for the candor in showing them.

Charles H. Wright Museum staff members expect a favorable response, but say the decision to show Without Sanctuary was strictly a matter of programming and was not a response to their recent financial troubles. Nonetheless, the attendance and reaction to the exhibit is likely to be watched by outsiders as a measure of the museum’s health and prospects.

Among those at the exhibit on the busy opening day was Alicia Walter, of San Antonio, who stopped to see the exhibit while in Detroit attending a conference. She calls it “a little disturbing.”

“You hear about it, but it’s never really real,” Walter says. “You don’t associate real people with it.”

Rodney Alexander, of Detroit, was “moved,” though less shocked by the images than Walter.

“I thought it was great for the young people to see what we’ve been through,” he says. “I don’t think they really understand.”

But others caution that the exhibit may frighten youngsters who’ve never witnessed the brutality — hangings by ropes, burned and charred bodies and terribly disfigured human carcasses — on display.

“It scared me,” says a wide-eyed Tranise Ross, age 10.

“It’s kind of scary,” her friend Courtney Clarke agrees, “but it’s mostly wrong.”

Despite its disturbing nature, Patrina Chatman, curator of exhibitions at Charles H. Wright, defends Without Sanctuary’s relevance.

“We have people who are actually alive, who just missed the lynchman’s noose,” Chatman says.

‘Somber phenomenon’

When he was a nominee for justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, Clarence Thomas outraged many civil rights activists and others by referring to his televised nomination hearings — which raised allegations that he sexually harassed a colleague — as a “high-tech lynching.”

More recently, entertainer Jermaine Jackson became a virtual laughingstock for similar comments in relation to the child sexual abuse charges being brought against his superstar brother Michael.

In contrast, Without Sanctuary is about lynching not as metaphor but as a historical, national shame.

Without Sanctuary is divided into three segments, “Lynching: A Somber Phenomenon,” “Anti-Lynching: A Movement That Changed the Nation” and “Contemporary Lynching Issues: We Must Learn From Our Past.”

It is most commonly believed that lynching derived its name and practice from Charles Lynch, a Virginia judge who punished British Tories by hanging them during colonial times. But most definitions allude to any deadly violence taking place without due legal process, usually with the belief or pretext that its victim has committed some offense. By one authoritative tally, some 5,000 individuals are known to have been lynched in the United States, though many scholars believe the number to be much higher.

The 1955 case of Emmett Till, a black Chicago 14-year-old who was abducted, beaten, shot and thrown into a river, after allegedly making a wolf whistle at a white woman in Mississippi, looms large in the American memory as one of the most infamous lynchings. That case has returned to headlines with recent documentaries and authorities reopening the investigation of Till’s death this year. (Two men, who have since died, were tried for the death in the 1950s and found not guilty, although they later admitted to the killing. The current probe centers on possible accomplices.)

But where Till’s killers worked under cover of darkness, much of Without Sanctuary depicts the era through the 1930s when lynchings were public spectacles in which cheering crowds — sometimes numbering in the thousands — participated. The bloody rituals were then captured in quickly produced postcards — the banality of evil, American style.

Without Sanctuary is all the more gripping because it attaches names, faces and feelings to the word “lynching.” The vast majority of victims were black men accused of rape or of making sexual overtures toward white women, regarded as a taboo in the racist American society of the 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries, particularly in the South. But numerous scholars have argued that lynchings functioned chiefly to send a message to the black community as a whole: Bow down to white supremacy.

Victim John Richards is shown in a photo with his pants lowered beneath his buttocks and a piece of fabric draped over his pelvis, suggesting that he was probably castrated. Several photos depict black men lynched in groups. One postcard that captures the 1920 hanging of Texas teenager Lige Daniels is sent to a relative and pleasantly signed “From Aunt Myrtle.”

James Cameron, a black man who narrowly escaped being lynched in Indiana, describes the Northern atmosphere of hatred and violence in a video portion of the exhibit. An elderly Cameron is shown speaking calmly and matter-of-factly of how a noose was placed around his neck before someone yelled, “That’s not him!”

Without Sanctuary also depicts a small number of women victims, such as Oklahoma’s Laura Nelson, a black mother accused of shooting a deputy sheriff while he searched her cabin for stolen meat in 1911. Nelson, according to exhibit notes, tried to convince authorities that she should receive any punishment, rather than her teenaged son; both were lynched.

But many viewers are likely to be surprised to see non-black faces among the lynching victims. Among others included in the exhibit are Castenegro Ficcarotta and Angelo Albano, accused of shooting a Florida bookkeeper in 1910, and Leo Max Frank, accused of murdering a Georgia girl. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Ficcarotta and Albano were Italian immigrants and Frank was Jewish, affording the three men social or ethnic status then viewed as inferior to that of American-born white men.

Card collectors

Two white men — who, admittedly, have more in common with the lynchers than with the lynched — are responsible for Without Sanctuary. At the recent exhibit opening in Detroit, they look more like a couple of middle-aged corporate types than crusaders. Allen, an antique collector, partnered with John Littlefield, a software professional, to begin their unique collaboration 20 years ago. Their interest started when Allen acquired a desk that happened to contain one of the gruesome lynching postcards, “a brittle postcard of Leo Frank dead in an oak tree,” he has written. Later another collector offered him a postcard of Nelson, the sight of which “layered a pall of grief over all my fears.” In death, she looked like “a child’s paper kite snagged on a utility wire,” he wrote.

Littlefield says he used his life savings to fund the collection effort. Their goal was to “push the discussion of racism past white comfort,” Allen says, adding that few have questioned his motives in profiting from a miserable history that has been lopsidedly suffered by blacks.

“I would say that 99.9 percent of all people are grateful” for the exhibit’s contribution, he adds. But Littlefield emphasized the difficulty in finding support for the exhibit at the outset. “Nobody wanted to touch it,” he says.

He freely admits that his relatives were not innocent of using racial slurs, but says he was taught to be respectful by his immediate family members. The men appear comfortable answering questions about their personal background and interests, but they agree that the exhibit should speak for itself.

As much as Without Sanctuary speaks for itself, in some sections it does so with a sort of numbing redundancy. At times the images become just more lifeless bodies as the individual stories of the victims and their circumstances disappear from exhibit notes, more a reflection on the limits of historical recovery than any shortcoming in the presentation.

More inspiring and informative, on the other hand, are the leaflets, literature and memorabilia in the “Anti-Lynching” segment, which include a petition for Congress to pass a bill against the rampant attacks — despite concerted efforts over decades, no such bill was passed — and a flier hailing Monday, July 14 (no year is listed) as “Detroit Anti-Lynching Day.”

‘Strange Fruit’

While Without Sanctuary has commanded the greatest crowds and media coverage, it is only part of a movement to confront this painful past. The last 10 years have seen the publication of academic books such as Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck’s A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930 and historian-author Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown, aimed at a more general audience. Even the anti-lynching anthem immortalized by Billie Holiday has had a book-length treatment in David Margolick’s Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song.

But while numerous academics and art critics have commented on the cultural and historical importance of Without Sanctuary and similar works, others are interested in the exhibit’s contemporary implications.

Shari Silberstein, co-director of Equal Justice USA in Silver Springs, Md., is among them. Equal Justice is an anti-death penalty group, and for Silberstein, lynchings parallel more commonly accepted forms of American violence, including capital punishment.

“If you look at the relationship between lynchings and the death penalty, for one, the death penalty is almost exclusively carried out in Southern states, where the lynchings were most commonly carried out,” says Silberstein. “… At the same time, the death penalty, as it is now, has become incredibly sanitized compared to lynching.”

Without Sanctuary is a “mixed bag,” in terms of its contribution to the discussion of American violence and discrimination, she says.

“In terms of the actual history of lynching, I think it’s important to see,” she adds. “For people to be confronted with that in a really shocking way, I think it’s important. But we have to remember that logistically different is not systemically different.”


The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is located at 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit. Call 313-494-5800.


An online presentation based on the book Without Sanctuary can be viewed at

Eddie B. Allen is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]