Souvenirs of a violent history

SUN JOURNAL

Exhibit: A show of lynching photographs in Atlanta, where the past isn't so long ago or far away, seeks to illustrate the viciousness of racism.

July 21, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

These were regular folks from ordinary American towns. They cared for their families and went to church, and occasionally they would gather to commit ritual murder.

The things they did to the bodies of African-American men would not make fit talk for Sunday dinner. Nonetheless, often enough someone took photographs to remember how the corpse looked hanging from tree or trestle, or burned on a pyre, and how townspeople young and old gathered around in white shirts and white hats. Sometimes they smiled for the camera.

These photographs might be turned into souvenir postcards so a spectator could show friends and relatives far away that he was there, watching a man die.

"This is the barbecue we had last night" says the handwritten note on the back of a particularly ghastly image from the torture and burning of a black man. "My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe."

At the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, about 40 photographs and souvenir cards are on view through Dec. 30, the first exhibition of this privately owned collection in the South, where most, but not all, of about 4,700 recorded lynchings took place in the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries. Nearly 3,500 of those victims were black, though the figures are not considered comprehensive.

Considerable local anxiety preceded the Without Sanctuary exhibition's Southern debut, not least because these events, for all their medieval horror, occurred not so long ago or far away from the King site on Auburn Avenue. Second to Mississippi in the number of recorded deaths by lynching stands Georgia: 460 between 1880 and 1930.

The exhibition - presented by Emory University and the King site - has drawn bigger crowds than previous displays of these materials in New York and Pittsburgh. By early this month, the show, which opened in May, had been visited by more than 50,000 people, black and white.

Spectators walk through galleries where the walls have been painted black. Affixed to the walls are these photographs, most no bigger than a page of a paperback novel. The photographs are marked with captions about the lynching and, where information has been available, the life of the victim. Since the owners of the collection resisted the idea of enlarging the images, visitors must stand close to see the faces of the living and the dead.

That picture of visitors leaning into these horrifying photographs conveys something of what the organizers are after. By presenting as much information as could be found about the victims, they would have you make some connection to them as people. They would also have you see that their killers were not monsters but people from town: neighbors, mechanics, the guy who delivered milk.

The hope is to arouse "an awareness of the viciousness of racism," says Emory religion Professor Theophus Smith, who helped organize the exhibition. "The country is still in denial about the violence of racism. You couldn't look at these images without getting it."

Historian Benedict Anderson has argued in his book Imagined Communities that nations march to a cadence of remembering and forgetting. For the collectors of this material and the organizers of the display, white Americans appear to lean toward amnesia, especially in matters of race.

From white visitors, says exhibition volunteer Gerald Boyd, "I am always hearing: `We can't believe this happened.'"

Boyd, who has talked with visitors individually and in organized discussion groups, notes a "complete disassociation" from these events among white viewers, "as if some alien or some invading group of people did this."

Exhibition volunteer Valetta Anderson says even among people who knew about lynching, the display appears to be shattering preconceived ideas.

Says Anderson, "A lot of people thought lynchings were done in the dead of night in secret."

Many were, but many were public events. So-called "spectacle lynchings" were sometimes conducted with enough planning that notices appeared in newspapers. Crowds numbering in the hundreds gathered as if for a county fair. Anecdotal accounts suggest that food and drinks were occasionally served. According to historian Philip Dray, at one immolation in Pennsylvania in 1911, spectators were said to have enjoyed ice cream sundaes.

The exhibition includes images of white people standing around the corpse, many smiling, many looking at the camera. These pictures have left many visitors "shocked and disturbed," says Anderson. "They were disturbed that children were brought" to see the killing.

"These were not people who were shrinking; they were posing," says the exhibit's curator, Joseph F. Jordan. "They were placing themselves in close proximity so they could be associated" with the killing.

"Most people are completely awe-struck at the fact that nothing was done, that in the eyes of the law nothing was done," says Adrian Tonge, volunteer coordinator for the exhibition.

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