A lynching in the family: Digging deep into a town's sordid past

Review Race

April 02, 2006|By GARY MAY | GARY MAY,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, A Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America

Cynthia Carr

Crown / 500 pages / $25.95

It is one of the most horrific photographs in modern American history: Two African-Americans, torn and bloody, hang from the branches of a stately maple tree amid a crowd of gawking white men and women beneath the terrible sight, some of them with wide grins on their faces. The photograph, taken Aug. 7, 1930, in Marion, Ind., captures the lynching of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith, two black teenagers accused of killing Claude Deeter, a young, white factory worker, and raping his companion during a robbery that went bad. A third teenager, James Cameron, recognized Deeter as a valued customer at his shoeshine stand, turned away and fled before the attack occurred.

Shipp, Smith and Cameron were arrested and taken to the Grant County jail. Rumors about the crime swept through the town, and a mob numbering in the thousands quickly gathered. Using picks, bats and sledgehammers, the angry Indianans broke into the jail and attacked Shipp and Smith, who died before they were hanged. Cameron was about to suffer the same fate when a woman's voice yelled, "Take this boy back! He had nothing to do with any raping or killing." Cameron returned to jail unharmed.

Afterward, as the crowd "howled and milled around the lifeless bodies," pieces of the men's clothing were collected, and people posed for pictures. The photograph became so popular that Lawrence Beitler, a Marion studio photographer who took the picture, printed thousands of copies, which were quickly sold and became family heirlooms.

Cynthia Carr, a veteran Village Voice reporter, spent many years of her youth in Marion and always loved the town. The lynching and the terrible photograph had an intensely personal meaning for her. As a child, she'd often listened to relatives tell the story of what happened that night and of the strange telephone call her grandfather received before the tragedy occurred. If he visited the town square, the caller said, "you might see something you don't want to see," and then he laughed.

Had her grandfather been in the town square that night? If so, did he participate in the lynching or merely observe it? Her questions seemed to be partly answered when she later learned that her gentle, quiet grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Our Town is Carr's search for the truth - about her family, her town, her nation. Why did her grandfather join the Klan? Why was Indiana - the heartland of America - a hotbed of Klan activity in the 1920s and early 1930s? And what lasting impact did the lynching have on Marion?

She hoped her tale wouldn't just be a family story, but "a model for the larger American family, with its repressed history of racial traumas," from slavery to Jim Crow. "Who learns the details in school?" she writes. "I didn't. ... But the details can send you reeling, and if you're white, they're shameful."

Carr takes the reader along with her on this voyage of discovery, but not everyone will be happy taking the trip. We meet numerous citizens of Marion - those connected to the lynching and many who were not, such as current Klan members who weren't born when the tragedy occurred.

Carr writes well, but often the personal trivializes the historical, as when she tells us that during one winter spent researching in Marion, she was "sick a lot. Just colds, really, but I often had the sensation that my throat was closing, that I couldn't speak. I was choking up. Maybe it was all the inexplicable emotion I'd stirred up in myself. Sometimes I'd drive away from an interview in tears, and I wouldn't know why."

In this case, her feelings become the problem, and seem disproportionate to what she eventually learns about her grandfather's secret life.

Earl Carr, she discovered, was born out of wedlock and never outgrew the embarrassment, which she thinks eventually led him to join the Klan. Perhaps - but, as she also notes, the 1920s Klan attracted the prominent as well as the marginal; it was a national organization that elected governors and senators throughout America. Klansmen - rich and poor alike - found a comfortable home in the group. It gave them a history, an elaborate system of rituals, companionship and status. The unfortunate Mr. Carr seems no more unusual than the others who joined the Klan in the 1920s and later.

Furthermore, she finds that the key organizers of the lynching in Marion were not Klansmen but friends of Deeter, fellow employees at the factory, although Klansmen were certainly in the crowd that night. Finally, she concludes that her grandfather was probably also there. In a photograph published in 2002, she sees a man in the crowd who may be her grandfather.

"He's way in the back. He's blurry, but I think that's his hat and his nose and the plane of his face. I'm relieved that he does not appear to be celebrating."

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