Asante, Molefi Kete: Litany of Horror: A Survey of Newspaper-Reported Lynchings

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 43 [Spring 2004] p.116-123


Molefi Kete Asante

Litany of Horror: A Survey of Newspaper-Reported


THE UNITED STATES was born with a political defect from which it may never recover. The enslavement of Africans, while simultaneously expressing the value of liberty, created a duality in the American soul that is maintained in the split between the Wilderness and the Promise. Overcoming this aspect of the American passage from the Wilderness to the Promise may mean the end of civil duality. But this cannot be accomplished until there is a common store of information about the Africans' presence in this nation.


What is necessary from whites, it seems to me, is a political commitment to end racism, or at least to begin the process of attacking racial prejudice. So much racial prejudice against Africans has been built up because of the social, political, and economic structures of American society that many whites believe such prejudice is natural. "I thought we had ended racism years ago during Martin Luther King's time," said a well-dressed white woman who was asked what she thought about the racism against African Americans.


In fact, television talk shows and interview programs consistently demonstrate that there are religious Americans who teach religion to their children, who preach Christianity and other religions in their communities, yet who are bigots against African Americans and others. And these examples of blatant Skinhead or Ku Klux Klan-type arguments and statements are only the visible parts of the racism. Therefore, when politicians speak about controlling the anger and frustration of Africans they miss the point: Righteous anger is often seen as a measured response to the persistence of the doctrine of white supremacy, often operationalized as racism.


Racial anger with its outpouring of violence, as in the case in Los Angeles, may not be the response preferred by the perpetrators of racism, but it is a crucial response, and, as Frantz Fanon knew, whenever the oppressed respond to the conditions of disrespect, the response is a therapeutic action. So whatever else we can say about the outbreak of urban violence in Los Angeles, it represented one of those small revolutions that Thomas Jefferson, the second president of the United States and a slave owner, once said was necessary from time to time.


"No other people would have taken what we have taken for as long as we have taken it," said psychologist Naim Akbar of the Florida State University. Akbar and others believe that people without our history of patience, spirituality, or suffering would have reacted far more violently and with much more determination than we have during our American sojourn. There have been ample reasons for our anger, and many of us have come to understand that our fury will be misunderstood by those who want to misunderstand. I remember how angry I was when some whites seemed angered by the Los Angeles insurrection. Their anger said to me that they had no appreciation of the conditions of the Wilderness. It is necessary from time to time to reeducate those who do not know how we got to this place about American history. Such reeducation, it seems to me, will prevent, or at least temper, the unreality that pronounces blackness as simply a political and ethical construct.


This is precisely why Afrocentrists have argued for the regaining and reassertion of a theoretical perspective that allows Africans to project a humanizing agency; otherwise, we continue to beg the real issue of race and racism in America. Blackness must be seen as a moral position, not a biological fact. Furthermore, one cannot pose the problem of race in America as a problem of the separation of black men from black women through years of oppression. We are all, male and female, victims of the same racism, even if not to the same manner or degree. Those who speak of gendered racism seek to claim that the enslaved male had it better than the enslaved female. We know, of course, that racial oppression occurred irrespective of gender.


The sight of armed policemen beating a prone Rodney King reopened a wound that did not heal quickly. Indeed, the image of black men being beaten on the streets of cities and towns is inexorably linked to black men being lynched in woods and back alleys. It is also connected to the sexual and cultural exploitation of black women. We are too close to the hellish memories that James Allen and Hilton Als illustrated in their powerful book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, and that Ralph Ginzburg revealed in 100 Years of Lynching, to forget the terrible history of lynching.


Consider a brief sampling of the foundation of our anger from the pages of American newspapers. I have included the dates and the names of the newspapers to indicate both the extent and the range of the attacks on African Americans in the twentieth century. What appears below is just a small sample of lynchings I found in various newspapers across the country during the twentieth century, and do not include the numerous other forms of violence against Africans.


- April 27, 1903: New York Times -- Fifty-year-old Joe Shively was whipped with barbed wire and hit in the eye with brass knuckles by thirty-eight men in Bloomington, Indiana, on April 26. Their motive appeared to be local objection to a colored man boarding with a white family. Two daughters of the family were also whipped.


- June 8, 1903: New York Herald -- Belleville, Illinois, schoolteacher David Wyatt attempted to assassinate county superintendent C. Hertel, provoked by the latter's refusal to renew his teaching certificate. His jail cell, where he was subsequently confined, was broken into by two hundred men with sledgehammers. The men mashed his head before dragging him into the street by a rope they fled around his neck, whereupon they were joined by others who kicked and tore him to shreds with knives. His body was then hung and set aflame in the crowd's determination to "teach the Negroes a wholesome lesson."


- July 2, 1903: Chicago Record-Herald -- A mob of fifty men shot and killed Ruben Elrod at his house in Columbia, South Carolina. Three women who lived in the house were warned to leave the county after being stripped and flogged. No reason was given for the attack.


- July 15 and July 17, 1903: Chicago Record-Herald -- A man identified as Ed Claus was lynched near Eastman, Georgia. He had been captured by fifty farmers after an extensive chase and brought to Miss Susie Johnson, a schoolteacher who had been raped by Claus, for identification and sentencing. Despite his protestations that he was not Claus, the Negro was tied to a tree and fired at mercilessly by the mob as the rape victim looked on. Following this, on July 26, the real Ed Claus was located near Darien, Georgia, and secured by police.


- August 13, 1903: Chicago Record-Herald -- Police officers cut down a still-conscious Negro from a mob tree-hanging in Whitesboro, Texas, on August 12. This incident was for an attempted attack on Mrs. Hart; the man was being held for identification when the mob took possession of him. The mob then turned on the town's colored residents, terrifying them into leaving at once.


- March 9, 1904: New York Herald -- A race war in Springfield, Ohio, resulted from the murder of a white policeman and the subsequent lynching of Richard Dickerson, a Negro who had been confined in jail. Negroes were determined to avenge Dickerson's lynching by killing all the city's policemen, while whites announced they would burn the Negro district during the night. Militia were called in to help quell the mob. Dickerson's coroner reported his death by hanging by the neck to a street corner pole and bullet fire, but no one was held responsible for the lynching despite two thousand witnesses.


- August 1, 1910: Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser -- Fifteen to twenty Negroes were hunted down and killed by a mob of two or three hundred men near Palestine, Texas, "without any real cause at all," according to Sheriff Black.


- October 13, 1910: Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser -- A white woman named Mrs. Crow gave birth to a child of "doubtful color," and after months of denial declared that Grant Richardson was the child's father by assault of her. Richardson was lynched on his way to jail in Centreville, Alabama, after the deputy sheriff's custody of him was overpowered.


- November 13, 1911: Birmingham (Ala.) News -- Gov. Cole L. Blease of South Carolina devoted considerable time in a gubernatorial address commending the recent lynching of a Negro at Honea Path by a mob led by Rep. Josh Ashley. He said he would sooner have resigned his office and led the mob himself rather than deterring white men from "punishing that nigger brute."


- January 23, 1912: Montgomery Advertiser -- Norman Hadley, a farmer, was shot in his home, and four Negro tenants (Belle Hathaway, John Moore, Eugene Hamming, and "Dusty" Cruthfield) were arrested for the crime. A mob of one hundred men broke into Harris County jail, where the men were being held, overpowered the jailer, and hustled the four out at gunpoint. They were strung up on trees, protesting their innocence to the last, while the mob fired three hundred shots before dispersing.


- May 4, 1912: Savannah (Ga.) Tribune -- The lynching of a Negro near Jackson, Georgia, was linked to his endeavors to recruit his own people to return to Africa. His apparent success threatened white farmers in the community who depended on slave labor.


- August 13, 1912: Harrisburg (PA.) Advocate -- Mayor Bennington, Sheriff Ellison, Judge Maynard, and Prosecuting Attorney J.O. Pendleton issued a statement that the lynching of Walter Johnston for allegedly attacking fourteen-year-old Nite White, was a case of mistaken identity.


- February 9, 1913: Atlanta Constitution -- A mock trial of Mrs. J.C. Williams' alleged murderer was conducted by a mob of one thousand in the Houston, Texas, courthouse. David Rucker, aged thirty, was found guilty, chained, soaked with oil, and set ablaze. Andrew Williams, also Negro, had been hanged by a mob for the same crime earlier, and his innocence has since been established.


- August 5, 1913: Memphis Commercial-Appeal "Lynching Bad For Business" editorial states, "the Negro is about the only dependable tiller of the soil...is also very useful as a distributor of money. About all he gets goes through his fingers.... Furthermore, the white man of courage can most always control the Negro without being compelled to resort to violence."


- September 23, 1913: Birmingham (Ala.) News -- Henry Crosby frightened Mrs. J.C. Carroll, a white woman of Louisville, Kentucky, when he asked whether her husband was home. She ran to a nearby house with her infant, and Crosby's body was later found hanging from a tree.


- April 30, 1914: New York Age -- Two half-drunk white men entered a black home near Wagner, Oklahoma, and raped and assaulted a seventeen-year-old colored girl, who screamed for her twenty-one-year-old brother's help. He shot one of the brutes in her defense, but the other got away. Local authorities came looking for him in vain that evening, and arrested her instead. A mob took her from jail at 4 A.M. and lynched her.


- January 3, 1916: Philadelphia Inquirer -- Because of a remark that offended a white girl in Anderson County, South Carolina, two Negroes were lynched and a Negro woman badly beaten. The Negro woman asserts that all they said was "Hello."


- January 22, 1916: New York Herald -- The bullet-riddled bodies of five Negroes (four from one family) found hanging from a tree near Starkville, Georgia, increased the total lynchings in that section to fourteen in five weeks. They were accused of having knowledge of Lee County Sheriff Moreland's killing.


- April 4, 1916: Atlanta Constitution -- Oscar Martin's preliminary hearing in the attack of a thirteen-year-old girl in Idabel, Oklahoma, ended in a mob attack by five hundred men. They overpowered court attachés and hanged the Negro from the second-story balcony of the courthouse.


- May 16, 1916: New York World -- Screaming for mercy, eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington was burned to death in front of fifteen thousand for killing Ms. Lucy Friar, a white woman, near Waco, Texas. He was dead one hour after the rendering of the jury's guilty verdict.


- August 27, 1916: Philadelphia Inquirer -- Jess Hammet was removed from jail by a mob of one thousand at Vivian, Louisiana, and hanged from a telegraph pole for allegedly assaulting a white woman. The woman's parents pleaded with the mob on Hammet's behalf because some years before, when he was their servant, he had cared for the woman who now accused him.


- September 3, 1916: Minneapolis Tribune -- Lynch leaders in Stuttgart, Arkansas, declared the method of their recent lynching of a Negro they took from DeWitt jail as "humane." Their correspondence to the town newspaper read that he "did not live nine seconds after his feet left the ground, as the bullet wounds on his body will prove...." The only request made by the criminal was that he be hanged or shot, and not tortured or burned.


- September 8, 1917: Chicago Defender -- "Above is the head of Ell Persons, Negro, who was burned to death in Memphis, Tenn., on May 18. This head was cut off the body and is seen here on the pavement of Beale Street (principal business street of the Negro section)." Persons' ears, lower lip, and nose were severed by souvenir hunters. Copies of the photograph were on sale in Memphis for a quarter.


- October 13, 1917: Chicago Defender -- Eight hundred oil field workers -- whites, Mexicans, Germans, and Italians -- employed in a Houston, Texas, suburb, seized Bert Smith, had a ten-year-old white boy castrate him with a knife, brutally hung him to a tree, riddled his body with bullets, and horribly mutilated it with sledgehammers and butcher knives after cutting it down. Smith was a Negro cook who had complained to the camp head, within earshot of some whites, about indecent remarks made to his mother and sister when they visited. A week later, Smith's sister was attacked on her way to visit him by three whites, who raped her and left her blood-stained garments hung over her head on the limb of a tree, where she was later found. Smith's lynching followed his attack on the white messenger of his sister's fate.


- April 5, 1919: Chicago Defender -- Private William Little, a Negro soldier returning to Blakely, Georgia, from the war, was harassed by whites for wearing his Army uniform. Since Little had no other clothing, he continued to wear his uniform over a few weeks and was advised through anonymous notes to leave town if he wished to "sport around in khaki." He was later found dead from a mob beating on the city outskirts.


- May 1, 1919: Knoxville (Tenn.) News -- George Holden was shot to death in a third lynching attempt for allegedly writing an insulting note to Onlie Elliot, a white woman. Holden was on his way to Shreveport, Louisiana, for safe-keeping following the first two attempts, when a mob held up the train he was on. Acquaintances of Holden said he could hardly write his own name.


- May 10, 1919: Chicago Defender -- Luther Wilson (white) of Dade City, Florida, blackened his face and attacked a sixteen-year-old relative by marriage. Upon her recognition of him he said if she told about the incident he would swear his innocence and blame a black man. Wilson was reported and caught by a mob at a creek washing the black substance off his hands and face.


- May 15, 1919: Vicksburg (Miss.) Herald -- Lloyd Clay, a twenty-four-year-old Negro laborer, was roasted to death and hung in Vicksburg, Mississippi, by a mob of up to one thousand who snatched him from the jail he was in on charges of entering nineteen-year-old Lulu Belle Bishop's bedroom and attempting to violate her. It was later revealed that the violator was the woman's secret white lover.


- September 6, 1919: Chicago Defender -- The charred and bullet-riddled body of Eli Cooper, an aged farmer who sought to organize farm laborers, was found in the ashes of Ocmulgee African Church, one of four churches burned along with several lodges by a crowd of white men. Cooper allegedly said, "Negro has been run over for fifty years, but it must stop now, and pistols and shotguns are the only way to stop a mob." Another lynching had taken place near this scene in which sixty-five-year-old Berry Washington, who was jailed for defending his sixteen-year-old daughter from rape by a white man, was strong to a tree.


- October 4, 1919, Atlanta Constitution -- Ernest Glenwood's body was found floating in Georgia's Hint River on October 2 after his disappearance on September 22, when he was taken into custody by three masked men. Glenwood had been charged with circulating incendiary propaganda among Negroes in Dooly County, for which he was bound and severely whipped.


- December 2, 1920: Knoxville (Tenn.) News -- Miss Bessie Revere, daughter of prominent Quitman, Georgia, woman, gained consciousness in time to stop a lynch mob that formed to attack her rapist, who the press said was black. Miss Revere said her rapist was James Harvey, a prominent white man.


- January 27, 1921: Memphis Press -- Henry Lowry retained consciousness for forty minutes as his body was roasted by inches from his legs up. As the flames reached his abdomen, he admitted his guilt to two questioners. He cried out only once before losing consciousness, having failed at attempts to pick up and swallow hot coals in order to hasten death. Lowry's wife and children witnessed.


- February 3, 1921: Knoxville (Tenn.) News -- Jim Roland, a Negro farmer, was lynched near Camilla, Georgia, after shooting Jason I. Harvel, a white farmer, who had ordered the Negro to dance at gunpoint for the amusement of himself and his white friends. Roland, who was with his Negro friends, grabbed for the gun, which went off, killing Harvel. Roland was chased by a posse that fiddled him with bullets after his refusal of their leader's command to dance.


- March 18, 1921: Memphis Times-Scimitar -- A series of warnings by masked white men to Negro brakemen of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad to quit their jobs culminated in the lynching of Howard Hurd of Memphis. His body was fiddled with bullets and had a warning note "to all nigger railroadmen."


- August 19, 1921: Baltimore Afro-American -- A mob of up to two thousand hanged and fiddled Jerome Whitfield's body with a thousand bullets, on suspicion of assaulting the wife of a white farmer. He was tracked down by bloodhounds and brought to the woman, who expressed doubt that he was her assailant.


- November 25, 1921: St. Louis Argus -- After it was hanged and cut down by one mob and before it was burned in a city hall bondfire by a second mob, the body of nineteen-year-old William Turner was hauled through the main streets of Helena, Arkansas, to provide a moving target for white men armed with pistols. The victim's father, August Turner, was summoned to the park to remove his son's charred remains after the celebrants had their fill.


- February 17, 1923: Chicago Defender -- The only drag store in Milledgeville, Georgia, displayed a large bottle with fingers and ears of two lynched Negroes in alcohol. The inscription -- "What's left of the niggers that shot a white man" -- referred to the killing of Lindsay B. Gilmore following his pursuit of two Negroes who stole cheese and cash from his grocery store. Witnesses stated that Gilmore was shot by a local officer with a faulty aim.


- April 20, 1923: New York World -- A mob that included many male and female University of Missouri students lynched James T. Scott, a Negro janitor at the university who had been charged with an attempt to assault the fourteen-year-old daughter of the head of the German Department. Scott swore his innocence and said he could prove it, but a young man dumped him over the side of the bridge where a five-hundred-member crowd had taken him. His noosed neck snapped audibly.


- June 15, 1923: St. Louis Argus -- The bullet-ridden body of Henry Simmons, a native of the Bahama Islands, was found hanging from a tree on Palm Beach Island, Florida. Simmons had made enemies because of his outspokenness about the treatment of American Negroes by southern whites.


- August 11, 1923: Washington (D.C.) Eagle -- Ten thousand colored persons are said to have left Yazoo City following the burning at the stake of Willie Minnifield in a nearby swamp. He was accused of attacking a woman with an ax at a point twenty-six miles distant.


- October 10, 1924: Chicago Tribune -- Two girls who had been accosted could not positively identify the Negro who was killed by a mob in the Jewish "ghetto" section of Chicago as the man who committed the crime. William Bell was kicked and beaten by a one-hundred-person mob composed principally of foreigners, and died from a blow to the head with a baseball bat. Racial tension had been running high in the ghetto since a number of Negro families moved in.


- March 12, 1927: Chicago Defender -- Clarence Darrow, Chicago's internationally known criminal lawyer, champion of oppressed people, and free-speech advocate, was forced to leave a hall in which he spoke in Mobile, Alabama, under special police protection because he was menaced by a mob.


- May 10, 1930: New York Sun -- After the burning of the Sherman courthouse in which alleged rapist George Hughes was killed, a mob seized Hughes' body from the ruins, dragged it to the Negro section by the rear of an automobile, strong it up to a tree, and set it afire. With clubs, bricks, bottles, and fists, the mob looted, wrecked, and burned a three-block section of the Negro district.


- October 4, 1930: New York Negro World -- A mob of seventy-five men wrested Willie Kirkland from the sheriff's hands, hanged him to a tree, and, after fiddling his body with bullets, toted it through Thomasville, Georgia, behind a track and deposited it on the courthouse lawn. Twenty-year-old Kirkland, who was serving out a term for horse stealing, was said to have been identified twice by a nine-year-old girl as the man who attempted to attack her. The camp warden verified Kirkland's presence in the camp the day of the girl's alleged attack.


- March 4, 1933: Indianapolis Recorder -- Nelson Nash, who was brutally lynched in Ringgold, Louisiana, for the murder of local white banker J.P. Batchelor, was the wrong man. Batchelor and his wife were forced out of their house by the murderer to pen the bank safe, which Batchelor refused to do. Mrs. Batchelor would not identify the lynched man as the perpetrator, nor would she say whether her husband's assailant was black or, as was later suspected, white.


- March 27, 1933, New York Herald-Tribune -- A Lowell, North Carolina, physician, Dr. James W. Reid, saved a Negro from a lynch mob by hiding him in his cellar and then by driving him to Charlotte for safekeeping in the Mecklenberg County jail.


- July 23, 1933: Knoxville Journal -- Reports on the lynching of a Negro in Caledonia, Mississippi, suggest he made an improper proposal to meet a white girl in a nearby cotton field and was instead met by a band of white men, who hanged him and fiddled his body with bullets.


- October 19, 1933: New York Times -- A frenzied mob of three thousand men, women, and children in Princess Anne, Maryland, sneering at guns and tear gas, overpowered fifty state troopers, removed twenty-four-year-old George Armwood (a Negro prisoner accused of attacking an aged white woman), and lynched him in front of the home of a judge who had tried to placate the mob. The mob then cut down the body, dragged it almost a mile through the main thoroughfares, and tossed it on a burning pyre.


- October 26, 1934: Macon (Ga.) Telegraph: -- "All white folks are invited to the party," said the announcement to citizens of Greenwood, Florida, as thousands prepared all day for the lynching of Claude Neal, twenty-three, who was seized by a mob from jail in connection with the murder of a white girl. A "Committee of Six" representing the mob announced a timetable for the lynching in the newspapers and over the radio.


- October 27, 1934: Birmingham (Al.) Post -- Claude Neal's bullet-riddled, seminude, mutilated body swung from a courthouse tree in Marianna, Florida. An eyewitness said Neal had been forced to eat his castrated penis and testicles and say he liked it before the mob sliced his sides and stomach and cut off his fingers with knives. He was burned with red-hot irons, choked with a rope around his neck, and dragged through the streets behind an automobile. A woman came out of the Cannidy home after the body was disconnected from the rear bumper and drove her knife into his heart. The crowd then kicked and drove their cars over him. Photographs of his remains were to go on sale later at 50 cents apiece, and Neal's mutilated fingers and toes were freely exhibited on street corners.


- March 13, 1935: Atlanta Constitution -- A fifty-man mob hanged Ab Young from an oak tree near Slayden, Mississippi, for the shooting death of Hardy Mackie, forty-five, a state highway worker. Young met death with a hymn upon his lips as the car he was placed upon with a rope around his neck was driven out from under him.


- April 28, 1936: Hickory (N.C.) Record -- Lint Shaw, a Negro farmer once saved from lynching through the pleadings of a judge, was tied to a pine tree and shot to death near Colbert, Georgia, by a mob of forty men eight hours before he was to have been tried on attempted criminal assault.


- April 14, 1937: New York Times -- Two Negroes were tied to a tree, tortured, and lynched by a mob of more than one hundred white men near Duck Hill, Mississippi, less than two hours after they pleaded innocent in Montgomery County Circuit Court to a charge of murdering a white man. One of the men's eyes was gouged out with an ice pick and he was burnt with a blowtorch before he died, while the other was flogged with chains and a horsewhip before he was shot.


- December 15, 1938: Philadelphia Tribune -- An NAACP investigation into the lynching of Wilder McGowan in Wiggins, Mississippi, on November 21 for allegedly attacking a white woman revealed his innocence. The woman described her attacker as "light-colored...with slick hair." McGowan, who was not in the crime vicinity, was dark. The NAACP characterized his lynching as the culruination of the "pent-up anger of whites against an innocent Negro who had refused on numerous occasions in the past to accommodate himself to the attempts of white ruffians to frightened colored citizens."


- August 26, 1944: New York Amsterdam News -- A lynch-killing of sixty-six-year-old Rev. Isaac Simmons on March 26 in Amite County, Mississippi, because he hired a lawyer to safeguard his title to a 220-acre debt-free farm, was revealed in an affidavit sworn by his son. The trouble started when his land was thought to have oil and whites started to muscle in to take away his property.


- September 1, 1955: Washington Post-Times-Herald The body of fifteen-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago, who disappeared after he allegedly made "fresh" remarks to a white woman, was found floating in the Tallahatchie River, shot through the head. A 125-pound cotton gin blower had been tied to his neck to make the body sink, but Till's feet floated to the surface, leading to the discovery.


- March 8 1960: Birmingham (Ala.) News -- Four masked white youths hung a Negro man from a tree by his heels in Houston, Texas, and carved two series of "KKK"s into his chest and stomach after beating him with chains, allegedly in reprisal for recent sit-in demonstrations by Negro students at Texas Southern University. A group of students from the all-Negro university staged sit-ins at a supermarket lunch counter, drugstore, and another store.


- June 10, 1998: New York Daily News -- Three white Texans were accused of chaining a black hitchhiker to the back of a pickup truck and dragging him by the ankles down a road until his body was tom to pieces.


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