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Hangings - Page 9
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Riot, June 1, 1921. Photo courtesy Tulsa Library.
Southern trees bear a
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the
crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
From Billie Holiday's 1938 song Strange
June 1, 1921, one of the worst race riots in history occurred in
Oklahoma. “Black Wallstreet,” the name fittingly given to one of the most affluent
black communities in America, was bombed from the air and burned to the
ground by mobs of envious whites. In a period spanning fewer than 12
hours, the thriving black business district in north
smoldering, 3,000 black Americans were dead, and over 600 successful
businesses were lost.
Behind the destruction was the Ku Klux Klan, working in consort with
ranking city officials and many other sympathizers. It cost the black
community everything, and not a single dime of restitution nor insurance
claims were ever awarded the victims. Many of the dead were buried in mass
graves around the city; some were thrown into the river, and others were
thrown into a coal mine.
this time it was typical to have a "picnic" on Friday evenings in
The word was short for “pick a nigger” to lynch, where a black male would
be lynched and his body parts cut off as souvenirs. This trend
spread to all over the United States.
In 1922, another anti-lynching
bill was drafted which passed in the House of Representatives but was
defeated in the Senate and again, the tragedies continued to occur.
In the 1930’s, the depression
fueled the hunt for racial as well as
Souvenir photos and postcards of
lynching become a lost genre of American
photography when the Postmaster General finally banned such
from going through the mail in the mid 1920s. Small town
photographers, who had made large profits from the thousands of penny
are disappointed to lose a large part of their business. Though
lynching photography continued, they at
least stopped going through the mail.
In 1925, Price,
lynching of a black man in the
West. Robert Marshall, an intenerant miner was hanged after two
white boys said they had seen him near the scene where a white man was
murdered. A thousand people watched the hanging but not one person
would testify before a grand jury as to who carried out the
The drama of these horrible spectacles seemed to increase
over time with the lynch leader often dressed in a garish costume, and
bandying about numerous objects, such as lynch ropes, the American flag,
guns, and gasoline, in or to create an atmosphere of even higher
excitement. Further, the sadistic nature of the crowds also increased. Such was the case when James Irwin was
lynched on January 31, 1930. Accused of the murder of a white girl in Ocilla, Georgia, Irwin was taken
by a rampaging mob and as people cheered and children played during the
festivities, his fingers and toes were cut off, his teeth pulled out by
pliers and then he was castrated. He was then burned alive in front
of hundreds of onlookers. Afterwards, onlookers fired rifles and
handguns hundreds of time into the corpse and pieces of the body were
taken as souvenirs of the event. No one was ever punished for this
On the night of
August 7, 1930, three young African Americans -- Thomas Shipp, age
nineteen; Abram Smith, age eighteen; and sixteen-year-old James
Cameron, faced the hideous wrath of a lynch mob in the Ku Klux
Klan-dominated town of Marion, Indiana. Only Cameron survived. The black
youths had been involved in the robbery-inspired murder of Claude Deeter,
23, a white factory worker from nearby Fairmount, Indiana, and were
accused of sexually assaulting Deeter's white girlfriend,
nineteen-year-old Marion resident Mary Ball. While the latter charge was
never proven, such charges, however groundless, were easily assumed by
racist whites and frequently served to incite lynch mobs to commit even
Shipp and Smith were snatched from a jail cell only a block and a half
from the giant oak tree where their bodies were soon to hang lifeless,
beaten and hanged to death by the furious mob. Cameron was badly
beaten and nearly suffered an identical demise, but was saved at the last
moment by the intervention of a "voice" from the crowd. "That boy didn't
have anything to do with any killing or raping!" shouted the voice.
Cameron's mysterious benefactor was never identified. Later James
Cameron would go on to write a book entitled, A Time of Terror,
from which the following account was taken.
"Thousands of Indianans carrying picks, bats, ax handles, crowbars,
torches, and firearms attacked the Grant County Courthouse, determined
to "get those goddamn Niggers." A barrage of rocks shattered the
jailhouse windows, sending dozens of frantic inmates in search of cover.
A sixteen-year-old boy, James Cameron, one of the three intended
victims, paralyzed by fear and incomprehension, recognized familiar
faces in the crowd — schoolmates, and customers whose lawns he had mowed
and whose shoes he had polished — as they tried to break down the
jailhouse door with sledgehammers. Many police officers milled outside
with the crowd, joking. Inside, fifty guards with guns waited
"The door was ripped from the wall, and a mob of fifty
men beat Thomas Shipp senseless and dragged him into the street. The
waiting crowd ‘came to life.’ It seemed to Cameron that ‘all of those
ten to fifteen thousand people were trying to hit him all at once.’ The
dead Shipp was dragged with a rope up to the window bars of the second
victim, Abram Smith. For twenty minutes, citizens pushed and shoved for
a closer look at the ‘dead nigger.’ By the time Abe Smith was hauled out
he was equally mutilated. ‘Those who were not close enough to hit him
threw rocks and bricks. Somebody rammed a crowbar through his chest
several times in great satisfaction.’ Smith was dead by the time the mob
dragged him ‘like a horse‘ to the courthouse square and hung him from a
posed for photos under the limb that held the bodies of the two dead
"Then the mob headed back for James Cameron and ‘mauled
him all the way to the courthouse square,’ shoving and kicking him to
the tree, where the
hanging rope around his neck.
Cameron credited an unidentified woman's voice with silencing the mob
and opening a path for his retreat to the county jail and, ultimately,
for saving his life. Mr. Cameron has committed his life to retelling the
horrors of his experience and ‘the Black Holocaust‘ in his capacity as
director and founder of the museum with the same name in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin. Under magnification, one can see the girls in this photo
clutching ragged swatches of dark cloth.
"After souvenir hunters divvied up the bloodied pants of Abram Smith,
his naked lower body was clothed in a Klansman's robe — not unlike the
loincloth in traditional depictions of Christ on the cross. Lawrence
Beitler, a studio photographer, took this photo. For ten days and nights
he printed thousands of copies, which sold for fifty cents apiece."
In its sporadic occurrences over the
lynching continued to be a vehicle of
terror and a last resort in opposition to the drive for political and
civil rights through the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond.
The NAACP hoped that the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt
in 1932 would finally bring an end to
lynching. A new bill was drafted in
1935 that would punish sheriffs who failed to protect their prisoners from
lynch mobs. However, Roosevelt would not speak out in favor of the
bill, arguing that white voters in the south would never forgive him and
he would lose the next election.
When the corpse of Brooke Hart, a San Jose youth, was
discovered in San Francisco Bay on November 26, 1933, a mob materialized
to punish the alleged kidnappers and murderers, Thomas H. Thurmond and
John “Jack” Holmes. The
rammed open the jail door, assaulted the guards, and dragged Holmes and
Thurmond to St. James Park, beating them into near unconsciousness.
Holmes's clothes were sheared from his body, and Thurmond's pants were
drawn down to his ankles. A gathering of some six thousand spectators
Governor James Rolph's doublespeak was typical of many
politicians: "While the law should have been permitted to take its course,
the people by their action have given notice to the entire world that in
kidnapping will not be tolerated."
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From Legends' General Store
Legends of America and
General Store has collected a number of DVD's so that
you can check out your destinations before you travel. Sixty minute
videos will provide you with
treasures, cultural icons, natural wonders and portraits of Americans from
coast to coast revealing the heart & spirit of the U.S.