A disturbing view of race and revenge

Exhibit: “Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America,” a collection by James Allen at The New-York Historical Society, New York. — through Aug. 13, 2000.

NEW YORK — The horrifying images of lynching victims — as snapshots and souveniers throughout the early 1900s — at the New-York Historical Society exhibit stand as evidence of mob vengeance, racism and a dark side of American history.

The images themselves are simple, straightforward B&W photos, of men and women, most of them black, who were often tortured before being killed by hanging, shooting, stabbing or burning. Many of the lynchings took place throughout Texas and much of the South, but they also occurred in the Midwent and California. While the images are gruesome, they also provide a more frightening context about the society in which they took place.

The lynchings were often public spectacles. Men in coats and hats, as well as boys and girls, gathered to witness the killings, sometimes smiling for the cameras and rarely making any effort to conceal their identities. In one postcard,Spectators at the lynching of Jesse Washington, a lone man in a crowd is lifted so that he can get a better view of a 1916 daytime lynching in Waco, Texas.

Glass cases in the center of the exhibit space on New York’s Upper West Side contain items that provide additional context to the photos, including whips with their handle carved into the likenesses of an Asian caricature with a rope around his neck and of a screaming black man.

Another item in the exhibit includes a framed picture of a lynching, with the penciled-in words, “Bo pointn to his niga” and “klan 4th Joplin, Mo. 33.” Under the glass are locks of the victim’s hair.

Literature accompanying the exhibit explains: “The sensational aspects of extralegal violence were exploited by religious organizations, race supremacists, civil rights groups, photographers, and journalists to increase organizational growth, excite social activism, maintain racial dominance, solidify racial unity, and in this example to manipulate public opinion and increase political voice.”

Meanwhile, the exhibit devotes one wall to the anti-lynching activists who themselves were often were targets of hate crimes. One poster by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People states that more than 2,000 lynchings were recorded between 1889 and 1922. (Yet, a handful of the pictures in the exhibit don’t correspond to published news accounts, relegating the victims to eternal anonymity.) Outside its New York offices, the NAACP would display a flag that read, “A man was lynched yesterday,” following each reported incident across the country.

Collected by researcher James Allen over the past quarter century, the postcards and photographs explicitly illustrate aspects of American society, politics and race that perhaps are not as far from our own times as one might think. Witness the dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Texas, and the current presidential candidates’ acceptance of capital punishment for people who are today equally without sanctuary.

Related links:

  • Journal E, a photojournalism Web site, hosts the online exhibit, which contains more than 100 photographs and a Flash presentation by James Allen.
  • Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, a book published by Twin Palmsof Santa Fe, N.M., contains many of the pictures James Allen collected over 25 years, along with essays by Hilton Als, Jon Lewis, Leon F. Litwack, Leon Litwack, and John Lewis.