this was not a picker upper. as soon as i got off the bus in front of the chicago historical society, the skies turned black and a wall of rain blew horizontally down the street. inside, the mood was just as somber, if not less violent.
we all know this summer is the 50th anniversary of emmett till's lynching. pairing that anniversary with this exhibit showed it wasn't an isolated incident. it wasn't just the event that made white america open its eyes about what was happening down south. till's death was a tiny death in a huge group of deaths from reconstruction to 1968. that's a year before i was born. that's only 35 years ago.
the rooms were dead silent. post card after post card, photo after photo - of black people hanging, burned, mutilated. it was intense. these aren't images you see every day - or at all, anymore. did you know there's barely a state in this country that didn't have a lynching in it? illinois, california, minnesota, washington, connecticut. these are nothern states. montana, nebraska. oregon. did you know that women and children were lynched? immigrants, jews, communists, chinese. lynched because they were the other. what was the very academic phrase the society used to describe it? 'extra-legal deaths at the hands of unknown persons.'
but in the photos you see who did it. they aren't unknown. they're whole crowds of people. imagine wrigley field on a game day. imagine what wrigleyville looks like. the crowds, the vendors, the traffic, the holiday spirit. buy a hot dog. drink a beer. now imagine, on the mound, dusty baker naked, covered with gasoline, swinging from a telephone pole, about to be torched. that's what a lynching was. an event. a public spectacle. everyone out in the open, staring at the camera, holding their piece of the body. looking at those faces in the background was hard. they're smiling, relaxed, excited, pointing to the corpse.
the exhibit came from a book i found a few years ago: Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. i found it in a bookstore while i was still living in boystown. i felt like i was looking at pornography so i had to shut the book and walk away. but the images alone aren't what make you set your mouth and try not to make a sound. there are only about 100 photos, after all. the stories behind the images make you sick. this man and that man were accused of rape...of talking back to a white man...didn't get out of the road fast enough...dragged from the jail...courthouse burned to the ground. the narratives of violence, insanity and hysteria make you look at your fellow human beings and want to vomit.
they had a story of a man named caldwell. he owned 400 acres of the prettiest cotton land in the county. he financed a school. he was a big man at his church. had 12 kids, all lived on his property and the land was their legacy. one day he took his cotton to town to sell it; he wasn't given a fair price so he said someone else would pay more; he was accused of lying; he became angry and cursed the man who called him a liar. he was hit with a hammer, driven into the street where a mob of 200 men stabbed and beat him until the law stopped them; he was jailed, dying from his untreated injuries, when the mob came back and got him, dragging him behind a cart through the black and the white part of town. then he was lynched. the next day, the mob ran his family out of town and seized his land. (did you know blacks owned between 12-15 million acres of land at the turn of the century? did you know that number had decreased to just a little over 1 million acres by the 30s and 40s? a journalist said in an interview, 'follow the lynchings and you'll follow the land. they run side by side.')
this man's great-granddaughter was there. she read his name out at the naming ceremony and a little ripple moved through the crowd. this is all her family can think about. they talk about the murder like it happened yesterday. they tell you how they ran and hid in the woods while their land was taken. better the land than your life, they say.
what was it the president of the historical society said..."There is nothing more powerful than a people, and a nation, steeped in their own history." too often, we're presented with the history of lynchings or the civil rights struggle or anything about black people as black history - like it has nothing to do with white people, or anyone else. but this afternoon showed me that's not true. this is our history. it shouldn't be isolated and cut off from the people who descend from it.