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The Lynching of Black America

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 544 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43066-3
Published by : Modern Library Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

It is easy to shrink from our country’s brutal history of lynching. Lynching is called the last great skeleton in our nation’s closet: It terrorized all of black America, claimed thousands upon thousands of victims in the decades between the 1880s and the Second World War, and leaves invisible but deep scars to this day. The cost of pushing lynching into the shadows, however—misremembering it as isolated acts perpetrated by bigots on society’s fringes—is insupportably high: Until we understand how pervasive and socially accepted the practice was—and, more important, why this was so—it will haunt all efforts at racial reconciliation.

“I could not suppress the thought,” James Baldwin once recalled of seeing the red clay hills of Georgia on his first trip to the South, “that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.” Throughout America, not just in the South, blacks accused of a crime—or merely of violating social or racial customs—were hunted by mobs, abducted from jails, and given summary “justice” in blatant defiance of all guarantees of due process under law. Men and women were shot, hanged, tortured, and burned, often in sadistic, picnic-like “spectacle lynchings” involving thousands of witnesses. “At the hands of persons unknown” was the official verdict rendered on most of these atrocities.

The celebrated historian Philip Dray shines a clear, bright light on this dark history—its causes, perpetrators, apologists, and victims. He also tells the story of the men and women who led the long and difficult fight to expose and eradicate lynching, including Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and W.E.B. Du Bois. If lynching is emblematic of what is worst about America, their fight may stand for what is best: the love of justice and fairness and the conviction that one individual’s sense of right can suffice to defy the gravest of wrongs. This landmark book follows the trajectory of both forces over American history—and makes the history of lynching belong to us all.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1
"A Negro's Life Is a Very Cheap Thing in Georgia"

Smartly dressed, with his walking cane in hand, W.E.B. Du Bois left his home in Atlanta on April 24, 1899, and began walking downtown along Mitchell Street. He was carrying a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris, the white author of the Negro dialect tales known as the Uncle Remus stories and an editor at The Atlanta Constitution. At thirty-one, Du Bois was himself an acclaimed author, with degrees from Harvard and two years' study at a prestigious German university to his credit. In addition to his teaching duties as a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, he also supervised an ambitious program of social research there.

Although he had lived in Atlanta since 1897, he had never bothered to seek out Harris, even though they had mutual friends; Du Bois rarely left the university to go into downtown Atlanta because he refused to ride the city's segregated streetcars. But a sensational rape and murder in rural Georgia in mid-April had caused an uproar, and a black farmhand, Sam Hose, said to have brutally killed his employer, Alfred Cranford, and to have "outraged" Cranford's wife, Mattie, had been lynched.

Du Bois had studied the lynching phenomenon and he knew that in such instances things usually weren't as they seemed. "It occurred to me," he said later, "that I might go down to the Atlanta Constitution and talk with Joel Chandler Harris, and try to put before the South what happened in cases of this sort, and try to see if I couldn't start some sort of movement." In addition to his letter of introduction, Du Bois also carried a letter he'd written protesting the action of the lynch mob.

The crime that had "dethroned the reason of the people of western Georgia," as the Constitution put it, had occurred on Wednesday, April 12, 1899, in the small farming town of Palmetto, just southwest of Atlanta. The Cranfords, who were in their mid-twenties, were descendants of two of the area's most established families. Alfred's family owned extensive land, and Mattie (née McElroy) had been known before her marriage as "one of the belles of Newnan," the historic courthouse town that was the seat of Coweta County.

Alleged murderer Sam Hose, twenty-one, had grown up on a farm near Macon and had come to work for the Cranfords only six months earlier. The fact that he was unknown in Coweta may have enabled him to disappear more readily after the assault on the Cranfords, but it also made it more certain he would receive no quarter from the hundreds of lawmen and self-appointed guardians of the community's well-being tracking him along the back roads of west-central Georgia, in what was called the largest manhunt in the state's history. This "monster in human form," explained one much-reprinted account of the Cranford murder given by Georgia congressman James M. Griggs,

. . . crept into that happy little home . . . with an ax knocked out the brains of that father, snatched the child from its mother, threw it across the room out of his way, and then by force accomplished his foul purpose. [He] carried her helpless body to another room, and there stripped her person of every thread and vestige of clothing, there keeping her till time enough had elapsed to permit him to accomplish his fiendish offence twice more and again!

Georgia governor Allen D. Candler, widely known to endorse lynching as a method of controlling black criminality, termed the Palmetto murder "the most diabolical in the annals of crime" and declared the details of the Cranford murder "too horrible for publication." In truth, the newspapers found them quite suitable for publication. Turn-of-the-century news accounts of incidents such as the Hose-Cranford case constituted a kind of "folk pornography" that made for welcome, titillating reading. Stories of sexual assault, insatiable black rapists, tender white virgins, and manhunts led by "determined men" that culminated in lynchings were the bodice rippers of their day, vying in the South's daily newspapers with exposés about black dives and gambling dens, drunkenness and cocaine addiction, and warnings about domestics who stole family heirlooms. The cumulative impression was of a world made precarious by Negroes.

The Sam Hose affair offered no end of lurid details-Hose, the "fiend incarnate," had crushed Alfred Cranford's skull with an ax "until the brains oozed out," then "snatched Mrs. Cranford's baby and dashed it to the floor," before forcing the poor woman "to submit to the most shameful outrage which one of her sex can suffer." And as it gave the public information about the case, the Georgia press also whipped up expectations that a huge spectacle lynching would be held when Hose was captured. As early as April 13, the day after the crime, the Constitution's front page headline read "Determined Mob After Hose; He Will Be Lynched if Caught," while a subhead suggested "Assailant of Mrs. Cranford May Be Brought to Palmetto and Burned at the Stake." On April 19, with Hose still at large, the Constitution assured readers: "When Hose is caught he will either be lynched and his body riddled with bullets or he will be burned at the stake . . . the mob which is in pursuit of him is composed of determined men . . . wrought up to an unusual degree."

Georgia authorities were cautioned not to attempt to interfere with "the people's will," because as the Newnan Herald and Advertiser pointed out, no punishment existed under law adequate to match the crime against the Cranfords. "The black brute, whose carnival of blood and lust has brought death and desolation to the home of one of our best and most worthy citizens," must be "run down and made to suffer the torments of the damned in expiation of his hellish crime." A few days later the paper couched the need for Hose's lynching in tones of civic necessity, insisting that Hose's punishment "be made summary enough to serve notice upon those who sympathize with him, that there is protection in Georgia for women and children."

"No community in Georgia has been more ready, at all times and in all circumstances, to show respect for the law or yield obedience to the mandates of the constituted authorities," an editorial in the Newnan paper said, "but in the present instance the provocation is so unbearably aggravating that the people cannot be expected to wait with patience on the laggard processes of the courts." The Constitution added that no law officer in his right mind would attempt to protect Hose from a mob. Even though he had not yet been apprehended, Sam Hose's fate was firmly sealed.

Born in 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the foothills of the Berkshires, where, because of New England's relative leniency on matters involving race, the established, if modest, reputation in the town of his mother's family, and his own precociousness, he managed to participate fully in the life of the community and attend school with white children. As a result, he later wrote,

I very early got the idea that what I was going to do was to prove that Negroes were just like other people. . . . [I]n the first place I was very much annoyed because nothing was ever said about Negroes in the textbooks, while, on the other hand, I, as a Negro in this school, seemed to be looked upon as unusual by everybody. Now, if I was unusual in this school, and a sort of curiosity, then the Negroes must be so in the world. And if I could easily keep up with and beat these students in the high school, why didn't the Negroes do it in the world?

Graduating from Fisk University in Nashville in 1888, he took a second bachelor's degree at Harvard in 1890 and an M.A. in history there in 1892, then went to Europe for two years' study at Friedrich-Wilhelm University in Berlin, concentrating on economics, history, and sociology. Returning to the United States in 1894, he taught at Wilberforce University in Ohio and the next year became the first black to be awarded a Ph.D. at Harvard. In 1896, when his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the suppression of the African slave trade was published to critical acclaim, Du Bois was at the University of Pennsylvania leading a comprehensive sociological study of Philadelphia's Negro population, the first such analysis ever made of an American black community.

In fall 1897, he joined the Atlanta University faculty and took charge of the "Atlanta Conferences," annual meetings designed to guide scientific research into the conditions affecting black Americans. Little if any data existed on this subject, sociology itself being a new discipline. Du Bois published the results of these conferences with the long-term goal of ultimately assembling a compendium of data and information about all facets of black life in America-urbanization, the black church, crime, health and physique, mortality, and the family, as well as black morals and manners. The Atlanta Conference papers were widely quoted and commented on, and Du Bois was increasingly seen as a respected authority on what was coming to be called the "Negro Problem," the question of how 8 million black Americans were to coexist with a white society that consistently rejected them as partners and obstructed their efforts at assimilation and self-improvement.

Just as Du Bois knew that the "problem" with black people was white people, he knew that the odds were good that Sam Hose had not raped Mattie Cranford. His doubts arose, to a degree, from some intelligence he had received about the case from black acquaintances, but chiefly from his familiarity with the writings of Ida Wells-Barnett, the Chicago-based journalist who was the nation's preeminent antilynching crusader. In her many articles and lectures on the evil of lynching, Wells-Barnett had shown that in the majority of cases the charge of rape was untrue, and had either been added to a complaint about a black suspect in order to incense local whites or, in some instances, to obscure the fact that the black man's real sin had been to have consensual sex with a white woman. Du Bois, in his own informal study of the subject, had found that despite the generally held tenet that black men were lynched for assaults on white women, in only 25 percent of lynchings was that crime even alleged. He found that disputes related to wages and work conditions were more typically to blame in cases like Sam Hose's, where a black worker was accused of killing his white employer. Du Bois intuited that Hose was probably guilty at worst of committing an act of violence against a white in the course of defending his right to disagree, or in refusing to be physically intimidated. The rape charge, Du Bois believed, had been "trumped up to arouse the worst passions of the countryside." The scenario of the crime as presented by the newspapers-that Hose had first killed Cranford, then methodically raped his wife-sounded illogical. Du Bois later wrote:

"They started then to find Sam Hose and they couldn't find him. And then, suddenly, there was the accusation that Sam Hose had raped his wife. Now, everybody that read the facts of the case knew perfectly well what had happened. The man wouldn't pay him, so they got into a fight, and the man got killed-and then, in order to arouse the neighborhood to find this man, they brought in the charge of rape. Even from the newspapers you could see there was no foundation to it."

By definition, lynching denies a suspect due process under law, and so the kind of information that due process generates-lawyers' arguments, a judge's rulings, testimony, evidence-is not available to assist the historian in understanding the instigating deed. In the Hose case, there was no police investigation made of the crime scene, no evidence gathered, and Mattie Cranford was neither interviewed by any official or reporter nor examined by a physician. Most of the details were simply provided to the sheriff and to reporters by the Cranford family or their close friends.
Philip Dray

About Philip Dray

Philip Dray - At the Hands of Persons Unknown
Philip Dray is the author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His book Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen was a New York Times Notable Book and received the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Praise

Praise

“A landmark work of unflinching scholarship.” —The New York Times

“In this history of lynching in the post-Reconstruction South—the most comprehensive of its kind—the author has written what amounts to a Black Book of American race relations.” —The New Yorker

“A powerfully written, admirably perceptive synthesis of the vast literature on lynching. It is the most comprehensive social history of this shameful subject in almost seventy years and should be recognized as a major addition to the bibliography of American race relations.” —David Levering Lewis

“An important and courageous book, well written, meticulously researched, and carefully argued.” —The Boston Globe

“You don’t really know what lynching was until you read Dray’s ghastly accounts of public butchery and official complicity.” —Time
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What were some of the causes of the phenomenon of lynching in American history?

2. How would you describe a crowd’s role in and reaction to a lynching? Who is culpable in a lynching?

3. In what ways were government officials complicit in the many lynchings in American history? What were the root causes of that corruption? Have those causes been corrected today?

4. How would you place lynchings in the larger context of race relations in America?

5. Who were the heroes in this ghastly chapter of American history? Describe their choices and their courage.

6. Could a lynching happen today? What in America has changed? What has not?


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