WMU News

Researcher collecting, critiquing 'lynching narratives'

Aug. 10, 2004

KALAMAZOO--Not that long ago, some civic-minded Americans would pack a lunch, board an "excursion" train and head off to a lynching.

"Many lynchings were profitable public spectacles, just as well orchestrated and advertised as today's Super Bowl," says Dr. Deborah H. Barnes, director of the Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations at Western Michigan University.

Barnes, who has spent the past four years researching lynching for a future book, defines the word as an event that starts with "the law" being called in and ends with three or more people carrying out an illegal killing. The legal process is initiated, she explains, but through acts of omission or commission, the authorities allow a mob to kill.

An associate professor of Africana studies, Barnes is focusing her research on what she calls lynching narratives--previously published accounts of lynchings that were written by the lynchers themselves, or eyewitnesses to this ritualized mob violence. Her book will critique narratives published between 1880 and 1950 and include reprints of representative examples.

Newspapers commonly ran brief accounts of lynchings, but Barnes says personal narratives published as books were more detailed, containing names, dates and pictures.

"They're a little-known brand of 'coffee table book' that hasn't been critiqued by the scholarly community, an oversight my book project is designed to correct," she says. "Studying them gives us a more accurate picture of history and tells us a lot about how we got where we are today and why African Americans feel the way they do about our judicial system and other institutions."

With the help of Amanda S. Alexander, a Walker Institute intern from Plainwell, Mich., Barnes has been identifying and collecting additional narratives this summer. Alexander, a 2004 honors graduate of Harvard University with a major in government and African studies, has been primarily researching lynch mobs composed of blacks.

"Historians have offered various accounts of lynching and its motivations, but whether they attribute it to land greed, protecting the cult of Southern white womanhood or quelling black economic progress, the position of blacks is always one of powerless victims," Alexander says. "Stories of black organization, of their defensive and offensive struggles, have been suppressed--and those are the accounts we're working to reveal."

Some of the findings regarding African Americans lynching both blacks and whites will be included in an article on the multicultural nature of lynchings, which Barnes wrote for a collection of essays scheduled to appear in the Journal of American History.

In addition, Barnes' research will be incorporated in an hour-long documentary that is being produced locally by public radio station WMUK. The program is expected to be completed this coming spring or summer and will be made available for rebroadcast by public radio stations across the country.

What's more, Barnes and her work are playing a major role in a documentary film titled "Sacrifices of Hate," which will explore the long-term impact of racism on its victims, their families and society as well as examine the psychopathology of hate groups across America.

Barnes also is serving as a consultant on the film, and will be featured interviewing a spectator (age 3 at the time) of a notorious 1893 lynching in Paris, Texas, that drew a crowd of 10,000 people. The project is being developed for release in summer 2005, with the Walker Institute mentioned as a possible location for the premier.

Those interested in learning more about lynching may visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. The museum is the exclusive Midwest venue for an exhibition of "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America." The exhibit, part of an eight-month forum on lynching, includes some 100 picture postcards and will run through Feb. 27, 2005.

Barnes says that just like the photos in the narratives she's been studying, the photos on those postcards are graphic reminders of horrific acts that were cavalierly committed all around the United States.

People weren't just hanged, she points out. Many were tortured and mutilated, then riddled with bullets or burned alive. Afterward, hair, clothing, body parts and other "mementos" of the killings were often sold or kept as souvenirs and prominently displayed in homes and businesses.

"Lynching wasn't an alternative to the law; it was an extension of the law. It was the civic responsibility theory: Some things you do in the courthouse and some things you do yourself," Barnes says.

"Bankers, principals, sheriffs and mayors were all there keeping their neighborhoods safe from 'black fiends.' They were proud of their participation--posing for pictures and writing down everything they did or saw. Nowadays, they would have you believe they were out behind the barn showing their photos to friends and family but in fact, the photos were framed and on the wall."

Barnes estimates that 4,700 lynchings took place in America between 1900 and 1950--nearly two per week for 50 years. She says the killings included about 1,100 whites; numerous women; entire families; and hundreds of ethnic groups, especially Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and Mexicans living in territories destined to become part of the United States.

According to Barnes, many of those lynchings had nothing to do with retribution for crimes, trumped up or otherwise. As often as not, they were convenient ways to steal land, eliminate business competition, reinforce sexual and gender norms, and maintain a cheap labor supply.

And for some, they were simply a way to make a little cash. Enterprising entrepreneurs sold tickets for excursion trains to lynchings; hawked food, drink and souvenirs; and in one case, rented an opera hall and allowed those who bought the best seats to empty their guns into the man being tortured to death on stage.

"Lynching took place all over the country--everybody used it." Barnes says. "We get the sanitized, political, patriotic truth, but people in the South keep the stories alive because they know the real truth. Imagine the terror a white community would feel if 10,000 avenging blacks came to town to kill someone and the police did nothing, or joined in."

Barnes contends that researching and openly discussing lynching will not only help prevent future atrocities, but also add perspective to our understanding of American history and international relations.

"We think of ourselves as can-do folks while other countries often look at us as barbarians who love to see killing in front of our eyes," Barnes says, arguing that the violence in U.S. movies reinforces an all-too-familiar us versus them attitude. "First it was sugar and slaves, now it's tennis shoes and free trade zones."

The Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations was established in 1990 to promote academic inquiry into the nature, causes and possible solutions to racial and ethnic conflicts in American society.

Barnes, previously an associate professor of English and coordinator of the African American Studies Program at Gettysburg College, was named director of the Walker Institute in July 2003. Alexander finishes her eight-week internship at the institute Aug. 20, then spends a year as a research fellow at the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, South Africa.

Barnes is hoping to locate enough funding to support a new intern for the fall semester. She also hopes her research will motivate members of the public to donate materials to the institute's archives, particularly materials related to lynching and non-white violence.

For more information about lynching narratives, the Walker Institute or the institute's speakers bureau, contact Deborah Barnes at (269) 387-2141 or <deborah.barnes@wmich.edu>.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, 269 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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