A major new study on lynching reveals that the racial violence that was commonplace in the South in the last century was worse than previously reported.
This week, the Montgomery, Alabama based Equal Justice Initiative released the most comprehensive work on lynching to date. The inventory included almost 4,000 victims from 1877 to 1950—at least 700 more lynchings of black people in the South than past counts.
Most lynchings took place in 12 southern states, but racial terrorism was unleashed against African-Americans across the country—from California and Idaho, to New Mexico and Maryland. Lynchings even occurred in America’s heartland: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois.
A story about the study in the New York Times noted that the Chicago Tribune once published an annual tally on lynching deaths across the United States each January going back to 1882.
We looked up the January 1886 edition of the Tribune and found the section on lynchings in a story on page 13, buried in a matter-of-fact inventory of human mortality from the previous year. Lynchings were listed along with the deaths of prominent individuals as well as the deaths of everyday folks by fires, hangings, floods, suicides, railroad accidents and other means.
The section on lynching begins:
“Judge Lynch did a thriving business … He has executed in various ways 181 victims, as against 195 in 1884, 107 in 1883, 121 in 1882 and 90 in 1881. The lynchings in the various States were as follows: Alabama, 5; Arkansas, 12: California, 2; Colorado, 1; Florida, 5; Georgia, 8; Illinois, 1; Iowa, 5; Kansas, 5; Kentucky, 4; Louisiana, 3; Maryland, 3; Mississippi, 16; Missouri, 10; Nebraska, 2; North Carolina, 5; Ohio, 3; Oregon, 3; South Carolina, 4; Tennessee, 12; Texas, 43; Virginia, 4; West Virginia, 2; Dakota, 2; Montana, 3; New Mexico, 3; Washington, 2; Indian territory, 7; Idaho, 6; Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, Arizona, District of Columbia, Utah and Wyoming have escaped the Lynch visitations. “
The article’s list of lynching victims includes “78 colored and 6 Chinamen. Four women were included in the total.” In some cases, it appeared that a group of individuals, sometimes family members, were killed at the same time. In other cases, no one seemed to know why the person was lynched, referring to it as “cause unknown” or “killed by mob.” Victims included:
- Jan. 27: “Bill, a negro, rape, Kemper County, Miss.”
- Feb. 7: “James Gazziera, colored, cause unknown, Benchly, Tex.”
- March 13: “Rich McGowen, colored, incendiarism, Columbia, Miss.”
- May 26, “’Powhattan Pete,’ colored, mule-stealing, Brownsville, Tenn.”
- June 13: “Turner Graham and wife, colored, killed by mob, Osgood, O.”
- Sept. 22: “Five Chinese, alleged murder, Pierce City, Idaho.”
- Oct. 11: “Benjamin Little, colored, slander, Mt. Pleasant, Tex.”
- Oct. 11: “Sampson Harris, colored, threat. polit. exposures, Winn Parish, La.”
We don’t know why the Tribune listed the lynchings, but they provide a glimpse into the mindset of the times.
The report, “Lynching in America, Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” argues that the lynching of African-Americans was a form of terrorism used to strictly enforce a system of racial subordination and segregation. They were public spectacles that traumatized millions of black people across the U.S. over decades, largely tolerated by state and federal officials, the report said. Some spectators posed, grinning, for now infamous photographs taken at lynchings, which were treated as celebratory social events.
Not a single white person was convicted of murder for lynching a black person during this period of racial terror.
The report said mass incarceration, racially-biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities and police abuse of people of color are consequences of an era of racialized terror.
Written by Deborah Shelton. Research by Yuri Han