Tag Archives: Ida B. Wells

Harvesting Strange Fruit: Humanizing the Victims of Lynching

Columns represent lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Debbie says:

The Equal Justice Initiative opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018. By all accounts, both are moving and memorable. The exhibit that seems to get the most coverage is the memorial structure on the center of the Memorial site, which …

… is constructed of over 800 corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns. The memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.

Perhaps because the Memorial is a fresh reminder of old and very tender wounds, I have recently heard the specific stories of two victims of lynching, Thomas Finch and Claude Neal: even though I’ve been aware of the history of lynching all my adult life, I don’t know that I had ever before heard the names and circumstances of any particular event.

Thomas Finch’s story was featured on Reveal. Finch was shot and killed in 1936 by an Atlanta police officer. Finch, who was an orderly at an Atlanta hospital, was accused of rape by a white female patient (not the story of every lynching, but it occurs again and again). The layout of the hospital makes this accusation very unlikely. Finch was arrested by the Atlanta police, but they killed him before they took him to the police station. The policeman who shot him became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Atlanta has never acknowledged Finch’s death as a lynching, and the officer’s grandson (interviewed on the podcast) struggles with finding explanations for his grandfather’s behavior (“He was Grand Imperial Wizard for only a year to 18 months, so it wasn’t very long.”)

Claude Neal’s story was told on CodeSwitch. While lynching stories are potentially triggering by definition, be warned that this particular story is told in substantial and starkly horrifying detail. Neal was killed in Jackson County, Florida in 1934. He has the gruesome distinction of being the victim of one of the most well-attended lynchings in American history–somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 people were present at his death. This appears to be because he was arrested in Alabama, freed by a lynch mob, and brought back to Florida to be killed, which gave the killers the time to advertise his death rather like a concert or a race. Like Finch two years later, he was accused of raping and killing a white woman, though some people at the time believed the two had a consensual secret relationship.

Side note: the concept of “lynching” refers to taking prisoners out of formal police custody and due process to kill them rather than try them. Since the mid-1980s, some police departments have interpreted this to mean that pressuring the police at a demonstration or riot to keep arrests from happening can be called “lynching” and in fact people who tear themselves out of police custody can be charged with lynching … themselves. “the definition of “lynching” was broadened [in 1999] in the First District Court of Appeal’s decision in People v. Anthony J.: “We conclude that a person who takes part in a riot leading to his escape from custody can be convicted of his own lynching.” This is ridiculous in its own right and inexcusably trivializes the mob terror Black people suffered for decades.

Historically, we have heard more about the anti-lynching activists than about the victims: I could tell you a fair amount about Walter White and Ida B. Wells long before I ever heard of Thomas Finch and Claude Neal. For me, knowing about these men, being able to say their names, learn their stories, and recognize the suffering still alive in their descendants is an essential element of acknowledging the reality of this degrading American behavior.

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Alberta Who? Where, Oklahoma? Erased Black History

Debbie says:


Unlike Aurin Squire, who wrote “MLK’s Mother Was Assassinated, Too: The Forgotten Women Of Black History Month” for Talking Points Memo, I am not of African descent. However, Squire and I are alike in having thought we were “fairly well-versed in African-American history.” What’s more, I was (and Squire perhaps was not) alive and adult and paying some attention to the news in 1974. But I had no idea that Martin Luther King’s mother, Alberta Williams King, was assassinated six years after her son was killed. Although her death was apparently a result of anti-Christian violence rather than racial violence, she was a key figure in American black history and should not be forgotten.

Taking black women’s activism beyond Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, Squire brings up activist black women like Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer. He could equally have mentioned Rosa Parks, and dozens of others, but it’s a short post. He frames the issue in terms of activist women:

When female stories are muted, we are teaching our kids that their dignity is second class and the historical accounts of their lives are less relevant. This lowered value carries over when women face sexual objectification and systemic brutalization from inside and outside the community. When we can’t see ourselves in our history, we begin to think that we are disconnected and suffering alone. Historical ignorance always precedes cultural imbalances and individual despair. Too many lives are still lived in the blank space, too many march for racial equality while subjugating their gender and even sexual orientation.

Kameron Hurley’s “It’s Always Been Awful Under the Boot: On the Fatigue of Everyday Horror,” also taught me a piece of black history that I didn’t know: the Tulsa massacre (more commonly, but no more accurately, frequently referred to as the “Tulsa race riot”) of 1921, in which a mob of angry white people burned a neighborhood of Tulsa to the ground:

More than 800 people were admitted to local hospitals and police arrested and detained more than 6,000 people. The riots left 10,000 homeless and destroyed 35 city blocks. Up to 300 people died during those 16 hours.It was not until 1996 that the state even bothered to commission a proper history (.pdf) of the event that would be available to everyone, instead of relying on a spoken oral history maintained by survivors who were now dying.

Wikipedia also informs me that the 1996 report ” included the commission’s recommendations for some compensatory actions, most of which were not implemented by the state and city governments.” The names of the dead may be memorialized somewhere; a few, but no list, can be found in the deeply chilling official report.

Here’s the part of Hurley’s conclusion that sticks with me:

And this is what gets me with folks who are fatigued with the shit, and I get it, I do, I get fatigued and I have to take a fucking break too, but I don’t want people to shut up, I don’t want to close my eyes, because whether or not I heard about it Tulsa still happened. And I cannot sit on my hands and cheer for Katniss burning down the Capital and the folks walking away from Omelas and then say, “Shit, could the rest of you just shut up about your problems because it sure makes me uncomfortable.”

It should make me uncomfortable. It should get me to question everything I’ve been taught. It should rouse me to take action, to not be silent, to amplify voices, to, above all, help ensure we do not erase this shit.

Black lives matter.

Thanks to supergee for the pointer to Hurley’s essay.