Second of three parts
“The problem we have is not that these crowds were inhuman, it’s that they were human.”
The lynching in America was aimed at black people. Many, many black lynching victims have also been untoldly tortured. And after the collective executions, the bodies of the victims were often burned, portions cut off and sold as souvenirs. None of this was common in the darker days of slavery.
These vicious, malicious and unhealthy acts could be understood as part of the transition from the days of slavery to the era of Jim Crow. Legally, slavery, through the United States Constitution and state laws, recognized the ownership of one human being by another. However, the plan to turn slaves of African descent into property did not go smoothly. As historian Kenneth Stampp fully documents, slaves could be “troublesome property.”
Blacks in the fields, slave quarters and in the “master’s house” have always found ways to resist their condition as slaves. Although surrounded by the power of the law, the whip and the threat of sale (which has alienated blacks from their families and communities), this “disturbing property” has nonetheless bravely fought the circumstances of their lives. and cunning.
The slave holders had a serious problem. In a few cases, they have disciplined or punished by resorting to mutilation or execution. The businessmen who owned this “property” prospered from free labor. Slaves were far too precious to be punished by crippling or eliminating them. But when the slaves became free, this attitude changed dramatically.
With the end of the Civil War, the roads and paths of the South were filled with freedmen looking for family members dispersed by sales or simply leaving the scene of the slavery crimes they had suffered on the family plantation. No longer being the “owners” of these free blacks, the white southerners do not hesitate to lynch and torture those they deem too free, too demanding, too ambitious, too “arrogant”.
Here are just two of the hundreds of reports submitted to the Freedmen’s Bureau (an agency created to support and protect black people immediately after the Civil War):
“Killed because he didn’t take his hat off to Murphy.”
“A negro was killed in the calabash [jail] from the town of Selma, by being beaten with a big club, by also being tied up by the thumbs, freed from the ground, for three hours, and in other ill-treatment, for more than a week “
Each report contained long lists of crimes against recently enslaved blacks. The reports were filed under the title “Complaints and Outrages”.
With the end of Reconstruction in 1876, strict segregation was instituted, Jim Crow reigned, and lynching became a tool of white supremacy, a widely used instrument of terror and control. The “Complaints and Outrages” file had disappeared, but unvarnished, often encouraging, reports of lynchings could now be found regularly in the daily newspapers. An example: Flash forward to April 1911.
Livermore, Kentucky, is a small town 165 miles south of Terre Haute. This is where a black man, Will Porter, allegedly shot a white man named Frank Mitchell. Fearing a mob lynching, the sheriff attempted to hide Porter in the local opera house. Mafia bosses discovered this ploy, broke in and seized the suspected gunman. However, rather than handing Porter over to the crowd outside the building, they set up a central post, tie the victim to the post, and invite members of the crowd who were waiting outside to buy tickets and go. participate directly in the lynching of the murder. of their prisoner.
What did this direct participation consist of? The price of a seat at the orchestra level gave the ticket holder an invitation to shoot six bullets at the human being on stage. Balcony seat holders got one hit. The orchestra seats granted six seats to the ticket holder. (It was common in lynchings to circulate a gun to create shared guilt, with each person firing a shot.) Fifty tickets were sold. It is estimated that 200 shots were fired. How many of them tore Will Porter’s body apart could never be determined.
Recently founded in 1909, the NAACP investigated and made public this lynching. Their active agitation played a role in an unusual event, 18 white men involved in Porter’s lynching were arrested and tried. Not so unusual, all 18 were promptly acquitted by an all-white jury. The fifty ticket holders? They were left with the memories of their participation.
Today, the Greater Terre Haute branch of the NAACP leads the local Facing Injustice project. Confronting Injustice works with the nationally recognized Equal Justice initiative based in Montgomery, Alabama. This partnership results in a historic marker (the first of its kind in the state of Indiana) to be placed near the site where George Ward was lynched in 1901. The marker site is on the banks of the Wabash River in 165 miles north of Livermore, Kentucky.
No tickets have been sold for the lynching of George Ward Terre Haute. It took place on a Tuesday at noon. No official notification has been released to the community announcing the upcoming violent spectacle. Yet one to two thousand citizens of the community came to see the lynching of George Ward.
Did the thousands come to see, want to see? They saw Ward dragged from prison and hanged at the Wabash River Wagon Bridge. They stood ready to watch his slain and burnt corpse on the west bank of the river. Feeling confident in their actions, their contribution as a spectator to this lynching, our ancestors of the Terre Haute community ignored the law and any spirit of justice.
Coming Wednesday: “Death at the hands of unknown people. “
Gary Daily is Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of History and African American Studies, Indiana State University. He is a member of the local Facing Injustice project. This column represents their research and opinions, not those of any other group or organization.