Once a week, we feature This Disgraceful Evil, a series which collects the lynchings which took place that week in history, but also shares a few newspaper accounts and photographs from the lynchings in question.
Between the Civil War and World War II, the black community, especially in the South, was terrorized by an epidemic of lynchings. As opposed to public executions, the point of lynchings was to avoid the court of law, judge and jury. Often times, a mob kidnapped a victim from a holding cell. According to a recent report issued by the Equal Justice Initiate, there were 4,075 lynchings of black Americans across the South between 1877 and 1950. 1In this case, “The South” pertains to the dozen states where the most lynchings occurred: Mississippi (614), Georgia (595), Louisiana (559), Arkansas (491), Alabama (363), Texas (344), Florida (307), Tennessee (238), South Carolina (184), Kentucky (170), North Carolina (122), and Virginia (88). States, such as Missouri (69), Oklahoma (40), West Virginia (28), Maryland (27), Kansas (19), Illinois (19), and Indiana (14) – plus the states with fewer lynchings of black Americans) go unreported in both Project HAL and the Equal Justice Initiative studies.
Hanging was the typical method of lynching, though the lynch mob often riddled their victim’s body with bullets. As one reads through the reports detailing the acts, the patterns which emerge resemble almost a ritual. There is almost always a mob, a tree, guns, and an audience.
The spectators often took photos and collected souvenirs. They saved such items as hair, ears, or fingers as relics. In some cases, a local photography studio made postcards of the lynching to sell in local service stations. 2When photos of specific lynchings are available, I will use them.
According to the NAACP, for an act of violence to be considered a lynching, the following criteria must be met.
1) There must be evidence that someone was killed;
2) The killing must have occurred illegally;
3) Three or more persons must have taken part in the killing; and
4) The killers must have claimed to be serving justice or tradition.
Concerning the Databases
When I first began to delve into the history of lynchings, I consulted a few databases. These huge files listed the names of the victims, the locations, the manner in which they were lynched, as well as the reasons for their lynchings. While each of the databases was an amazing resource, the individual authors limited themselves to certain regions or races. A national lynching database for the entire United States is incredibly necessary. Unfortunately, it’s likely an impossibility. 3For more information on this, read Lisa D. Cook’s paper, “Converging to a National Lynching Database: Recent Developments,” available as a PDF here.
This database, at the very least, should have the date, name, gender, race, location, accusation and lynching method listed for every victim. Also, it should be available to the public with the caveat that the list is fluid and additional information could change it.
What I’ve compiled is not a full national lynching database, but I believe it might be the closest we have to such a thing. With the exception of seven states, I’ve collected all known lynchings that happened from 1877 to 1950. The vast, vast majority of this is not my work, but was simply a compilation of existing databases.
Let’s look at the sources.
Beck and Tolnay Inventory
This recently-updated database first showed up in 1997. While it covers all lynchings of all races, it includes only the South – excluding Texas, Missouri, Maryland, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. However, their work is implacable. If I had my druthers, Beck and Tolnay would be the authors of the full national database.
As far as I can tell, their sources come from a wide variety of other databases, such as the NAACP (more on them soon), Tuskegee University, and various newspapers. I’ve freely used their data, changing it only when I found cause (which was almost never).
Michael J. Pfeifer’s work has been published in at least two books, one entitled Lynching Beyond Dixie. The database within covers almost every state that Beck and Tolnay do not. While his published data isn’t as thorough as Beck and Tolnay’s, it’s close and falls well within my “at the very least” perimeters.
This leaves eight states covered by neither of the above databases. Unfortunately, these states include Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri – three states with a very large number of lynchings.
Here is where the bulk of the limitations lie. The NAACP first compiled their database in 1919 as Thirty Years of Lynchings. While it was nation-wide, and covered lynchings regardless of race, it only examined 1889 through 1918 (with supplements published at least until 1924). Additionally, data like age and lynching method were missing. This is where my work truly began.
My Own Contribution (sort of)
Because of this missing data, I couldn’t simply copy and paste the NAACP’s database alongside the others. And so, for the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, West Virginia, and New Mexico, I had to do the research myself.
Using the names provided by the NAACP, I searched out newspaper articles about those specific lynchings. In almost every single case, I was able to find multiple articles, as well as follow up articles.
Using the NAACP
One thing that didn’t really surprise me was how often the NAACP published inaccurate information. This is understandable. While we are able search thousands of period newspapers from the comfort of our desks, the NAACP was limited to whatever they could get their hands upon. Considering the constrains, they were basically superheroes.
Still, it’s important to note and correct inaccurate information. We need to compile as much of the missing information as possible. In some cases, the NAACP listed a lynching that wasn’t actually a lynching. Newspapers of the time published rumors as facts, and spread this misinformation via telegraph. Before long, the false articles ran in hundreds of newspapers across the country. Apart from locally, these corrections almost never saw publication.
Further, I found a similar amount of lynchings missed by the NAACP. This is, of course, understandable given the times in which they worked. For some listings, they had names or locations incorrect. In every case, their explanation of the crime laid upon the accused was short – a single word. Being able to read the original newspaper articles, I was able to expand upon the description a bit. The NAACP database never mentions the method of lynching employed. Newspapers of the period almost always did. I passed along this information as well.
Thanks to the NAACP’s amazingly difficult work, I was able to research and expand the information on nearly 298 different lynching victims in Texas, 69 in Missouri, 57 in Oklahoma, 34 in West Virginia, 23 in Kansas, 19 in Colorado, and 7 in New Mexico.
This added over 500 names to the database. Unfortunately, it was only for the years between 1889 and 1924. While that certainly covers the peak frequency of lynching, it means that there are thirty-eight years of data missing for these seven states. To me, that’s a pretty huge deal. This needed correction is unlikely to happen in the near future.
Though this database is incomplete, it still contains most of the lynchings from all of the states for the years 1877 to 1950. It contains all of the known lynchings between 1889 and 1924. 4Five states, CT, MA, NH, RI and VT, had no recorded lynchings. As a total, we list 4,818 victims in this database.
Until something better comes along, this is the database I’ll be using in my weekly lynching articles.
Additionally, the list is downloadable as an Excell file here.
Compiled from several databases, for our purposes, we will be focusing mostly upon the lynchings of black Americans and their allies. The reasoning is because our focus isn’t upon lynchings, but upon the repercussions of slavery and the Civil War. 5That said, in the downloadable database, all lynchings -regardless of race or cause- are included. It is only on the website that the focus is upon black Americans.
For instance, a white person lynched in Arizona in the 1870s had more to do with revenge than it did a reaction to the Civil War. Such acts, though obviously immoral and terrible, are beyond our purview. If that is your interest, then I fully suggest Pfeifer’s Lynching Beyond Dixie.
All of the posts in this series can be found here.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||In this case, “The South” pertains to the dozen states where the most lynchings occurred: Mississippi (614), Georgia (595), Louisiana (559), Arkansas (491), Alabama (363), Texas (344), Florida (307), Tennessee (238), South Carolina (184), Kentucky (170), North Carolina (122), and Virginia (88). States, such as Missouri (69), Oklahoma (40), West Virginia (28), Maryland (27), Kansas (19), Illinois (19), and Indiana (14) – plus the states with fewer lynchings of black Americans) go unreported in both Project HAL and the Equal Justice Initiative studies.|
|2.||⇡||When photos of specific lynchings are available, I will use them.|
|3.||⇡||For more information on this, read Lisa D. Cook’s paper, “Converging to a National Lynching Database: Recent Developments,” available as a PDF here.|
|4.||⇡||Five states, CT, MA, NH, RI and VT, had no recorded lynchings.|
|5.||⇡||That said, in the downloadable database, all lynchings -regardless of race or cause- are included. It is only on the website that the focus is upon black Americans.|