WARNING: The information and photos in this newsletter can be upsetting.
Lynchings were not unique to Southern states, but as the chart below indicates, the number of lynchings in non-Southern states is significantly less than those in the South. The Great Migration brought tens of thousands of African Americans to northern industrial cities. The growing Black population created economic competition for jobs and resentment by White ethnic groups that fueled racial tension in cities across the North.
In addition to the 4084 documented lynchings committed in the South between 1877 and 1950, more than 300 racial terror lynchings of Black people took place in other parts of the United States during the same period. Though the numbers were lower, mirroring the lower concentration of Black residents in these states, racial terror lynchings committed outside the South featured many of the same characteristics.
According to anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in a speech given in Chicago,
“ . . . the lynching mania has spread throughout the North and middle West. It is now no uncommon thing to read of lynchings north of the Mason and Dixon’s line, and those most responsible for this fashion gleefully point to these instances and assert that the North is no better than the South.”
OMAHA, NEBRASKA – 1891
Joe Coe, whose official name was George Smith, was a Black man who lived in Omaha, Nebraska. Coe was a married father of two children and worked as a porter at a railroad company.
On October 7, 1891 Lizzie Yates, a five-year-old White girl, accused Coe of assaulting her. Despite accounting for his whereabouts and having supporting witnesses, Coe was arrested and jailed at the Douglas County Courthouse. Meanwhile, a false report that the child had died from the assault was circulated by The Omaha Bee, a local newspaper. Enraged Whites, fueled by fabrications and bloodthirst, ordered the swift execution of Joe Coe.
On October 10, 1891, a mob of up to one thousand men besieged the jail where Coe was detained. They insisted that guards hand over Coe but authorities refused. The county sheriff and even the governor admonished the crowd, ordering them to disband, but the city’s one dozen police officers were grossly outnumbered. They did nothing while the crowd rammed the courthouse doors with iron streetcar rails, and broke out windows. Vigilantes forced their way into the building and found Coe locked away in a steel cage. Upon seeing the fortification, they demanded and were supplied crowbars, chisels and sledgehammers. Two hours later, the White mob had finally hammered and pried their way into the cage. Coe was snatched from the cell.
The mob brutally beat Coe. They tied a rope around his neck and dragged him in the streets before finally hanging him from a streetcar cable that ran along 17th and Harney Streets. Onlookers reveled in the lynching by cheering and soliciting speeches while Coe’s corpse dangled overhead. Others sought to capitalize on the murder by collecting pieces of the rope used to hang Coe to sell as keepsakes.
The day after Coe’s brutal killing multiple newspapers clarified the erroneous report that Lizzie Yates had died; rather, the child was alive and well. Because the coroner ruled that Mr. Coe “died of fright,” seven White men, including the local police captain, who were arrested for coordinating the lynching were never prosecuted. No one ever faced trial for the lynching of Joe Coe.
Years later, Lizzie Yates admitted that she had never been attacked by Joe Coe.
SPRINGFIELD, MISSOURI – 1906
The Sedalia Democrat, April 14, 1906
On April 13, 1906, a White woman reported that she had been assaulted by two Black men. Despite having no evidence against them, Horace Duncan and Fred Coker (a/k/a Jim Copeland) were arrested “on suspicion” by local police. The men were taken to the county jail, even though their employer provided an alibi for them and confirmed that they had not been involved in the alleged assault.
Shortly before midnight on April 14th, the two innocent Black men were abducted from the county jail by a White mob of several thousand participants. Local law enforcement did little to stop the mob, though the officers were armed and responsible for protecting the men in custody. When the mob dragged Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker outside, the gathered crowd of 5,000 White men, women and children shouted “Hang them!” and “Burn them!” The two men were hanged from the railing of the Gottfried Tower near the town square and burned and shot while the crowd watched.
Two days after the lynching, the woman who reported being assaulted issued a statement that she was “positive” that Mr. Coker and Mr. Duncan were not her assailants and that she could “identify her assailants if they were brought before her.”
A newspaper reported that “now the great state of Missouri faces the probable disgrace of letting two innocent men be hanged by a mob.” A grand jury was called to indict anyone who had participated in the mob. By April 19th, four White men had been arrested and 25 warrants were issued. Only one White man was tried and no one was ever convicted. These men were only two of at least 60 Black victims of lynching in Missouri between 1877 and 1950.
OMAHA COURTHOUSE LYNCHING – 1919
The infamous Omaha Courthouse Lynching of 1919 was part of the wave of racial violence that swept the United States during the “Red Summer” of 1919. It was witnessed by an estimated 20,000 people, making it one of the largest individual spectacles of racial violence in our nation’s history.
The Great Migration, which brought tens of thousands of African Americans to northern industrial cities, saw Omaha’s Black population double from 4,426 to 10,315 in the second decade of the 20th Century. This increase along with resentment over job competition by White ethnic groups fueled racial tension in Omaha.
Following a national pattern, The Omaha Bee exploited this tension by the summer of 1919 carrying daily newspaper accounts of attacks by African American males on White women, without similar coverage concerning assaults on African American women, by either Black or White males. Although the other major Omaha newspapers carried similar stories, the Bee sensationalized the news the most, blaming in particular Mayor Edward P. Smith and his hand-picked police chief, Marshall Eberstein.
One particularly provocative story in September, 1919 described Will Brown, a 40-year-old Black meat-packinghouse worker who was accused of raping a 19-year-old White woman, Agnes Lobeck.
Prior to Brown’s arrest, the Bee carried detailed accounts of the story along with pictures of Brown and Lobeck. When police went to Brown’s residence to arrest him, a mob tried and failed to seize him. He was arrested and held for a few hours in the Douglas County Courthouse in downtown Omaha. Largely due to the newspaper story, a mob of 250 men and women gathered outside the Courthouse in the late afternoon on Sunday, September 28.
Mayor Edward P. Smith arrived on the scene and attempted to persuade the rioters to leave. He was struck on the head from behind, a rope was placed around his neck, and his unconscious body was strung up to a lamppost. He was cut down before he succumbed, but the mob then set fire to the Courthouse.
Mr. Brown was pulled from the jail, beaten and dragged out. The mob hung him from a lamppost, riddled his already dead body with bullets then tied him to a police car, dragged him to a major downtown intersection, and then burned his body until it was mutilated beyond recognition. The violence spread into a riot that destroyed property throughout Omaha’s Black community. Fragments of the rope used to lynch Mr. Brown were sold as souvenirs for 10 cents apiece.
Numerous photographs were taken, including the one below which shows some of the lynchers proudly posing behind Brown’s charred corpse. That photo became known around the world as the most iconic image of Red Summer violence and it remains one of the most inhumane images of lynching that survive today.
Charred corpse of Will Brown, Omaha, September 28, 1919
Image Public Domain
DULUTH, MINNESOTA – 1920
The multiple lynchings in Duluth, Minnesota in 1920 represent the farthest north this practice reached.
The John Robinson Circus made its way to Duluth on June 14, 1920, for a parade and one-day performance. Elmer Clayton, Isaac McGhie, and Elmer Jackson were among the one hundred or so Black townspeople hired by the circus.
Irene Tusken, 19, and James Sullivan, 18, were among the townspeople who attended the circus on that day. When it ended, the couple walked to the back of the tents for an unknown reason, and it is still unclear as to what happened next. Sullivan later told his father that he and Tusken were held up by three Black circus workers at gunpoint, and that Tusken was raped.
The next day, Tusken’s father contacted Duluth Police Chief John Murphy who immediately rounded up 100 local African Americans who had been hired to work for the circus and lined them up for Tusken and Sullivan to identify their attackers. The pair identified at least six men, who were arrested and taken to the Duluth city jail. Meanwhile, on June 16, Tusken was taken by her father to their local doctor who examined her and found no evidence of any physical assault or rape.
The news of what allegedly transpired spread through the city quickly, and soon a large angry mob of 5,000 people headed toward the jail, demanding justice. They used makeshift tools to break into cells but were only able to get three cells open—the ones occupied by Clayton, McGhie, and Jackson. The trio pleaded for their lives while a mock trial was held by the crowd. They were all found guilty and were beaten and dragged up the street to the town square and hanged. A local photographer took the picture (below) of the scene where many locals were seen smiling and moving to squeeze into the shot. The picture became a postcard keepsake. The remaining thirteen suspects were moved under heavy guard to the stronger St. Louis County jail.
Duluth lynchings, June 15, 1920
Public domain image
Three White men were convicted and imprisoned for one year: Lois Dondino for rioting, Carl Hammerberg for rioting, and Gilbert Henry Stephenson for inciting a riot. Despite the lack of evidence, seven Black men were indicted for the crime of rape and served up to four years each. No one was ever convicted for the lynching murders.
In December 2003, a memorial was erected to the three men in downtown Duluth, directly across the street from where the lynchings occurred.
MARION, INDIANA – 1930
On August 7, 1930, a mob of ten to fifteen thousand Whites abducted three young Black men from the jail in Marion, Indiana, lynching Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Sixteen-year-old James Cameron narrowly survived after being beaten by the mob.
The night before the lynching, Claude Deeter, a 23-year-old White man, was shot and taken to the hospital, where he died the next day. His fiancée, nineteen-year-old Mary Ball, reported that the men who shot Deeter had raped her; however, she later recanted her claim. Police arrested Shipp, Smith, and Cameron, charging them with murdering Deeter and raping Ball.
News of the crime, along with the planned lynching of the alleged perpetrators, spread across Indiana. Whites arrived by the thousands from out of town and joined local residents outside the jail. The mob demanded that the three imprisoned men be turned over to them. When the sheriff refused, several young men in the crowd broke into the jail using sledgehammers.
Thomas Shipp was pulled out first; the mob beat him and hanged him from the window bars of the jail. The crowd then dragged Abram Smith down the street to the courthouse and prepared to hang him from a large tree. When he tried to remove the noose from his neck, the mob stabbed him and broke his arms before finally hanging him.
Once the mob had brought Shipp’s lifeless corpse over to hang next to Smith, local photographer Lawrence Beitler was called over to take a photo of the crowd and the two hanged men. Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the two victims’ hanging bodies is regarded as one of the most iconic images of an American lynching.
Police took James Cameron to another jail out of town; later, he was convicted of accessory to Claude Deeter’s murder and served four years in jail. Despite photographic evidence and eyewitness testimony, no one in the lynch mob was ever arrested.
Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930
Detail of photo by Lawrence Beitler, Fair use image
The photograph (above) of the incident inspired Abel Meeropol to write the poem and song “Strange Fruit,” which Billie Holliday recorded in 1939. In the decades since, dozens of artists have covered and/ or sampled the song; while the lyrics never explicitly mention lynching, they paint a poignant and disturbing picture.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
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By the 1920s lynchings of African Americans had become a standard practice across the nation. Black efforts to combat racial violence during the lynching era spawned many important Black organizations, including the nation’s most effective and longstanding, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP formed in response to the racial attacks in Springfield, Illinois in 1908, as reported in my earlier newsletter. That outbreak of violence shocked Northerners and demonstrated that lynching was not only a Southern phenomenon.
Throughout the 1920’s and into the 1930’s the NAACP pressed for federal anti-lynching legislation. Although unsuccessful in that effort, by the mid-1930’s, forward-looking White Southerners acknowledged that lynching was barbaric and disgraceful, even as they continued to defend White supremacy or rail against Black criminality.
National lynching rates declined markedly after the 1930’s due to shifts in the public discourse, anti-lynching activism, and the Great Migration of Blacks from the South. Close to six million Blacks fled the South between 1910 and 1970. Many left behind their homes, families, and employment after a lynching or near-lynching made it unsafe for them to remain. By 1937, a Gallup poll showed overwhelming White support for anti-lynching legislation. And in 1952, for the first time since the Tuskegee Institute began tabulating records in 1882, a full year passed with no recorded lynchings in the United States.
As I have researched these past few articles on racial violence, I wonder why I never learned about these issues in school, including in undergraduate studies in American History. Nor did I learn this history in graduate Racism classes. I have to imagine that many of those of you who are reading this newsletter also were unaware of the extent of these atrocities.
Even though lynchings in this country began to decline toward the end of the first half of the 20th century, racial discrimination continues to target people of color and victimize especially Black Americans. More about that in my next newsletter.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: MAJOR WORKS ON THE SUBJECT OF LYNCHING
James Allen, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwack, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers: 2000).
William Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930 (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
Steven Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War (New York: Plume, 2008).
James Cameron, A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1982).
Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips, Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism (New York: Faber & Faber, 1999).
Terence Finegan, A Deed So Accursed: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881–1940 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013).
Ralph Ginzburg, 100 Years of Lynching (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1988).
Karlos K. Hill, “Black Vigilantism: African American Lynch Mob Activity in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, 1883-1923,” Journal of African American History 95:1 (Winter 2010): 26-43.
Jonathan Markovitz, Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004)
Michael J. Pfeifer, Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874–1947 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
Michael J. Pfeifer, (ed.), Lynching Beyond Dixie: American Mob Violence Outside the South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013).
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889–1918 (New York City: Arno Press, 1969).
Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011)
George C. Wright, Racial Violence in Kentucky 1865–1940 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990)
Robert Zangrando, The NAACP’s Crusade Against Lynching (Philadephia: Temple University Press, 1980)