Lynching’s legacy: Coming to terms with a shameful past

Jean Bettis Franklin

BY JEAN BETTIS FRANKLIN

As co-owner of a used and rare bookstore in Black Mountain, I buy thousands of books from the public each year. Looking through boxes of books brought in for possible purchase is usually a delightful treasure hunt, but about 15 years ago I found a book of horror — a small, undated book of postcards of public lynchings.

Although lynching by definition is done by a mob without due process of law, these events had been photographed, made into postcards and sold, then later collected into books and resold. As what? Souvenirs?

The pictures typically showed one lone, young, black man who had suffered and died, suspended by the neck above a sea of mainly white men and boys, but also women and girls. Some of the victims were clothed, others naked or in various stages of undress. Some had been tortured or burned alive, then hanged. I had thought that lynchings took place in secret, in the dead of night. Although some certainly had, this photographic record told a different story, a story in which enormous crowds of white people witnessed the barbarism.

In Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000), Leon F. Litwack explains the existence of such postcard books. Occasionally trains brought as many as 2,000 participants, ordinary citizens, from other cities as spectators. On such occasions, the lynching became a sadistic example of public theater that was prolonged as long as possible, in one case for seven hours. “Hundreds of kodaks clicked all morning at the scene. … Picture card photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling postcards showing a photograph of the lynched Negro. Women and children were there by the score. At a number of country schools, the day’s routine was delayed until boy and girl pupils could get back from viewing the lynched man.” Litwack writes that the “more spectacular lynching murders” such as these took place in 1946, 1947, 1955, 1959 — in my lifetime — concluding a reign of terror that Congressman John Lewis has termed “one of the darkest and sickest periods in American history.”

For us white people, white privilege includes the luxury of selectively forgetting the past and living as though shameful events never happened and are not happening, even though there are people alive today who remember the lynching era. In Germany, there are people living who remember the Holocaust, but that nation has built museums that acknowledge its horrors. In contrast, while there are numerous museums that focus on African-American history, particularly the civil rights movement, America lags behind Germany in formally acknowledging our own past atrocities. In our country, monuments tell only one side of the story — glorifying the Confederacy and its soldiers while ignoring the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and lynching.

Until now. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the national lynching memorial, opened in April by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, tells the shameful story of lynching, using powerful visual evidence. The extraordinary memorial is “a cloister-shaped, open-air canopy,” as described by Asheville writer Peter Candler in The Christian Century. Evocative of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it presents the names of more than 4,000 known victims of lynching on 800 individual monuments made of Alabama-forged weathering steel. Each monument is a 6-foot rectangular box, one for each county in which a lynching is known to have taken place, with the names of that county’s known victims cut into the steel. These hang suspended from the ceiling, appearing to float just above the floor, but the floor slopes almost imperceptibly until the visitor is looking up at thousands of names.

Remarkably, the designers have created an opportunity to begin healing the still-open wounds from our violent past. Duplicates of the individual monuments have been stacked outside the main building, waiting for representatives of each county to collect theirs. The one belonging to Buncombe has three names, as noted in the Aug. 29 Xpress article, “Mass Murder USA: Lynching Memorial Confronts Our Country’s Past.”

As black and white people from each county go through the process of claiming their monument and deciding where to place it, Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange suggested in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser that the memorial offers “our nation’s best chance at reconciliation.”

Americans have learned that time alone will not bind up our wounds, as evidenced by current conflicts swirling around Confederate monuments. We in Buncombe County are debating the problem of the Vance Monument in downtown Asheville, erected in tribute to our state’s Civil War governor and slave owner, Zebulon Vance. Suddenly, we will have two monuments to consider: the steel lynching monument and Vance’s. Discussing the two in tandem and writing their historical markers gives us a new community experience, an opportunity to tell the entire story of the Civil War’s legacy, not just half of it. Therein lies healing.

A retired English teacher, Franklin co-owns Black Mountain Books and also focuses on teaching adult education classes and writing newspaper columns.

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4 thoughts on “Lynching’s legacy: Coming to terms with a shameful past

  1. Pcb

    Please. Enough is enough. Don’t rewrite American history. We are smart enough to know our past, and realize it was not perfect. It’s history. As long as it is not repeated, let it be a lesson.

  2. jason

    But wait…it’s my heritage. Why you people want to come around here and take my heritage away from me?

    sarcasm

  3. Big Al

    “We in Buncombe County are debating the problem of the Vance Monument…erected in tribute to our state’s Civil War governor and slave owner, Zebulon Vance”

    How frustrating to hear a TEACHER demonstrating her IGNORANCE of history: Vance served as POST-CIVIL-WAR (that means Loyal UNION) Governor for EIGHT YEARS while only three as governor in the Confederacy. If his election to the U.S. Senate had not been disallowed by Reconstruction bigots, he would have served six more years as a loyal American leader. The monument is to his ENTIRE life, not just the few years he served the pro-slavery Confederacy.

    Yes, he owned slaves, but so too did Washington, Jefferson and many of the Founding Fathers and signatories to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Does that mean we should tear down all of THEIR monuments too?

    No wonder our children are so screwed up with teachers like Franklin.

  4. Fascinated Onlooker

    Truly concerned about lynching in all its shapes, colours & sizes? Then be outraged about what is being done, in today’s public square, to Justice Kavanaugh… and his family. Truly, the Demonicratic Party of today has no shame.

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