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'The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America': Exhibit at Haverford College

November 21, 2018

"They're selling postcards of the hanging…"
— Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”

Hank Willis ThomasI've listened to "Desolation Row" hundreds of times since it was first released in 1965, but only recently did I learn that it tells the story of the 1920 lynching of three African-American men in Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan was born. On an interactive map at a current exhibit about lynching at Haverford College, on the Main Line west of Philadelphia, I found that horrific event — and discovered in the exhibit a group of artists whose response to the history of lynching brings the issue into the present in forceful and creative ways.

The history of lynching is generally known to mainstream American society and is better known to the African-American community, the primary target of lynching, as well as other targeted communities, including foreigners, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos. But like so much of the history of slavery and Jim Crow, the details have often been lacking or relegated to the background. Now, thanks to new digital technologies that make it easier to access and cross-reference public records, oral histories, and other types of documentation, researchers are creating a more complete understanding of lynching in the post-bellum and Jim Crow eras. For instance, while it has long been known that the states of the Confederacy were the scene of most lynchings, we are learning that communities in the North and West like Duluth were also the scene of lynchings, leading to the inescapable conclusion that the message implicit in such atrocities was intended to be a national one.

The challenge for all of us is what to do with that knowledge.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal assistance and advocacy organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, has documented more than four thousand lynchings in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950. The organization published a report on its findings (now in its third edition) and has established a National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a museum, a research center, and community-based partnerships focused on registering lynching sites.

Developed in collaboration with EJI, the exhibit at Haverford, "The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America," probes the connection between extra-judicial mob violence against African Americans during the Jim Crow era and how similar policies of control continue to define American society.

Exhibit organizer Lindsey Reckson, a faculty member at Haverford, told me when I visited recently that "The idea of legacy requires us to think through how this history is deeply, structurally embedded, and how it still shapes our justice system."

While the topic is deeply disturbing, the exhibit is inspiring, thanks to an impressive selection of works by contemporary artists and short videos, archival materials, and its focus on anti-racist activism.

Working closely with EJI and with support from Google, the Brooklyn Museum, in 2017, developed the core exhibit, which included a video talk by EJI founder Bryan Stevenson; photo-essay/oral histories and a short film featuring families of lynching victims; and an exhibition of art from the museum's collection. The show at Haverford’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery is the first stop in a traveling version of the Brooklyn Museum show and features new artwork, archival materials related to classes offered at the college, a number of documents specific to the Philadelphia region, and a special exhibit focused on a lynching in nearby Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

Reckson called on gallery director Matthew Callinan to help design the exhibit, while curator Kalia Brooks Nelson selected the artwork, including pieces by Josh Begley, Alexandra Bell, Sonya Clark, Ken Gonzales-Day, Ayana V Jackson, Titus Kaphar, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, and Hank Willis Thomas.

"Our guiding principle, set out by EJI, was to not reproduce the imagery of terror," Reckson told me. "Art gives us a way to do that. The artists in the show shift our gaze to white terrorism while attesting to the practice of erasure."

Each piece is clever and powerful, but several stood out for me. Hank Willis Thomas’ quilt, "Bars, 2017" (above), is made from old black-and-white-striped prison uniforms. Sonya Clarks' "Unraveled, 2015" consists of three piles of thread — red, white, and blue — that had once been a Confederate flag. Ken Gonzales-Day’s "Erased Lynching" series reproduces the infamous postcards of hangings but removes the victim, leaving only the crowd and forcing the viewer to consider the people who would gather to witness and celebrate these heinous acts.

Reckson's course on the cultural history of the death penalty includes a module on the journalist Ida B. Wells, who began documenting lynchings in 1892 after the murder of her friend Tom Moss in Memphis, Tennessee. Wells was the first reporter to expose the intent and extent of this form of state-sanctioned terror, and, after being forced into exile from the South, she fashioned a powerful anti-lynching legacy that included education, fundraising, and investigative reporting.

"It's very important to have Ida B. Wells in the exhibit," said Reckson. "I teach about her and Georgia Douglas Johnson, a poet and playwright, both of whom were active in exposing lynching."

Wells's 1894 pamphlet, "A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the U.S.," is among several anti-lynching documents displayed in vitrines in the exhibit; a photo of Wells with Tom Moss's widow and children is nearby.

Other items in the exhibit include a photograph of "The Silent Protest, 1917," a parade in New York City denouncing the deadly East St. Louis riots, an outbreak of race-related violence started by a white mob; images from author Richard Wright and photographer Edwin Rosskam's book 12 Million Black Voices, 1941, a collection of photos commissioned by the Farm Securities Administration depicting black farmers' systemic disenfranchisement during the Great Depression; and several anti-lynching pamphlets selected from Haverford's Quaker & Special Collections.

"The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America" exhibit runs through December 16 at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery in the Whitehead Campus Center on the Haverford College campus. "The Lynching of Zachariah Walker: A Local Legacy," a related exhibit about a 1911 lynching in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, is on view through November 23. (See the website for information about a symposium held on November 16.) All events are free and open to the public.

(Photo credit: Bars, 2017. Quilt made out of decommissioned prison uniforms. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.)

Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. You can read more of her posts here.

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