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Thursday, 18 May, 2000, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
America's painful past
civil rights march
Civil Rights marches helped bring an end to lynchings
By Miles Warde

Jim Allen is what they call in the south a picker. From the age of 18 Jim's been travelling from house to house looking for valuable objects and antiques to buy and later sell on.

A crowd has assembled round the charred body of the dead man, his face disfigured beyond recognition

But a few years ago he began with his friend John Littlefield merely to buy, almost obsessively, pictures and postcards of lynchings.

Together they travelled thousands of miles, meeting with dealers and photographers, putting adverts in local papers, and slowly gathering up an extraordinary collection of these gruesome images. He did it, he said, because no one else had.

Posing with the dead

Jim's white, but he is not a violent or voyeuristic kind of man. I think he was simply disturbed by the photos he was discovering, and it annoyed him - as he put it - that they represented an awful episode of institutionally repressed history.

For there is no other similar archive of the pictures he has collected - it is as though people would rather not know.

Most of the pictures are either gelatin or silver prints, taken on box brownies by participants in the lynchings or by a local portrait photographer hired specially for the event.

For example when Laura Nelson and her 14-year-old son were hung from a bridge in Oklahoma, 40 or 50 white folk lined up above them the next day, posing with the two dead bodies swinging below.

Their crime? Shooting a deputy sheriff who had been ransacking their home.

Shocking photos

But the real shock is the postcards - these photos were sent through the mail - and one in particular which a certain Joe Myers sent to his parents after the lynching of Jess Washington in Waco in Texas.

A crowd has assembled round the charred body of the dead man, his face disfigured beyond recognition.

Joe Myers has put an x to show where he is standing in the crowd, and on the back he has written - this is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your loving son, Joe.

When Jim Allen's collection first went on show at a small downtown gallery here in New York, the queues snaked round the block.

Betsy Gotbaum - the president of the New York Historical Society - tried to get in twice and failed. Both times it was freezing and she could not understand why so many Manhattanites were lined up in the cold.

Painful reminders

manhattan skyline
Manhattan: Home to the Without Sanctuary exhibition
But when she did finally see the exhibition, she was astonished, and determined that her own organisation should show it next. It was up on the walls in less than three weeks, a record, she says.

When people ask her why she wanted to put this painful part of America's history on display, she replies that it is the most important exhibition the Society has ever had, because it is a piece of American history Americans want to forget.

Just how many African Americans were lynched is not really known, though estimates suggest that between 1880 and 1920 it was probably about two a week.

Anti-lynching legislation was occasionally introduced and then thrown out - and it was only the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that finally brought the practice to a halt. Or almost to a halt.

The most recent photo in the exhibition was taken in 1968 - and some would say lynching still continues, though nowadays it is called a "hate crime" or some similar such term.

'It wasn't discussed'

There was a group of school children at the exhibition when I went along. Some seemed genuinely moved, while others were not really too sure - and it wasn't a matter of colour either.

One teenage black girl really had nothing to say, even though she was looking at a picture of two dead black men hung from a tree, surrounded by a gleeful white crowd.

She had been brought by her white teacher who had seen the exhibition before - she told me that for two weeks it caused her to wake up in the middle of the night and stay up till dawn.

Another white man, a southerner called Malcolm Brown born in Georgia, thought it was unbelievable that it went on for so long.

Then he told me that he remembered a local lynching himself, that happened when he was in high school in 1946.

"It wasn't at all discussed, " he said. "My school was all white, and we had very little association with African Americans bar those that worked at the house.

"I guess as a child we just accepted how things were."

Miles Warde reports from New York for the BBC

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See also:

05 Feb 00 | Americas
Race riot victims win pay-out
10 Jun 98 | Americas
Clinton condemns 'race' murder
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