St. Louis Riot, 1917

The story I’m about to share is one I had never heard until I really started looking into #OurHistory through the lens of the African-American experience. It may be new to you as well, so please don’t skip over this. It’s important we all understand and truly listen to what it tells us.

July 2, 1917.

This was right in the heart of the Great Migration, as scores and scores of African Americans fled the South in hopes of a brighter future. Certainly, they were fleeing the terror of the lynch mobs, but the driving force was the hope of better financial opportunities than the subtle (reinvented) slavery of sharecropping. When they arrived North, I wish I could say the experience was different. 

In East St. Louis, labor agents had successfully recruited thousands of black men to work in the city’s aluminum factories. The predominantly white work force was on strike at the time, so the new labor force was brought in to keep production moving. The race card was played on purpose, and as expected, it infuriated the striking workers.

Little skirmishes broke out here and there as the black workers entered the factory, but before long it evolved into open violence throughout much of East St. Louis. The police force, which was largely white, decided to look the other way as those within the black community were assaulted, clubbed, and stabbed. Riots broke out, and when it was all said and done, 9 white people and at least 40 black people died.

“AT LEAST 40…”

The ambiguity there is one of the saddest parts of this story. Many remained unaccounted for after the dust settled. The number was likely far greater, based on eyewitness accounts of black bodies being thrown in ditches and in the Mississippi River, never to be recovered. One of the pictures in this post is an image of the aftermath, the search for bodies among the debris.

The massacre did not go unnoticed.

Just 3 weeks later, the NAACP organized a silent march in NYC, down Fifth Avenue. With only the sound of muffled drums, ten thousand men, women, and children marched from Harlem to Manhattan. No words, no shouting. They carried signs, some of them displaying messages like these:

“Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?”

“Mother, do lynchers go to heaven?”

This was a silent protest because it seemed that nobody would hear their cries out loud.

#OurHistory

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Remembering Thomas Moss, 1892

The story of Thomas Moss is one I’m convinced everyone needs to hear.

It was March of 1892, the year when lynchings in the South were at an all-time high. The number of lynchings for a single year would never be higher than in 1892.

Thomas Moss was a highly respected postman within the black community of Memphis, Tennessee. Seeing an opportunity for some healthy competition, he started a grocery store called the People’s Grocery. The problem was, it was across the street from another grocery store, one owned by a white man named William Barrett. The effect this had on his customer base enraged Barrett to the point that he hired some off-duty deputy sheriffs to vandalize and destroy the store. Moss and two of his friends, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart, not knowing who they were dealing with, resisted the attack and before long, a gun battle broke out, wounding several of the deputies. As a result, Moss, his two friends, and 100 other black supporters were arrested. A few nights later, Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were dragged out of their cells, taken to a deserted railroad yard, and shot to death.

No trial.
No witnesses.

One of the reasons this particular account is so significant is that Thomas Moss was a friend of the now famous Ida B. Wells. Like many middle-class African-Americans, she had believed the myth that only low-income blacks were lynched for heinous crimes. Wells now couldn’t escape the fact that even innocent middle-class black people could be targets. As a result, this event sent Ida B. Wells on a crusade to lift the carpet of these lynchings up and expose them for what they really were.

The prevailing narrative of the day used to spread fear was that these lynchings were a means to “protect white women from rape” and that avenging a wrong by lynching was “manly”.

I found this chilling quote from Rebecca Latimer Felton, a former slave owner and women’s rights activist: “When there’s not enough religion in the pulpit… then I say lynch. Lynch a thousand times a week if necessary.”

I realize this is hard to look at. But it’s so important that we not ignore it. Just as it’s important to visit the Holocaust Museum and remember the horrific events in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, it’s important that we remember what occurred just a few generations ago.

Depending on the historian, there were nearly 5,000 recorded lynchings between 1882-1968, 73% of which were of African-Americans. It’s important to note that these are the number of RECORDED lynchings. There were many more that never hit the record books.

These lynchings ranged from simple, quiet events with only a few people present, to large festivals with huge crowds of spectators. Admission by ticket was not uncommon.

People were coming out to these LIKE A FREAKIN’ MOVIE ON FRIDAY NIGHT.

It disgusts me to even write that.

Yale Professor, Jonathan Holloway said, “In its own grotesque way, slavery afforded a level of protection for blacks. It certainly wasn’t there after emancipation. Of course, that is not a defense of slavery, but that is just sort of an element to consider in this equation.”

If you go to the link below, you can see a collection of postcards with actual pictures from some of these lynching festivals collected by James Allen. They are hard to look at, but I want to encourage you to do so. http://buff.ly/2kB55Oe

About these images, historian Leon F. Litwack wrote: “The photographs stretch our credulity, even numb our minds and senses to the full extent of the horror, but they must be examined if we are to understand how normal men and women could live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities, even reinterpret them so they would not see themselves or be perceived as less than civilized. The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings. Few had any ethical qualms about their actions. This was not the outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another.”

That last line is really, really important.

“This was … the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another.”

As if the horrors of slavery weren’t enough, the lynchings of the 1880’s through the 1960’s again and again and again told the African-American community that their lives didn’t matter.

#OurHistory

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Ida B. Wells

This woman.

Overflowing with holy discontent.
Emboldened with a contagious fury for justice.
Unwilling to sit idly by while injustice got the last word.

Ida B. Wells.

Without fear of her own well-being, she broke the silence and helped the world see the disparity that existed between the perception of lynchings in the late 1800’s, and the horrific reality of what was actually occurring.

And she wouldn’t stop sharing it until she had no more breath with which to share.

I have learned much from this incredible woman, and I deeply admire her courage and resolve.

#OurHistory

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Strange Fruit

Every American should know this song, because its inspiration is (sadly) part of #OurHistory.

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies 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 magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This was originally written as a poem by a teacher, Abel Meeropol (Lewis Allen) in 1937, then made famous as a song performed by Billie Holiday in 1939.

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