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Photo exhibit of lynching in America
The ugly history of U.S. racism

Review by Sam Jordan and Theresa Carlson | August 5, 2005 | Page 13

"Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America." At the Chicago Historical Society. Visit

THE EXHIBIT "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" is a disturbing reminder of the racist violence that was a daily feature in the lives of African Americans.

After slaves' emancipation after the South's defeat in the Civil War, the Black Codes, and later Jim Crow laws, became the legal means by which former slave owners sought to control free Black labor and maintain a status quo of Black servitude in the South. Terrorism became the extra-legal means to do the same. Lynching became a primary tool to accomplish this task.

Particularly in the South, lynchings were a public event, often advertised in the daily newspapers. Photos from the time show mobs of jubilant crowds, including children, posing around the lynching victim. These photos were then converted to postcards and sent around the country.

After a hanging, it was common practice to desecrate the victim's body even further by burning, dismembering or tarring and feathering. Participants would then collect bits of the tree, rope, or the body as souvenirs.

Between the 1860s and 1960s, the official number of lynchings in the U.S. was around 75,000 people, though the actual number is probably many times higher. While lynching predominated in the South, no state was immune to the terrorism of the lynch mob.

Until 1952, not a single year passed without a recorded lynching. As one unidentified Black Mississippian said, "Back in those days, to kill a Negro wasn't nothing. It was like killing a chicken or killing a snake."

This exhibit also shows that while the majority of lynching victims were African American, this method of repression was used on other minority groups, including Native Americans, Mexicans and Asian Americans. Beginning in the early part of the last century, labor organizers--usually communists and socialists--attempting to organize sharecroppers in the South also became victims of lynch mobs.

The exhibit tells one story of Angelo Albano and Castenge Ficarrotta, who were accused of shooting a scab during a cigar makers' strike. They were seized by an angry mob on their way to court and hanged with a note attached reading, "Others take notice or go the same way."

The history of lynching is not just a story of victims. The exhibit ends with a section called "Courage in the face of terror."

Despite the brutality and danger around them, African Americans resisted. As early as 1890, activists like Ida B. Wells began pressuring the government to pass an anti-lynching bill.

In addition, "Without Sanctuary" documents the crucial role played by the African American press, as it reported on racially motivated violence that otherwise would go unnoticed and countered the racially biased reporting offered in the mainstream white press, and its justifications for lynching.

It was grassroots activism that brought an end to lynching and formed the foundations of what would become the civil rights movement.

As Wells said, "I felt that one had better die fighting injustice, than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap." "Without Sanctuary" runs through December 4 in Chicago and then travels to other cities.

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