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YYY: Postcards from Hell - lynching exhibit captures hatred’s horror

Postcards from Hell - lynching exhibit captures hatred’s horror

 Streetvibes (USA) 19 May 2019

(Originally published: 02/2010) An exhibit highlighting the horrors of lynching in America opened for a four month run at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio this past month. (1651 words) - By Lew Moores


Photo courtesy of Streetvibes

The images are beyond graphic. They are horrific. African-American men hang from power lines and bridges, a light pole, most from trees. A blooming dogwood, a cedar. Many of the images are - remarkably - postcards. They were sent through the mail, postcards not from vacations, but sent from hell. On the back of a postcard of a burned corpse, one correspondent wrote about having a barbecue.


About 75 of these images are arranged on walls that cover five rooms and 3,000 square feet of space at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. <i>Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America</i> opened at the Freedom Center Jan. 19 - the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day - and continues through May 31. Halfway through the exhibit is a room called "Respite," with benches and two boxes of facial tissues. And at the end are tables with "Reflection" Journals, where visitors can leave their thoughts:


This exhibit was way too sad for me. … I can't believe the things America let happen. … It was very painful to view the pictures and facts. We have come a long way but we still have a very long way to go.

Not all of the images depict African-American men. Among the first images a visitor sees are of Laura Nelson and her son, L.W. Nelson, 14, hanging from a bridge in Okemah, Okla., in 1911. Laura Nelson wears a dress that reaches to her calves, her arms and hands at her sides. Her head is sharply angled to her left shoulder. In an image of them both hanging from the bridge, her son dangles at least 100 feet away - separated in death - as a crowd stands on the bridge and watches.

Of the nearly 5,000 lynchings that occurred in the United States between 1882 and 1968, 3,437 were African Americans and the others included white, Hispanic, Chinese, Jewish and Native Americans, according to the Tuskegee Institute. As signage in the exhibit points out, 70 women were among those lynched, and lynchings occurred in 41 states, mostly in the South. There were 581 in Mississippi, 531 in Georgia, 493 in Texas, 391 in Louisiana. There were two in New York and one in Vermont.

'I wish I didn't know'


As much as Terryl Meador prepped the 39 juniors in her Advanced Placement U.S. history class at Northwest High School in Cincinnati, Ohio before visiting the exhibit in late January, they were still shocked. Even Meador, who as a teacher knew of this dark side of American history, was taken aback by the breadth of the cruelty.


"It never stops shocking you, even after going through the teacher training, even after doing outside readings and a lot of other research and prepping the kids, both academically and emotionally," she says. "There were a lot of times when I found myself very close to tears.


"I felt frustrated and ashamed and embarrassed and shocked, thinking, 'How did I not know this?' And then thinking, 'Oh my God, I wish I didn't know this.' "


Paul Bernish, spokesman for the Freedom Center, says the centre worked to prepare the region as far back as October for the exhibit.


"We went out of our way to prepare the community," he says. "We told people what it was going to be about, so that by the time it opened, it opened with some degree of solemnity."


Bernish also says the Freedom Center learned from past venues where Without Sanctuary was displayed that incorporating some new features in this exhibition would help. One was having the Reflection Journals.


"We took lessons from past exhibits," Bernish says. "For some, there wasn't an opportunity for people to vent their emotions. We've given people an opportunity to express themselves, their reactions and emotions. The number of people who have taken the time to write their journal entries is a very good indicator of the impact it's having."


And that impact has been for the most part positive, Bernish notes from both the journals and oral reaction.


"The response has been sober, reflective," he says. "People feel it's very powerful. We're showing this because of our belief that freedom is a value that needs protecting. Beneath the veneer of civilization is an element that allows hate to overcome reason and that threatens freedom."


Katie Johnson, public programs manager for the Freedom Center, says the centre recruited more than two dozen education partners to get input on the possible reaction the community might have and how to mitigate against adverse reaction.


Dina Bailey, associate curator at the Freedom Center, says there are three things they want visitors to take away from <i>Without Sanctuary.</i>


"The first being a look back at history, understanding better where this lynching era came from and how it was possible," Bailey says. "The second is bearing witness, understanding what the lynching era was about. The third is reminding people there are still vulnerable populations today that we need to keep watch over. I would like students to focus on that third section. To understand that it just wasn't in the past, that it certainly is relevant to what is going on in their everyday lives - not physical lynchings anymore, but there certainly are hate crimes.


"Homeless is one. I think it is one of the hate crimes that is on the rise. We're looking at different forms: LGBT, homeless, religious affiliations. They may not be in the exhibition, but it is a program idea that we want to talk about. One of the things I've noticed is that, the worse the economy, the more hate crimes there are. When people are worried about not having enough of their own money, then they look to blame immigrants, or illegal immigrants, or homeless people. It goes back to those vulnerable populations."


All I feel is sadness. … This exhibit is as important as it is disturbing. … Their fight (and even their fear) created my grandmothers and grandfathers, my mother and father, those women and men of the civil rights movement. From great pain and sadness there has been victory.


'Have you stood up?'

Images of a bludgeoned African American sitting in a rocking chair, his clothes covered in blood; a charred corpse; dead African-American men tied to fences; a corpse chained to a tree face-first. The more disturbing images are of crowds standing in the foreground of a lynching - staring, gesturing and even smiling at the camera. There is the image from July 19, 2019, of a black man hanging in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with children looking on.


And the infamous photo of the lynching of Abram Smith, 18, and Thomas Shipp, 19, hanging from a tree in Marion, Ind., on Aug. 7, 1930. Some in the crowd look at the camera. One man points to the hanging men. An entrepreneur mass-produced the photograph and sold copies for 50 cents each.


Meador, the teacher at Northwest High School in northern Cincinnati, where African Americans represent about 25 percent of the student body, attended a teachers' workshop at the Freedom Center in early December in preparation for visiting the exhibit. The Freedom Center was very supportive, she says. Her students spent the better part of the day at the Freedom Center and Without Sanctuary.


"It was a very full day, but a very rich day," Meador says.


The students had been prepared. Some had sought out some images online or saw one or two in a textbook. But nothing compared to the enormity at Without Sanctuary.


The students lingered. They began to read every accompanying explanation at every image - so much so that Meador had to nudge them along, she said.


"It was just conflicting emotions throughout the entire exhibit," she says. "It ran the entire spectrum. I saw kids crying in the exhibit. I saw kids angry. I mean just angry, like, 'How could this happen? How could this happen in America?' they asked. There was a lot of horror. As much as we talked about this, the graphic nature of the pictures was very stunning to them. It's one thing to talk about women being lynched, but then to see that very famous picture of the woman (Laura Nelson) being hung off the bridge …"


Her students peppered her with questions during their visit. Some wanted to know why they hadn't been taught this before.


"I told them, 'You weren't old enough, you weren't ready,' " Meador says. "For a lot of them this was a huge threshold. Before this, when you think of lynching, you think of Reconstruction, Klan activities, about Jim Crow in America. But in no way in the depth covered here."


What did she want her students to learn from this?


"What I wanted to resonate the most for them was that hate does not exist in time and place," Meador says. "Hate exists. I think one of the blessings of living in America is that we do have free speech. I think the other thing really crucial for them to understand is the importance throughout American history of people in shaping and changing of America.


"We talked about how, if you see things wrong, you have to stand up. It's your duty as an American citizen. You can't get caught up in these kinds of things. No one of you ever participated in a lynching, but have you stood up and cheered when a fight was happening? Have you watched a kid be bullied and not stand up for them?


"So we talked about how hate doesn't spring up in one day, how it grows if you allow it to be unchecked. All of us have this potential of having a little dark side of ourselves. And if you don't actively work to stay on top of that, it overtakes you. That liberty is best protected when you guard against hate. That's what I hope they took away."

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