How Could This Have Happened?

'Without Sanctuary' is a chilling reminder of America's shameful past

I wasn’t sure I needed to see this exhibition. I’m already against lynching — who isn’t these days? What’s the point of showing photographs of a shameful, hateful chapter of American history?

These questions, among others, have dominated the National Underground Railway Freedom Center’s planning for Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, which opened last week and is up through May 31. Convinced that no good can come of ignoring or forgetting this shameful aspect of American history — some 5,000 murderous, illegal lynchings, mostly of African-American males, from 1882 to 1968 — the Center has taken a traveling show that sometimes elicited anger in earlier venues and hopes to make it a means of furthering understanding rather than undermining it.

“This is the most thoroughly prepared show the Center has ever presented,” says Paul Bernish, Freedom Center spokesman. “We received only the photographs. The organization, the additional material, the training of staff and volunteers have all come about in the planning for the show over many months.”

What are these photographs? They are mostly postcards, amazingly, sent through the mail like any other correspondence despite their brutal pictures of dead victims of mob justice.

There are also snapshot photographs. The bodies hang from trees, from bridges, heads bent tellingly to one side, often with a white mob looking on. The tone of their captions is sometimes jocular, sometimes vindictive — they reveal pride in the lynching.

How could this have happened? Indeed that is the central question the exhibition raises and the one that must be answered.

A vast majority of the lynchings occurred in the American South, where segregation and officially sanctioned racial discrimination long ruled after the fall of slavery. Lynching was often a not-so-silent partner to Southern repression of African American citizens.

But it didn’t only occur there, which is an important point of the show. It features information on lynchings from 41 states, including Ohio and Indiana. Indeed, the exhibit even has a section called “The Heartland” devoted to this.

The Center takes advantage of its generous space in presenting Without Sanctuary.

“We’ve used 5,000 square feet, while previous exhibitors have had no more than a 1,000,” Bernish says. This makes room for the Center’s enlightening additions to the bare bones of the show.

A video introduction gives a sense of what’s to come, then the visitor moves on to a corridor-like space where postcards, small themselves, are shown along with brief labels describing the incidents from which they spring. The effect is chilling.

The corridor then opens to the first of two larger spaces designated “The Spectacle” and subtitled “A Festival of Violence.” Chronicling lynching as some sort of morbid theater, newspaper stories and pictures from the time describe elaborate productions. We learn that the American lynching era runs into living memory for some of us and that the targets sometimes were black women, white men, Hispanics, Native Americans, immigrants and Jews.

We also learn just what defines a lynching: Someone is killed by a group of three or more people who act without legal authority and in fact dispense with the law entirely. The 1890s were the deadliest decade. The practice waned but took on new life in the 1920s. By the late 1960s, the civil rights movement helped put it to a stop.

The section called “The Heartland” brings the exhibition home. A 1920s report from the Tuskegee Institute lists 26 lynchings in Ohio, 16 of the victims black and 10 white. Two black men were lynched in Adams County, one very early (1856) and another in 1894. In New Richmond in Clermont County, Noah Anderson was lynched in 1895.

Oxford is described in a newspaper account as usually “a quiet and orderly village” turned disorderly for the “sensational event” of lynching Henry Corbin in 1892. Both Anderson and Corbin were African American.

With relief, we find in the section called “Resistance” that not everyone subscribed to mob mentality. Here are displayed news stories and other accounts of people and organizations that fought against these illegal and immoral actions.

The exhibition’s final room is furnished with seating and writing tables, inviting visitors to record their responses and to talk about the material they’ve just seen. One visitor wrote, “This exhibit is as important as it is disturbing.” In that room, on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at noon and 2 p.m., open discussions about the exhibition take place.

The Center formed an Academic Advisory Board in planning its handling of the show, as well as a Community Partners Council with groups like the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, and also benefited from an Exhibition Advisory Board of museum professionals.

“We vetted our ideas every way we could,” Bernish says.

The aim is for the material to make its own statement in a climate where people are encouraged to develop personal responses. Because the photographs are so disturbing, the Freedom Center warns parents of younger children about their graphic nature and students on field trips must be at least 14 and have parental permission.

Yes, I needed to see this exhibition.

I see the hate in the exhibit as a terrible human problem, not simply one of white Americans, although that’s the focus here. I think the greatest effect of the exhibition is to help us recognize our ingrained distrust of differences and the moral need to guard against extreme responses, from ourselves or from others.

Without Sanctuary reminds us of human values and frightening impulses and cautions us to not forget.

WITHOUT SANCTUARY: LYNCHING PHOTOGRAPHY IN AMERICA is on display through May 31 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Get exhibition and gallery details here.

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