“One Hundred Years of Lynching:” Coming to Terms With America’s Violent Past
by guest blogger Pedro A. Noguera, Ph. D
When I moved back to NY in 2000, one of the first things I did with my children was to take them to visit the Museum of Natural History. I had always enjoyed visiting the museum when I was a kid and I thought they would, too. When we arrived, the lines were longer than I expected and I thought perhaps we should take a walk in Central Park instead.
However, across the street from the museum I saw a sign for an exhibit at the New York Historical Society (NYHS) that read: “Without Sanctuary: One Hundred Years of Lynching.” For obvious reasons, the sign caught my eye and I suggested that we go to check it out.
Although I was born and raised in NY, it was my first visit to the NYHS, and I was struck by the grandeur of the space. However, what I found even more compelling than the space was the message about the exhibit. On display was a collection of artifacts and images related to America’s practice of vigilante justice. It included pictures of lynchings from throughout the country, and most disturbingly body parts (fingers and toes seemed to be most common) and hair from those who had been lynched that had been kept as memorabilia by individuals who had witnessed, or perhaps even partaken in a lynching. There were also news articles and flyers describing the crimes purportedly committed by the victims.
As we walked through the exhibit, I tried to explain to my two children, ages 9 and 10, how to make sense of what they were seeing. They were disturbed by what they saw but at the same time engrossed, despite the fact that it was a text-heavy exhibit.
When we came across the now iconic photograph of the lynching that occurred in Marion, Indiana in 1930, the last known lynching to occur in a northern state and the lynching that served as the basis for the song “Strange Fruit” made famous by jazz singer Billie Holiday, my son Antonio asked me:
“Why are the White people in the picture smiling?”
He had a point. Even more disturbing than the two battered Black bodies which hung limp from the trees, were the faces of the men and women in the White lynch mob who looked on with apparent satisfaction and glee.
I explained that the people in the crowd were so filled with hate that they thought what they were doing was right. I went on to explain that he had nothing to fear because lynchings no longer occur in this country.
This seemed to bring him some relief until we got to the end of the exhibit that featured photos of an electric chair and gas chamber. The accompanying text explained that while lynchings had stopped, large numbers of people (most of them Black) are executed each year in states that allow the death penalty.
By then, we all needed a walk in the park to reflect on what we had seen. We were shaken and affected by what we had seen, and as we discussed the images, I asked my wife if our kids were too young to be exposed to such violence. We agreed that they had already seen more violence in some of the movies they had seen and video games they played. We also agreed that they needed to understand the history of this country.
Understanding America’s history of racial violence is clearly only part of what one needs to know to appreciate who we are as a nation, but we knew that they had already gotten lots of the other parts—the celebration of great presidents, inventors, generals and patriots. As children of color living in the US, we knew they needed to know much more.
In fact, all children do if we are to make genuine progress in the journey toward racial justice.
Pedro Noguera is a Distinguished Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences at UCLA. His research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends in local, regional and global contexts. He is the author of eleven books and over 200 articles and monographs. He serves on the boards of numerous national and local organizations and appears as a regular commentator on educational issues on CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, and other national news outlets. Prior to joining the faculty at UCLA he served as a tenured professor and holder of endowed chairs at New York University (2003 – 2015) Harvard University (2000 – 2003) and the University of California, Berkeley (1990 – 2000). From 2009 – 2012 he served as a Trustee for the State University of New York (SUNY) as an appointee of the Governor. In 2014 he was elected to the National Academy of Education. Noguera recently received awards from the Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences, from the National Association of Secondary Principals, and from the McSilver Institute at NYU for his research and advocacy efforts aimed at fighting poverty.