To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
contact us | site guide | search
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachers
The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Segregation

The Crisis, 26 June 1919, front page related on the lynching of John Hartfield in Ellisville, Mississippi
Lynching and Segregation
- Jessie P. Guzman & W. Hardin Hughes, "Lynching-Crime," article, Negro Year Book: A Review of Events Affecting Negro Life, 1944-1946, 1947 (PDF)
- Walter White, "I Investigate Lynchings," article, American Mercury, January 1929 (PDF)

According to historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage, antilynching leaders were debating the definition of lynching even as late as 1940. Their efforts, he maintains, "were more than just idle hairsplitting," because ambiguity in the definition "led to confusion over the actual toll of mob violence and provided ammunition to southern opponents of antilynching reform, who argued that proposed statutes against mob violence" would lead to "expansive judicial jurisdiction for a crime that eluded definition."1 Over time a definition has emerged that identifies common elements shared by virtually all lynchings. In the words of Professor Brundage, "Mobs, on the pretext of punishing an alleged lawbreaker or violator of local customs, summarily executed their victims with little if any regard for proof of guilt or evidence of innocence. Lynchings of blacks had a two-fold nature: not only were they intended to enforce social conformity and to punish an individual, but they also were a means of racial expression. And a degree of community approval and complicity, whether expressed in popular acclaim for the mob's actions or in the failure of law officers to prevent lynchings or to prosecute lynchers, was present in most lynchings." Even after noting these common elements, Professor Brundage cautions that "the term lynching embraces a wide variety of mob actions and murders, some of which conform to a model of communal rituals but some of which emphatically do not."

The excerpt from the Negro Year Book of 1947, offered here, illustrates the debate about how to define lynching while it traces the crime's decline and calls for continued antilynching activism. It is useful as a statistical reference as well as a sobering reminder that lynching was still an issue throughout the United States well into the twentieth century.

Who was responsible for lynching, and how did the perpetrators view it? Walter Francis White (1893-1955) probes these questions in "I Investigate Lynchings." A prolific writer and activist who became the secretary of the NAACP, White experienced violent racism during the 1906 riot in his hometown of Atlanta. He spent his lifetime campaigning against lynching, pushing for federal legislation to ban the crime and exposing its gruesome details, some of which he gathered in person: his blue eyes and blonde hair, as well as his southern accent, granted him access to places and people denied to most African Americans. The result is "passing"—sneaking past the color line and pretending to be white or black—at its riskiest. Here, White describes four trips to the rural South in the aftermath of lynchings. While his intention was to investigate racial violence, in this piece he seeks to describe the communities where lynchings took place and the people who participated in them: "the morons who lounge around the village store . . . the Ku Kluxers, the two-gun Bible-beaters, the lynchers and the anti-evolutionists." Despite his low opinion of rural southerners' intellectual capacities, his subjects were often clever enough to discern that their visitor was not the fellow traveler he seemed to be, and White relates more than one instance of discovery and fear for his life. White's piece appeared in American Mercury—a sophisticated, witty, urbane magazine founded by critics H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in 1924. Under Mencken, who became the sole editor within a year of the magazine's birth, it attacked what it took to be American yokels with elegant and irreverent skepticism. White's article reflects that tone as it offers a series of fascinating vignettes and character studies that illuminate the minds of the white southerners who enforced segregation with brutal violence. (For additional texts on lynching, see The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917.) (18 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What are the consequences of lynching in both black and white communities?
  2. What elements do the lynchings described in the "Detailed Lynching Record" section of the Negro Year Book report have in common? What does that section of the report suggest about the purpose of lynching?
  3. How would you describe the persona Walter White creates for himself in "I Investigate Lynchings"?
  4. How does this persona argue against the image of the African American as victim?
  5. What is the purpose of his article? Who is White's audience?
  6. What strategies does he employ to achieve his purpose?
  7. What is White's attitude to the people he meets in the South?
  8. According to White, what factors give rise to lynchings?
  9. What image of the South emerges from White's article?
  10. How does White address the issue of passing?
  11. What causes gave rise to acts of violence aimed at individual African Americans?
  12. What causes gave rise to violence aimed at entire black communities?

Framing Questions
  •  What constitutes segregation?
  •  How did African Americans experience it?
  •  What is the difference between segregation and separation?
  •  What are the consequences of segregation? Separation?

Guzman & Hughes: 10
White:   8
18 pages
Supplemental Sites
Walter White, "The Eruption of Tulsa," The Nation, 29 June 1921, in History Matters, from George Mason University and the City University of New York

Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, from the collection of John Allen and James Littlefield

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: The Crisis, 26 June 1919, front page related on the lynching of John Hartfield in Ellisville, Mississippi, which occurred later that day. Reproduced by permission of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

1 W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 17-18.

1. Segregation–Separation   2. Lynching & Segregation   3. Antilynching Dramas
4. Life Under Segregation   5. The Black Psyche   6. Passing
  7. De-segregation–Integration   8. Separation & Power   9. Ambiguity of Integration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: August 2007