The Controversy of the Without Sanctuary Museum Exhibit

NAACP flag announcing “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” New York, 1936 (Shutterstock)

On May 22, 1917, the lynching of Ell Persons, a Black woodcutter, occurred in a carnival-type setting in Memphis, Tennessee. Men, women, and children gathered near a bridge by Wolf River to commemorate the rape and murder of 16-year-old white schoolgirl, Antoinette Rappel, and celebrate the capture and death of her alleged rapist and killer, Persons. Local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, announced the lynching as its headline of the day. Vendors sold sandwiches, chewing gum, and soda to attendees. Soon Rappel’s mother, Mrs. Wood, thanked the crowd for their support and asked someone to set him afire. Following Persons’ death, his body was mutilated and his head was disposed of in a Black neighborhood.1

On January 13, 2000, almost eighty-three years after Persons’ death, Atlanta antique collector, James Allen exhibited his collection of American lynching postcards for the first time at the Roth Horowitz Gallery. The exhibit, Witness: Photographs of Lynching from the Collection of James Allen and John Littlefield, told countless stories of how African Americans overwhelmingly fell victim to white supremacist violence from lynch mobs between 1870-1960. Allen’s goal was to provoke a discussion about our nation’s covert issues with racism, hatred, and violence. Witness faced harsh criticism from the public because of its graphic display of America’s unwanted historical past. Allen later spent two years redesigning it into Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in Americawhich addressed the public’s issues with the initial exhibit. Although some adults still view Without Sanctuary as highlighting a grotesque moment in American History, many teenagers believe its inflammatory nature will spark change in our nation’s dealings in race relations.

From 1865-1968, more than 6,500 people were reportedly lynched with roughly 73% of those individuals being Black. Approximately 79% of lynchings occurred in Southern states and in the Western Frontier. Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana were the top three states where lynching occurred. African Americans were often lynched for “high crimes” like rape, robbery, and murder, along with interracial sex and economic prosperity. Lynchings occurred in town squares, near schools and churches, and in secluded fields and forests. The attendees were white men, women, children, blue-collar workers, law enforcement, and even ministers. During the Jim Crow era of segregation, lynching was used to intimidate African Americans into not exercising their civil rights like voting and owning property, so that they remained second-class citizens who were denied equal access to financial wealth, jobs, and quality housing like white people. Today, there are still reports of lynchings (including those done in effigy), but the last confirmed lynching was the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald by white supremacists in Mobile, Alabama.

Although most people lynched after 1870 were Black, other marginalized people were also lynched. In 1889, Ellen Liddy Watson, a cattle rancher, was falsely accused of cattle rustling and lynched in Wyoming after she amassed 60 acres of fertile land for her cattle to graze and refused to sell land to neighboring cattle ranchers with barren land. In 1910, Italian Americans Castenego Ficarrotta and Angelo Albano were accused of strikebreaking and lynched in Florida. In 1915, Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent was lynched in Marietta, GA after he was accused of flirting with and killing a thirteen-year-old white girl named Mary Phagan. In 1935, Clyde Johnson, a white man accused of robbery and murdering a police officer was lynched in Yreka, CA. Other groups who faced lynching for alleged crimes were Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.

 Activism against lynching was undertaken by Blacks and whites alike. Both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Communist Party investigated reports of lynching, launched protests, and lobbied the federal government to create anti-lynching laws. The Tuskegee Institute, an institution established to train African Americans to be teachers and tradesmen, collected and published data on the prevalence of lynching. In 1892, investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, published her research in On Lynchings: Southern Horrors, a Red Record, and Mob Rule in New Orleanswhich revealed some Black people were lynched because they allegedly “insulted” a white person, “violated” a labor contract with a white employer, “ruined the reputation” of a white person, or killed a white citizen in self-defense. In 1937, schoolteacher Abel Meeropol wrote a poem detailing the graphic and violent nature of lynching, “Strange Fruit,” which was later recorded into a song by jazz singer Billie Holiday in 1939. “Strange Fruit” immediately gained international attention on the issue of lynching. Another singer who publicized the violence of lynching was folk singer Woody Guthrie who wrote two songs, “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son” and “High Balladree,” inspired by the 1911 lynchings of Laura and L. D. Nelson that occurred near his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. Nevertheless, anti-lynching campaigns were waged in multiple arenas to spread public awareness and provoke mass protest.

Before Witness premiered, several museums refused to house the exhibit. In Dora Apel’s 2003 article, “On Looking: Lynching Photographs and Legacies of Lynching after 9/11,” she suggested that curators rejected the exhibit because they feared public disapproval. When the exhibit premiered from January 13 to February 12, 2000 at the Roth Horowitz Gallery, thus began a controversial debate on exhibits centered around the issue of racial violence. In Witness, there were black-painted walls, red carpet, dim lighting, and small, unframed lynching postcards. Supportive visitors and scholars believed that although the photographs were graphic and heart-wrenching, the public must see them to acknowledge and provoke true healing for “America’s darkest period.”

  Allen’s Witness also received criticism. Aside from critiques describing the postcards as too small and the gallery space too cramped, critics argued the exhibit was a passive interpretation of racial violence. Some opponents believed the exhibit emanated a double victimization of the suffering of African Americans. The presentation of the postcards without any displays of resistance against lynching made visitors guilty of the same sin as the lynch mob: onlookers to a cruel murder. Some scholars even suggested that in this uncritical exhibit, Allen was financially profiting from the victimization of African Americans in what sociologist Michael Eric Dyson explained as “to commercialize the suffering of black people is to do the ultimate disservice to black people.” The only representation of resistance visitors saw in Witness were photos of the 1899 lynching of Frank Embree. Embree resisted his lynching by looking directly into the camera. Embree did not cower in fear, but bravely stood tall as he covered his genitals with his bound hands in order to maintain his dignity. However, this single image was not enough to counteract the other eighty postcards that told the history of lynching from the perpetrators’ perspective.

Another major critique was the exhibit’s ability to stir feelings of white guilt about a shameful practice that many Southerners wanted to forget. Some white visitors were forced to wonder if their ancestors participated in a lynching. The perpetrators also appeared depraved in postcards where lynched Black men were naked and their genitals were exposed, mutilated or removed. This attack on Black male sexuality is what several scholars call “homoerotic pornography” because the white male lynch mob got revenge and enjoyment from circulating “trophy” postcards of dead Black men who they stereotyped as hypersexual and a threat to white women’s virginity. Nevertheless, some curators feared the images would enrage visitors and incite race riots.

By 2002, Allen revamped Witness into Without Sanctuary for its premiere at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. The historical narrative was reframed to show how lynching victims never had sanctuary from violence or voyeurism. Inside the exhibit, the walls and floors were neutral earth colors that created a solemn but educational atmosphere. The postcards were now framed and hanging on the walls next to a description about the victim and the lynching. There was signage asking visitors if they will stand up against racism: “If not you, then who? If not now, then when?” There were even displays of newspaper articles, artifacts, pictures, and written documents about anti-lynching activism and resistance efforts concerning Ida B. Wells, the NAACP, and the Communist Party, along with a wall display of the poem and the musical recording of “Strange Fruit.” Overall, these additions transformed the exhibit into a memorial to the lynching victims where they were acknowledged, mourned, and remembered.

Allen also provided supplementary resources for visitors. Curators sponsored workshops that prepared students for the graphic nature of Without Sanctuary. Attendees could write down their reflections and discuss racial violence in an educational environment. Allen also produced a book featuring the postcards and analytical essays, along with an online gallery. The online gallery has a short film and site-monitored forums where people worldwide can post their reflections. Moreover, these interactive resources creatively embodied what historian C. Vann Woodward explained, “historians have a responsibility to write in ways that are both useful and accessible to the public.”

In 2010, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center video-recorded the reflections of teenagers who visited Without Sanctuary. In one video, a black girl was shocked but explained that racism is a learned behavior that can be dismantled stating, “this was definitely something that I’m going to remember…I haven’t seen many photos and heard so many stories. It’s very surreal…I appreciate this [exhibit]. It’s very educational.” In another video, a white boy elaborated on the South’s legacy of racial hatred: “I think children today need to be going to exhibits like this because the brink of the general public isn’t really aware…it needs to be looked at in order to reverse the racism that’s going on with us, especially in the deep South.” And in a third video, a white girl reacted to the exhibit with sadness and compassion: “I’m just sad for our history that this is what has happened to people and their families and all I know is what I can do now…just want to spread love.” Nevertheless, while the teens were emotionally moved by the troubling images they saw, they acknowledged their country’s racist past, and expressed hope that love and awareness of lynching would conquer hatred, racism, and violence.

The final travelling exhibit of Without Sanctuary ended on December 31, 2012 at the Levine Museum of the New South and the exhibit’s permanent home is the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA. For over a decade, Without Sanctuary spurred a fiery debate across America that involved scholars, visitors, Southern communities, curators, and Allen himself that has now waned. And after 150 years of antilynching activism, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was finally signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 29, 2022. Today, the public still needs exposure to raw histories of racial violence. Only then can we educate, repair, and invoke reparative justice in America as we move toward an antiracist future.

  1. Ancestry.com, Tennessee, Death Records, 1908-1958 {database on-line). Provo, UT, USA, accessed March 7, 2013, ancestry.com.
Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Avatar

Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Morgan State University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University while her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-Black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson’s research and writing have appeared in articles for the Urban History Association’s The Metropole and the Washington Post. She is the author of Hope and Struggle in the Policed City: The Rise of Black Criminalization and Resistance in Philadelphia (New York University Press, 2024). You can follow her on Twitter @Philadelphian91.

Comments on “The Controversy of the Without Sanctuary Museum Exhibit

  • Avatar

    Dr. Dirkson,
    Thank you for this insightful post on the significance of James Allen’s collection of lynching postcards. A good reminder of their impact when they were first shown, and a vital discussion of them for all.
    Much appreciated!
    Mark Higbee, professor of history, Eastern Michigan University, mhigbee@emich.edu

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *