Detroit lynching exhibit documents century of violence, elicits reactions

Associated Press/August 24, 2004
By Adrienne Schwisow

Detroit -- Row after row of fading photographs showing black men whipped and hanging from trees by their necks made 14-year-old Shontori Clerk wish people would realize "we should no longer have racism existing today."

"Hopefully everyone will take notice and grab ahold to the message," the Detroit girl wrote in a comment book after viewing an exhibit on lynching at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History.

Museum officials described the mostly pictorial exhibit as painful and difficult and said they even saw some visitors decide at the door not to see it. Shontori's mother, Cathy Clerk, had no problem viewing the disturbing images.

"It's history, and you have to know it," Clerk explained while Shontori wrote down her thoughts. She brought her children to show them "why they can do what they can do. The price has been paid by those people hanging on the wall and the kids today need to know that there's still hatred, there's still prejudice, but everything can be overcome. Let not their lives be in vain."

James Allen, an Atlanta dealer of Southern folk art and antiques, and partner John Littlefield, spent years putting together the exhibit - "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America." A slow stream of visitors strolled through on opening day last month, and reactions left in the four comment books told of sadness, shame, anger and hope.

Said one guest: "This was very hard for me to see. I can't believe how my people were treated because of the color of their skin. All those people killed for being Black."

"I think that all whites shall burn in hell for the rest of their lives," another commented.

A Detroit woman saw a picture of her grandfather, who was killed in Mississippi.

"That was a very moving moment, because it figured so strongly in this woman's life," Allen said. "Her father had witnessed it but didn't speak of it until he was dying."

"I can't even begin to imagine how human beings could be so cruel," someone else wrote.

"Makes me feel bad to be my race. I'm glad that most of this violence is over," said a sophomore from Harlem High School in Machesney Park, Ill.

The exhibit, which toured New York City, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Jackson, Miss., is expected to be on display at least through February.

More than 100 postcards, photos, documents, pieces of propaganda and news articles depict or relate to lynching, many from the early 20th century. Also on display are artifacts such as a 1930s Ku Klux Klan robe and pin, and an 1880s-era whip of frayed, braided leather with a dark wooden handle in the shape of a black man's face. On a giant black quilt are embroidered hundreds of names of documented lynching victims between 1865 and 1965 from more than 30 states.

"And still we rise, Why," wrote a guest from Baltimore.

Bamidele Agbasegbe Demerson, the museum's director of exhibitions, said the display is about empowering black Americans as much as it is depicting the history of violence against them. A section is devoted to anti-lynching and civil rights activists.

"It's about the power to organize and to resist and to overcome."

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