The Archaeology of Race, Shame, and Redemption
On New Year’s Day 1923 a crowd of Whites marched on the Black community of Rosewood, Florida seeking retribution for an alleged assault on a White woman by a Rosewood resident. A group of White men captured an African American, Sam Carter, and shot him and hung his lifeless body, but by January 4th a brewing mob marched on Rosewood, angered by the suggestion Rosewood had provided refuge to Carter. Two Whites were killed in their initial assault, and by January 6 hundreds of Whites had migrated to Rosewood and set the whole town ablaze, with at least eight people eventually dead in the aftermath and nothing left standing.
Like much of the landscape of racism and extra-legal violence, Rosewood appeared to have been easily submerged in America’s historical amnesia about the depths of racist violence. Yet increasingly more of these spaces of shame are now being memorialized in a public acknowledgment of a variety of injustices inflicted on ordinary innocent people. Some of this memorialization involves formal material markers; some involves genuine reparations (e.g., nine of Rosewood’s victims received a financial reparation in 1994); some have been studied anew by the state (e.g., in 2001, Oklahoma conducted an official report on the 1921 Tulsa race riot); and some sites remain largely unacknowledged, submerged in grassroots memory but not yet in something we might circumspectly refer to as “public memory.”
Moments like Rosewood are akin to the fanatical Anti-Black anxieties that exploded in Tulsa (1921), East St. Louis (1917), Houston (1917), Elaine (Arkansas 1919), Omaha (1919), Knoxville (1919), and Chicago (1919), where massive race riots exploded taking aim on African-American communities. Other spaces witnessed the seemingly random, anti-Black terror of public lynchings and mob murders that have now secured some measure of public reflection, and the spaces of public executions, urban displacement, and anti-Black state policies and violence are slowly joining the same discourses.
Many of these moments lost any recognizable footprint on the landscape and were reduced simply to violent aesthetics—images of riot scenes, postcards of lynchings—that appear to contemporary eyes as horrifying but alien experiences of unknown people from a distant moment. Ken Gonzales-Day’s brilliant project “Erased Lynchings” underscores how mundane the landscape of lynching violence was: when the corpses of murder victims are removed from period images, the crowds gathered to witness death are absolutely prosaic and the spaces seem utterly commonplace. Landscapes changed over time, trees were torn down, public spaces took on new shapes, and former prisons were torn down or took on new roles, so much of the visual evidence of riots and lynchings documents spaces that look quite different now.
The now-prosaic landscape risks concealing the horror concealed in many such spaces. Harvey Young has chronicled how many lynching scenes were instantly dismantled and the bodies of victims themselves were dismembered by souvenir hunters who took trees, rope, clothing, and body parts as mementoes of the experience. In 1899, for example, after a Maysville, Kentucky lynching the victim was burnt and the newspaper reported that spectators “carried away pieces of ﬂesh and the negro’s teeth. Others got pieces of ﬁngers and toes and proudly exhibit the ghastly souvenirs to-night.” In 1901, a Terre Haute, Indiana man who had likewise been hung and then burnt was dismembered and his toes sold at the scene as relics. When a reporter visited the scene of a 1911 lynching a few weeks after the Coatesville, Pennsylvania event, he found nearly nothing left: grass was burnt away from the blaze in which Zachariah Walker had been burnt alive, neighboring fences were demolished for souvenirs, and all that remained of Walker fit into a small box. A famous photograph of two men lynched in Marion, Indiana in August, 1930 has two women in the foreground holding swatches of fabric that were likely keepsakes torn from the bodies of the victims. An image of the lynching displayed with a lock of hair and emblazoned “Klan 4th, Joplin MO, 33” is almost certainly hair of the victims that was displayed by the fourth Klan in Joplin.
Ironically, as communities aspired to rationalize an act of mass violence and forget the space in which it occurred, they nonetheless often held onto material trappings that evoked that very event. Young argues that these human keepsakes were distinctive material things that transformed a human into mere materiality but never fully rid themselves of the shadow of human meaning invested in the dismembered corpse. For those unable to attend the lynchings and riots, picture postcards were widely distributed: the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas was documented by a series of postcards documenting a grim spectacle taken over several hours in which 10,000 spectators set Washington ablaze, removed his genitalia, cut off his fingers, and removed his bones.
As the landscape was actively dismantled and declined through benign neglect, communities masked histories they hoped to forget even as those events persistently lurked beneath the surface of publicly condoned heritage. Yet throughout the US and much of the world such traumatic heritage is being placed onto the landscape in concrete forms. These “dark tourism” sites run a gamut of traumatic histories that reveal the absence of a consensus history; Erika Doss argues that memorialization in these contexts does not resolve shame as much as it sparks discussions that bear witness to the dignity of people who fell victim to racist violence. At the Art Race Space conference Doss argued that true shame does not lie in acknowledging and discovering shameful histories; instead, genuine shame is an unwillingness to confront such histories.
James Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant have contemplated the distinctive quandary of conducting an archaeology of Rosewood in lieu of archaeology at the site itself, whose current owners have denied descendants, scholars, and tourists access to the space, which has remained untouched in the intervening 90 years. Rosewood’s inaccessibility (despite being a Florida Heritage Landmark) has not prevented Gonzalez-Tennant from producing a “Virtual Rosewood” that connects to survivors’ oral histories, census records, a virtual tour, and videos of Rosewood today. Nevertheless, it is likely that people aspiring to forget such heritage recognize the power of archaeology to tell an absolutely compelling and challenging story about Rosewood.
Rosewood may be a distinctive event in some ways, but Davidson and Tennant argue that the American landscape includes numerous more racist riots, and violence is impressed into an exceptionally broad range of spaces that have now received community attention. One such episode came in South Carolina in 1947, when a Greenville taxi driver was robbed and stabbed. A 24-year-old African American, Willie Earle, was jailed, and a line of cab drivers drove to the Pickens County Jail along with a crowd that seized Earle. The crowd dragged Earle from the jail, beat him, and eventually shot him and left him on a roadside near a slaughterhouse. This memorialization process is certainly not without resistance: A 2010 commemorative marker erected at the site of Earle’s death was stolen in April, 2012 (the Rosewood marker has bullet holes in it); the former jail from which Earle was taken is now a county museum, and Jennie Lightweis-Goff lamented in her 2011 Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus that the museum says nothing about Earle’s murder.
Other communities have more successfully confronted their histories. In June, 1920 the circus passed through Duluth, Minnesota and a young man charged that his girlfriend had been sexually assaulted by several Black men working with the circus. The police chief lined the laborers along the train tracks the next morning and arrested six of them. A crowd of between 5000 and 10,000 people gathered at the jail and eventually stormed it, dragging out three men– Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie—and hanging them in the street before posing for pictures with the victims’ bodies.
The unmarked graves of the three men were located and markers were placed at the graves in 1991. In June, 2000 the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial committee was formed to acknowledge the lynching, construct a memorial, and use the discussion as a springboard for anti-racist community activism (e.g., see the Memorial Discussion Guide) In October, 2003 the Duluth Memorial was unveiled at the site of the lynching with the figures of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie as part of a memorial including the Edmund Burke quote “An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”
In 2006 the Duluth New Tribune editor expressed mixed feelings about memorializing lynchings, arguing that “there were 4,743 documented lynchings in America between 1882 and 1968, almost 3,500 of them black men. Even if memorials are done with decorum, as in Duluth, I don’t know if there should be a marker at every site. Four thousand, seven hundred forty-three memorials in town squares and highway rest stops would be a gruesome reminder across America.” It may indeed inspire apprehension among some people eager to cast racist violence as the products of other communities in distant places, but such a maneuver awkwardly dodges complicity in violence. Many more sites of comparable trauma certainly remain remembered but unmarked; many spaces like riot sites certainly contain concrete archaeological evidence, but in places like Rosewood the threat of that material history provokes apprehension for both undoing racist caricatures and sparking conversations about the impression of such violence on contemporary social life. Many of these landscapes witnessed brief events lynchings that left little material evidence, yet marking such spaces and telling these stories is certainly well within archaeological method. The challenge is less techniques of placing such heritage on the contemporary landscape as it is a challenge to overcome anxiety over the discussions that may follow. Yet the tenor of such discussions in many communities suggests that efforts to conceal such a heritage are always losing battles.
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Carter-Jackson-McGhie Memorial image courtesy artstuffmatters
Rosewood ruins image courtesy wikipedia
Rosewood sign image courtesy Richard Elzey