On March 10, 1893 Sherman Arp stood before a crowd that had gathered at 5:35 AM to witness his execution in Centre, Alabama. Arp had been convicted of murdering George Pogue in 1891 and was sentenced to death for the carriage-maker’s murder. In the pre-dawn twilight Arp sang spirituals in the moments before he was hung with a rope that had dispatched seven Black men before Arp. Sherman Arp’s execution, the sale of his corpse, and the suggestion that Arp was hung with the same noose used in an 1888 lynching underscore the breadth of anti-Black injustice in late 19th-century America.
Sherman Arp was born in Georgia in about 1868 and by his own account went to Alabama in 1880, where he married in September 1885. Arp and his wife had two children when Sherman was charged with the July 1891 murder of George Pogue. The Coosa River News reported in July that Pogue had been ill and his “death had been expected sooner or later, from his diseased condition, but on inspection by Dr. Elliott it was found that Mr. Pogue had been foully murdered with an axe.” Initially the murder was reported as a robbery, but in October one account identified a Black “man engaged in illegal whiskey selling,” Will Cantrell, murdered Pogue “to prevent Pogue from reporting him.” Cantrell was arrested in Georgia in early October, but he had been released by October 23rd, when it was reported that Sherman Arp was one of five men who had conspired to rob and murder Pogue. Three Black men–Arp, Alf Glenn and Abe Dixon–had been identified as conspirators with a pair of white moonshiners, Alex Burkhalter and Green Leath. Newspaper reports provided contradictory accounts of Pogue’s murder, but Glenn and Dixon had apparently had no role in the crime at all; Arp reportedly indicated he killed the elderly man in a robbery instigated by Burkhalter and Leath while at the two moonshiners’ gunpoints.
Arp was captured in Rome, Georgia, and the Centre Alabama newspaper reported that the Rome Sheriff “refuses yet to give up Arp to the authorities here, as he (Arp) claims he fears lynching if brought into this section.” A day later, though, the Sheriff took Arp back to Cedar Bluff, Alabama, where he joined Glenn, Dixon, Burkhalter, and Leath; however, the judge released the other four and committed Arp to jail to await trial. As Arp feared, “Immediately upon the announcement of the decision, the large crowd which was present, made a dash for Arp and attempted to kill him, but Sheriff Blair and Deputy Angel drew their guns and stood the would be lynchers off, until the officers got the negro in a buggy and drove rapidly out of Cedar Bluff. The mob was unmasked and would have dealt short justice if they could have got their hands on Arp.”
In July 1892 Arp went to trial, and on July 29 he was found guilty of murder and it was “recommended that he be hanged by the neck until he is dead, dead! dead!” He was to be hung within the week, but Arp was spared by a state Supreme Court review. The State Supreme Court rejected Arp’s appeal on January 26, 1893 and set his execution for March 10. As Arp awaited his execution he was a witness in the February trial of Burkhalter and Leath, when the two accused conspirators were found innocent. A week after their trial Arp was being imprisoned in an unheated chicken coop where his feet and hands had suffered frostbite. By February 23rd he could hear the gallows being constructed in earshot of the jail cell he had been moved to in preparation for his execution. Arp did indeed go to the gallows on March 10th, with one witness declaring that “He was as game a human as ever stood upon scaffol [sic].”
Arp reputedly was hung by a “historic rope” owned by Floyd County, Georgia that had been used to hang seven other men before Arp. The Coosa River News reported that the “rope with which Arp was executed, was the instrument of seven hangings prior to its use upon Sherman. One of these was a lynching at Summerville, Ga.” It is not clear if Arp was indeed hung by the same rope used in previous murders or executions, but in May 1888 Henry Pope was lynched in Summerville, Georgia after being seized from the Chattooga County jail. Pope had been charged with rape, twice stood trial, and was convicted for a second time in March 1888. Pope was scheduled for execution in May, but five white citizens testified that Pope had not been at the scene of the rape, and he was given a reprieve by Georgia Governor John Brown Gordon. Hearing that news, a mob raided the jail on May 1, 1888 and hung Pope. Regardless of whether Arp had shared the same noose as Pope, the invocation of the lynching cast Arp’s own execution as part of a justice system that included lynching.
In perhaps the final dehumanization of Sherman Arp, he sold his body to a local physician. By most accounts he hawked his body by the pound. A Montgomery newspaper reported that in the week before his execution Arp informed local physicians he “desired to be weighed like a hog and sold by the pound” following an auction between those doctors. Of those physicians, “Dr. Will Darnell raised the bid to 8 cents per pound and the trade was closed. Arp went on a pair of scales and was weighed. He tipped the beam at 158 pounds. Dr. Darnell then figured up the amount and paid over to Arp $12.48 in cash and Arp gave the doctor an order for his body. Arp then proceeded to blow the money for good things to eat and drink and while it lasted he had a rousing big time.” However, one report a week later indicated that the auction tale was fictional and Arp had instead received a flat fee of $10. A week after Arp’s execution the newspaper provided an unsettling aside on masculinity and the Black corpse when it reported that “The physicians have been desecting [sic] Arp’s body since his execution. He was a well developed specimen of physical manhood.”
This narrative witnessing to Sherman Arp’s fate risks fixating only on the final tragic part of his life, but his story underscores the ways racism constrained and valued Black life. Exacting justice on Arp by inflicting frostbite before his execution—and then hawking his corpse for dissection—underscores the ways that racist justice was projected onto Black bodies. The fascination with the rope that had reputedly served as both hangman’s and lynchers’ noose reflected the ways execution and lynching were both accepted sentences in a racist justice system. In 1964, a historical account in Centre’s Cherokee County Herald confirmed the interchangeability of execution and lynching in historical memory. Clyde Walden Reed reminisced that “We had a few lynchings in those days, also hangings by court order. I remember when Sherman Arp was hanged Oct. 10, 1893 [sic].” Rather than suggest that Arp’s story is an aberration in the American experience, it instead is precisely the sort of dehumanizing indignity that racist injustice imposed on many now-anonymous targets even as it delivered an implicit warning to Black observers.
In 1915 Tom Brooks was murdered in Somerville, Tennessee by a mob of 100-200 White men. Brooks had been accused of murdering a wealthy White planter and his plantation manager, and when he was being returned to Somerville to stand trial a week later, a mob seized him from police. The vigilantes took Brooks to a nearby railroad bridge where he was hung, and Brooks’ murder was followed by a commonplace ritual of photographing the victim. Arkansas’ Batesville Daily Guard was among the newspapers that reported “when the news spread that there was a negro hanging beneath the bridge, all the town folk of Fayette [County] turned out to view the work of the mob. Hundreds of kodaks clicked all morning at the scene and picture card photographers installed a portable printing plant on the ground and reaped a harvest in selling postcards showing a photograph of the lynched negro” (compare press coverage including The Crisis, Nashville’s The Tennessean, and Vicksburg, Mississippi’s The Daily Herald).
On April 26th the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opens in Montgomery, Alabama commemorating Brooks and over 4400 Black victims of lynching. In preparation for its opening, 60 Minutes’ Oprah Winfrey reported on the museum and the heritage of lynching, and the report included examples of the scores of lynching images that were taken during the racial terror killings of people like Tom Brooks. 60 Minutes chose to show images of lynching in prime time, even as they acknowledged that these pictures are enormously unsettling things: contemporary White audiences are perhaps ashamed to acknowledge the social tolerance for (if not acceptance of) vigilante mob murders; many people are repulsed by the images’ ghastly materiality of torture; and a few consider lynching an anomaly safely lodged in the past, if not a misrepresentation of objective history (compare David Horowitz’s argument that the museum is a “racist project” and suggestion that “many” lynching victims “were guilty of heinous crimes”). Read the rest of this entry
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