Lynchings of African-Americans were not uncommon in the United States, well into the last century. But like much of the history of racial tensions in America, the common notion is that these extrajudicial murders just happened south of the Mason-Dixon.
"People in the north tend to think of lynchings as a southern phenomenon, but actually it happened all over the country, including in the West and in the Midwest," explains Fran Kaplan, the coordinator of America's Black Holocaust Museum. The museum first opened its doors in 1988, but shuttered its physical location in 2008. ABHM is now a virtual museum, based in Milwaukee, that commemorates the history of lynchings in the United States.
The late founder of the museum, Dr. James Cameron, knew this all too well. To this day, he is the only known survivor of a lynching.
"It happened on August 7, 1930, in a little town called Marion, Indiana, and it was a defining moment in his life," says Reggie Jackson, the head griot of ABHM.
Cameron was just 16-years-old when he and two friends, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were accused of murdering a white man and raping his girlfriend (she later admitted this accusation was a lie). A mob broke into the jail where all three teenagers were being held. Shipp and Smith were beaten and hung from a tree, an act memorialized in one of the most iconic images of a lynching in the U.S. The graphic photo, which can be seen here, was cited as the inspiration for the poem and song Strange Fruit, which was famously performed by Billie Holiday.
After murdering his friends, the mob beat Cameron, then placed him between the dead teens with a noose around his neck. But in an act that Cameron described as a miracle, they let him go.
Cameron passed away in 2006, but relayed his experience in a memoir, A Time of Terror: A Survivor's Story. "He knew that the story he was telling was a story that no one else was able to tell," Jackson explains.
The book was written while Cameron was still in prison, serving time for the crime that he and his fellow lynching victims were accused of, although he was later pardoned by the state of Indiana.
"In some ways, this is the diary of the black Holocaust," says Kaplan, who compares the book to The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. "Really, no one else has written a book about growing up under Jim Crow, which is extreme segregation and racial terrorism, like Dr. Cameron was able to write it because he experienced some of the worst of that personally, not just the lynching."
One of the points Cameron stressed in the book is this idea that people to need to really look at the people being lynched in historical images, like the one showing his two friends. The physical ABHM featured several photos of lynchings, which many patrons objected to.
"People often would say to me when the physical museum was open, that the lynching images were there for shock value, but they really weren't. They were part of American history," Jackson explains.
The images are a unique window into the time period, showing the sometimes smiling or passive faces of white perpetrators next to the broken bodies of lynching victims. While jarring, Jackson says these photos are an important part of understanding the atrocities that took place throughout the United States.
"I think it's very hard for us to kind of reconcile that those things were so common, but it's part of the trauma that our nation has endured," he continues. "And we have to be willing to talk about that in an honest way in order to get past it, to understand how we got to where we are today."
The organization is hoping to reopen the physical museum, through funds raised in part at its annual Founder's Day Event in honor of James Cameron, on what would have been his 103rd birthday.
Both Jackson and Kaplan feel the importance of the museum has grown in light of recent events. Still, Kaplan sees hope amid the racial and ethnic tension present in the U.S. today.
"I've been working, doing anti-racism work, for fifty years now," she says. "I have never seen as much concern and interest and curiosity and openness on the part of white people, to the lived experiences of African-Americans, and to talking frankly about that and what we can do."
America's Black Holocaust Museum will hold its annual Founder's Day event this Saturday, February 25, at Centennial Hall at the Milwaukee Public Library.