On Researching Lynchings, and Writing About Bad Things That Really Happened

The bulk of my writing work this summer has revolved around the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, a tumultuous and hugely traumatic event that I’ve been attempting to dramatize in Part 5 of my novel-in-progress, The Hyphenates of Jackson County. The riot, a well-known scar on Omaha’s history, one that is referred to from time to time in this space, was set off and punctuated by the lynching of Will Brown, an itinerant black worker who’d been accused of rape.

Omaha World-Herald, Sept. 29, 1919.

A lot of my previous work has dark themes, and I felt pretty well accustomed to portraying violence in my work. But I haven’t been as prepared for the kind of in-depth experience that researching and writing about a lynching has been. The darkness has kind of caught me by surprise sometimes–maybe because these bad things really happened, where the violence in my previous work was purely fictional. It isn’t something that can just be packed away at the end of the day, going through hundreds of horrific images with a mind toward depicting them, or getting inside the psyche of a character who would shoot at a hanging body and burn a corpse, or trying to imagine what that person who would be lynched might be thinking as their days and hours dwindled, before they were about to die in an infamous way.

Many of these things I researched happened in places I walk by everyday, as I work as a reporter at the Douglas County Courthouse, where the riot and lynching occurred. It was easy to be reminded, which, I suppose, was kind of the point of the project in the first place.

Most of my work was spent reading and re-reading local newspaper accounts of the riot–in microfilm copies of the World-Herald, Daily Bee, Daily News, and Monitor, the black weekly, from 1919. Some of the accounts are chilling. Eye witness and insider accounts. The riot built over the course of eight hours, so there was considerable news coverage. The Bee‘s headquarters was right across the street from the Douglas County Courthouse (where the Woodmen Tower stands now) at the epicenter of the riot. There are many photos, some graphic accounts. The news now is pretty tame in comparison to what it used to be like, in some ways.

Here’s how the Nebraska State Historical Society describes the lynching of Will Brown on their web site NebraskaStudies.org:

Brown ended up in the hands of the crazed mob. He was beaten into unconsciousness. His clothes were torn off by the time he reached the building’s doors. Then he was dragged to a nearby lamp pole on the south side of the courthouse at 18th and Harney around 11:00 p.m. The mob roared when they saw Brown, and a rope was placed around his neck. Brown was hoisted in the air, his body spinning. He was riddled with bullets. His body was then brought down, tied behind a car, and towed to the intersection of 17th and Dodge. There the body was burned with fuel taken from nearby red danger lamps and fire truck lanterns. Later, pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold for 10 cents each. Finally, Brown’s charred body was dragged through the city’s downtown streets.

The Omaha Race Riot happened toward the end of what James Weldon Johnson coined as the Red Summer, a period of months following the end of World War I when race riots gripped numerous major American cities. At least forty-three African-Americans were lynched in America, from January to September, in 1919. This was at the height of the Great Migration, at the same time as white soldiers were returning from service in Europe to find their old jobs filled, at the same time as labor disputes and strikes were common and heavily reported on by the Yellow Press, at the same time as the U.S. government was using global tension to crack down hard on any dissident group it didn’t like, and there were many they didn’t like. It isn’t surprising that so much violence broke out. What surprises is the utter glee with which that violence was undertaken.

I found that the more I read about the lynching of Will Brown, the harder it was to go through the rest of the day–which is as it should be when confronting such examples of dehumanization. It became necessary to split up the work, to take days off, to take time working on unrelated short fiction, so as to not walk around with a diseased soul all the time. To not be gripped with outrage and sadness.

In Tel Aviv I started writing by hand on a legal pad–out of necessity there, as I didn’t want to lug around a laptop overseas–and continued the practice here at home. It’s been very helpful to do this, in a surprising way. Not only have I kept writing on the legal pad, but I’ve done so outside of the house too. It’s been so much harder to write inside our house than it is to write outside of it. At first I thought it was a product of being bored in my office–where I do almost all of my work, thinking that the trip to Israel helped to bust loose some cobwebs–but I believe it’s been of a distancing method from the material on an emotional level more than anything. On some level, I think, I’m not really all that comfortable bringing this stuff into my house. It makes me nervous, or guilty, to write about a lynching across the hall from the room where my daughter sleeps. But if I’m outside our home–on the patio, at the Joslyn Sculpture Garden, at the courthouse itself, or out of the U.S. altogether–then the material comes out. I’m able to write about it. It’s been kind of strange, and I hope the work come off okay.

I’m almost done with the book. I’d been saving this stuff for last, not sure exactly how one writes about it.

Will Brown’s body was burned at 17th & Dodge Streets in Omaha. Photos like these were turned into souvenir postcards.

I’d like to share one of my online sources that I found particularly haunting–and that is the web site Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. (There’s a book also.) The site features hundreds of photos of lynchings from around the country. What’s even more disturbing, is that most of these photos were on postcards sold afterwards, in what has to be the darkest bit of Americana. They were found at flea markets and in private collections. Apparently quite a few of them are out there still.

Also, here is a database listing of lynchings by state, in case you’re interested.  Over the period of 1882-1968 the database covers, 4,743 people–of all races–were lynched in forty-one different states.

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2 thoughts on “On Researching Lynchings, and Writing About Bad Things That Really Happened

  1. Ohhh, my. My stomach was churning as I read this– I can’t even imagine how disturbing it must be for you, researching. But you seem to be handling it well with the days off and such. Good.

    1. I think part of it too is that I’m down at the courthouse for work everyday. If it wasn’t my city, or places I go often, there would be more distance built in. It’s been good though to feel my way through the process.

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