Lynching in the North

An exhibit celebrating Indiana’s bicentennial at the Indiana State Museum—Indiana in 200 Objects—declined to whitewash Indiana history. In one corner of the exhibit was a sign, warning that some of the items in this area of the exhibit may be upsetting. The warning explained that history involves good and bad—and that the bad should not be pushed aside and forgotten.

I found myself face to face with a black and white photo. Two black men hanging from a tree. Limp and clearly dead. Below the bodies a throng of white men, women, and children filled the camera frame. It was a celebratory scene for them. And a sickening for me.

The exhibit made the point that while we think of lynchings as being a monopoly of the South, this one took place in the North. In Marion, Indiana in 1930.

Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith found themselves arrested for the murder of a white man and the rape of a white woman (who later recanted her accusation of rape). An angry mob used sledgehammers to break into the jail to string up Shipp and Smith. Police stood by and watched.

Next to the photograph was a video screen that played “Strange Fruit” with the lyrics printed out. The song describes lynchings in general, but was written in response to seeing this particular photo of the 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. In 1937, Abel Meeropol saw a copy of the 1930 photograph. Haunted by it, he composed a poem, “Bitter Fruit”, which was later turned into the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit”.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Like Meeropol, I am haunted by that photograph. And by Billie Holiday singing the words he penned.

When will we be free of rampant racism? The lynchings in the recent past have become the shootings of today. In moments of despair, it seems that little has changed but the medium used to inflict pain and death…and fear.

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