Where – and When – Do We Read Books about Lynching?

I know where to get books about lynching: library, online, book store.  But where  – and when – do we read them?

Before I go to sleep at night, I’ve been reading Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching, and Reckoning  by Claude A. Clegg III which is probably not the choice of Sleep Specialists.  It’s about a triple lynching in Rowan County, NC where my mother was born and my father grew up.  Between 31,000 and 37,000 people lived in Rowan County in 1906 – the year of the lynching and this account states that about 2000 witnessed the lynching of Nease Gillespie (age 55), his son John Gillespie (age 14, 15, or 16) and Jack Dillingham (in his late 20s or early 30s) for the murder of Isaac Lyerly (age 68), Augusta Barringer Lyerly (age 42), John H. Lyerly (age 8), and Alice Lyerly (age 6.)

The three black men may or may not have had anything to do with the murders.  They never confessed to the crime, even in the terrifying moments before they died, according to witnesses.  But on the night of August 5, 1906, they were arrested, removed from the Salisbury, NC jail without trial, hanged, tortured, cut, and shot in front of a crowd of about 2000 onlookers.  Many witnesses took home souvenirs of flesh.

My grandfather was 11 years Old at the time and it’s possible that he or members of his family witnessed that horror – or that he and family members visited the site of the lynching in the days to follow.  People did this.

So when do we – white people – educate ourselves about the realities of white privilege in our nation’s history by reading books about such horrors?  By the pool this summer?  Out on a patio sipping adult beverages?  Before we hit the pillow at night?

Students – I hope –  are assigned these books in class.  But what about those of us who are long past formal schooling?

There are book groups, of course.  There are lectures by the authors.  But my greatest hope is that we also read books that make us uncomfortable in Church.  (Note:  yes we should be reading the Bible too and if the Bible doesn’t make us uncomfortable then we aren’t reading very closely.)

While lots of young and old Presbyterians from Charlotte have been touring Birmingham and Montgomery and Memphis this week, we need to make our own pilgrimages of pain to those places.  I know I’m headed to Salisbury soon to a place once called Henderson Park, about a quarter mile south of the intersection of N. Long Street and Bringle Ferry Road.

Where will you be reading books about lynching?  And where will you be traveling to learn more about a particularly evil part of our history?

Dr. Claude A. Clegg III is Lyle V. Jones Distinguished Professor in African, African American, and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Salisbury, NC is his hometown.

2 responses to “Where – and When – Do We Read Books about Lynching?

  1. I read about lynching a month ago and wrote about it on my blog. It was definitely not pleasant to read. A black man among my friends in my retirement center recommended it, and some of us read it.

    I’m also aware of the lynching that took place in 1906 on the south end of the Walnut Street Bridge in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. My first church was at the north end of that bridge, as shown in these photos on my blog.

    Here’s a Wikipedia article about that 1906 lynching, and you can find more information about the bridge on Wikipedia, if you’re interested.

    I agree with you that we white people should read about lynchings and other atrocities that we’d rather not think about. Being able to shove these things aside is part of our white privilege. If you ever get a chance to join a group studying Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk about Race and How to Do It by Shelley Tochluk (2010), I highly recommend it. If you can’t find a group, maybe you’d be interested in reading the book on your own. I wrote about it on my blog in 2015. See #3 of a Friday Five I wrote in response to a RevGalBlogPals prompt:

    You write about such interesting subjects. Thanks. (Hmm, I may have to make this a blog post.)


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