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Strange fruit

A collection of lynching photos holds a painful mirror to Southern history


Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood on the root

Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

-- Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," lyrics by Lewis Anderson

The photograph shows a man suspended from a tree. Arms bound behind his back, his feet dangle and his head hangs with eyes closed. His trousers have been jerked down his legs, exposing buttocks pressing against tree bark. His naked front has been covered with a piece of cloth.

Whatever his innocence or guilt, the image bears witness to a brutal death and an ultimate violation of human dignity. What makes the image truly perverse are the faces of his ad hoc executioners, posing behind a freshly hewn pine coffin for a photographer who saved their deed for posterity. Above their grins, a horizontal shadow across the top of the tree -- unintentionally created by a light leak in the camera -- casts the image of a cross.

The photograph looks as if it could have been taken in Rwanda or Kosovo, but it shows the death of John Richards at the hands of a lynch mob outside Goldsboro, N.C., on Jan. 12, 1916. Accused of robbing and murdering a farmer named Anderson Gurley, Richards was pulled by a crowd of 100 people from his cell in the Wayne County jail. He apparently was castrated and then shot to death after being dragged to the site of the murder. Purchased several years ago by Atlanta collector Jim Allen at an auction in California, the photograph and 97 similar images are part of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, a collection of postcards and photographs documenting an epidemic of vigilante violence and racial killings, particularly in the South, at the turn of the 20th century. Long a taboo subject intertwined with the original sin of slavery, America's penchant for lynching was exposed by jazz great Billie Holiday in her Depression-era rendition of "Strange Fruit," a song named "Best of the Century" by Time Magazine in December of 1999.

Without Sanctuary is again dragging those memories into mainstream consciousness. Allen's book has drawn a strange mix of horror, shame and fascination -- and national and international attention -- since its publication in January. An exhibit of the Allen-Littlefield collection, including the photograph of John Richards, stunned record crowds earlier this year at the New York Historical Society Museum. Without Sanctuary has been the subject of a New York Times editorial hailing its significance. It has been featured on nearly every American television network and the BBC. Produced by Twin Palms Press, a small art press in Santa Fe, N.M., the book is in its third printing and has reached as high as No. 4 on's best seller list in Germany. Response to an online magazine that presents the book in full has been overwhelming.

"We knew this project was powerful and had potential to change things, or at least stir up conversations," says Allen, who loaned his collection to Emory University several years ago. "As a Southerner, I really wanted this effort to come out of the South. We were offered a lot of money for these photos by someone who wanted to donate the collection to Harvard, but I didn't want to do that. I would have liked the exhibit to open first somewhere in the South, but no one wanted to talk about it."

That didn't happen. But, now, Emory's gingerly exploring the possibility of displaying the photographs in Atlanta.

Shocking, potentially incendiary, the book has received marginal attention in the South and been virtually ignored by the conservative press. Some critics have asked why Allen's nearly century-old post cards are relevant, while others have wondered whether they would have been better left buried. According to Allen, The Wall Street Journal was the first national newspaper to interview him -- weeks before the book was released -- but the story was killed without explanation.

The book has arrived, however, as a number of cities across the South are making amends for the history it documents, through posthumous exonerations, reparations to surviving victims of racial violence, and long overdue prosecutions of suspected murderers from the civil rights era. For a culture trying to come to terms with its past -- in a time when hate crimes are still headline stories and debate rages over Confederate flags flying over some Southern capitals -- Without Sanctuary seems to have struck a nerve.

"I don't think there's ever been a collection like this, and the phenomenon of the book is fascinating," says Jacquelyn Hall, director of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. "I think part of it is not just that these are photographs, but many of them were postcards -- the idea that people bought them, wrote on them, sent them to people, used them as souvenirs. There's also something about the visual image that breaks through the sense that history is ancient and something that doesn't affect us today. One thing that happens in our culture is we face each other with different memories, layers and layers of memories. These things are part of the collective memory of the black communities, but they aren't the memories of white communities. These aren't the stories that are handed down."

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