Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Reality

"Word deflation" has become almost epidemic in our society. For example, above-average sports performances are so often called "great" that the word has lost its meaning.

In sports, the word "great" was once worthy of being capitalized. It is supposed to refer to things so extraordinary that they are exceedingly rare, like Jesse Owns winning four gold medals in front of Hitler or Don Larsen pitching a perfect game in the World Series. Instead, it now gets used to refer to an NBA power forward scoring 31 points against a losing team in a regular season game. You can't blame a Millennial Generation sports fan for not finding it strange that Patrick Kane gets described with the same adjective that is synonymous with Wayne Gretzky.

Obviously, there are far more serious examples of word deflation. Those who argue for any military action, regardless of how limited or for what reason, are accused of "warmongering." Those who argue for major tax increases are called "Marxists" even if they've never said the government should control the country's means of production (admittedly, I myself have probably deflated the definition of "Marxist" a few times).

Perhaps the most pernicious example, however, is the cavalier use of the word "lynching." When people go public with their passionate opinions and others respond by passionately disagreeing, they often liken the response to "a public lynching." I know someone who said she experienced something "like a public lynching" when a whopping eleven individuals on a private Facebook timeline agreed with a blog post that did not even identify her but did disagree with one of her positions -- never mind that her name was not brought up on the timeline until the ninth of the eleven chimed in, and never mind that two of the eleven had then posted comments saying they would never criticize her by name in a public forum (full disclosure: The "lynch"-inducing blog post was written by me).

In any event, lynching has an actual definition. It means something specific in the English language, and even more specific in this country. Using it as an analogy for common and unremarkable human behavior (have you ever shared an opinion with five of your closest friends and had all of them agree with you?) is worse than bad form, and these days it happens so much we barely notice it. The problem is, this overuse numbs us to the reality of what lynching actually was and what it still could be. I suspect that when an actual historical lynching gets mentioned, most Americans barely pay attention because they've heard the word so much they've become inoculated against its horror.

I subscribe to the Faulkner school of thought which holds that "the past is never dead," and the Santayana school of thought which holds that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Knowledge of history is necessary for us to appreciate our blessings; to understand how easy it would have been for us to not receive them in the first place; and to realize that there is no guarantee we will continue to have them if we don't bother to defend them.

With that in mind, there is no better time than today -- the 116th anniversary of a particular man's death -- to think about what it really means to be lynched.

*     *     *     *     *

Newnan, Georgia is roughly 30 minutes from Atlanta and 90 minutes from my college town of Auburn, Alabama. As the seat of Coweta County, it features a handsome downtown and attractive courthouse. It is the birthplace of gold-hearted country singer Alan Jackson and the current home of a friend of mine from college. The people who live in Newnan are salt-of-the-earth types who treat individuals with respect, and they are that kind of people because their parents taught them to be.

But on April 23, 1899, something inhumane happened at Troutman Field just north of town, between Newnan and the smaller burg of Palmetto; and even though the incident garnered national attention at the time, it has been so forgotten in the interim that many of Coweta County's residents, even those from long-established families, have never heard of it.

In the 1870's a black baby was born in Macon County and given the name Tom Wilkes. At some point in his late teens or early twenties, he adopted the same Sam Hose and moved to Coweta County, where he was employed as a farmhand by Alfred and Mattie Cranford.

On April 12, 1899, Alfred Cranford was murdered in his home when somebody split his head with an axe. Authorities quickly suspected Hose, and in addition to accusing him of murdering Alfred, they also accused him of raping Mattie. The fact that he was fairly new to the area and lacked a local network of friends to vouch for him may have contributed to him being so quickly fingered.

Reports from the time described Mattie as being either "deranged" or "crazed" or "unbalanced" or "unconscious for two days" after the incident. Regardless of whether any of those words were accurate, it does not appear that she ever identified Hose as being either her husband's killer or her own rapist. Nonetheless, a number of prominent people and entities -- namely, the Atlanta Constitution, Governor Allen Candler, the Coweta County government, the town of Pametto, and Capital City National Bank President Jacob Haas -- together offered $1,600 in reward money, which would equal about $46,000 today.

At some point close to when the incident occurred, Hose left Coweta County to visit his mother, who was ill, in Macon County. Some contemporaneous reports indicated that on the day Cranford was killed, Hose requested time off to visit his mother and Cranford denied the request, leading to an argument in which Cranford brandished a gun and Hose used his axe (which he was holding because he had come inside from working) to defend himself. Other reports claim that Hose had already left by the time Cranford was killed, and others of course claim that Hose killed him in cold blood. The bottom line is that nobody knows which is true.

Several days later, J.B. and J.L. Jones, who owned the farm on which Hose's mother worked, were informed by another worker that Hose was on the property at his mother's cabin. Aware of the reward money and seeing dollar signs in their eyes, they conspired with the other worker to lure Hose into a nighttime trap, and thus they captured and bound him on April 22nd.

Because they had to personally deliver him to the authorities in Atlanta to receive the reward -- and knew that vigilantes were out to get him, and that newspaper pictures had made his face known to the general public -- the Jones brothers felt the need to disguise him en route to Atlanta. Therefore they covered him with a raincoat to hide his shackles and powdered his skin to make him appear a shade darker. However, their plan didn't work because when the train stopped at Griffin, the last stop before Atlanta, a passenger eyed the trio and alerted railroad workers. Reportedly, someone yelled: "The Palmetto killer! The nigger's here in the cars!"

Within moments, vengeance-minded people swept through the train and carried Hose off at gunpoint. A separate train, consisting of only one coach car in addition to the locomotive and coal car, was quickly assembled to transport him to Newnan. Roughly 150 "escorts," most if not all of whom were armed, crammed into it to make sure he did not escape en route. When the train arrived, mob justice was waiting.

*     *     *     *     *

Sam Hose received no trial. Humans denied him the very rights that the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution assert were given to him by God. Those hallowed documents assert that humans may not deprive their fellow humans of God-given rights, but on April 23, 1899, humans did precisely that to Sam Hose.

When we think of lynching, we tend to think... actually, we tend not to think. Instead, we abstractly realize that people died but shrug their deaths off as happening long ago and far away, even though they weren't long ago and definitely weren't far way. We tend to minimize the fact that the deceased were human beings just like ourselves. We don't ponder the sad prospect that at some point in the future, people might consider our lives and experiences to be distant and irrelevant to theirs -- the same way that too many of us consider the lives and experiences of human beings in the 1890's to be distant and irrelevant to our own. Too many of us fail to comprehend that history is a loop in which we are all players, that the actions of people in one generation create circumstances that affect the next; and that for precisely that reason, we must never forget what happened before we took life's stage.

When we hear the word "lynching," we tend to think that a person died many years ago but the world has progressed. We tend to think that they were hanged, and in so doing we tend to think that they suffered several seconds of breath-gasping but quickly blacked out and never woke up. We can unwittingly trick our minds into thinking their deaths were fast and not too painful, and the next thing you know, we never get around to contemplating the horror they must have experienced.

But here is what really happened to people back when lynching was stunningly commonplace in this ethically conceived nation, and you need not take my word for it -- instead, take the words of articles that were written at the time, like this one from the Springfield Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts, reporting on Sam Hose's death:

Before the torch was applied to the pyre, the negro was deprived of his ears, fingers and genital parts of his body... Before the body was cool, it was cut to pieces, the bones were crushed into small bits... (His) heart was cut into several pieces, as was also his liver... Small pieces of bones went for 25 cents, and a bit of liver crisply cooked sold for 10 cents.

Notice the nonchalant nature of the words, how the murder of a human being is described as antiseptically as the dissection of a fish in a high school science class... Notice the use of the word "negro" instead of "man"... And keep in mind that Hose being "deprived of" his ears, fingers and genitals (i.e., having them cut off with knives) occurred while he was still alive and very much awake.

According to this thoroughly researched book by Phillip Dray, Hose kept his fear hidden until he saw sunlight reflect off the blade of someone's knife, after which he pleaded that the mob kill him quickly. Of course, his plea was denied because "the mob's act of retribution would be considered something of a failure if Hose did not die a prolonged, painful death."

He was stripped of his clothes and tied to a pine trunk atop a pyre, which had been built of lumber, limbs, fence posts, and railroad ties. Dray provides the following account of the lynching:

The torture of the victim lasted almost half an hour. It began when a man stepped forward and very matter-of-factly sliced off Hose's ears. Then several men grabbed Hose's arms and held them forward so his fingers could be severed one by one and shown to the crowd. Finally, a blade was passed between his thighs. Hose cried in agony, and a moment later his genitals were held aloft.

From the crude incisions he'd suffered, the bound, naked man was soon covered with bright crimson blood from head to foot, and must have appeared at last to be the "black devil" the newspapers had made him out to be all along. It was the last clear glimpse the crowd had of him, for with the command "Come on with the oil!" three men lifted the large can of kerosene and dumped its contents over Sam Hose's head, and the pyre was set ablaze.

"Sweet Jesus!" Hose was heard to exclaim, and these were believed to be his last words. As the flames began licking at his legs and smoke entered his nose, eyes, and mouth he turned his head desperately from side to side. To the crowd's astonishment he somehow managed to reach back and, pushing with all his might against the tree to which he was chained, snapped the bonds around his chest, bursting a blood vessel in his neck with the strain of his exertions. For a moment it appeared this writhing, half-dead apparition might break free and stagger into the crowd, but the whites rushed forward and, using several large, heavy pieces of wood, pushed him back into the fire and pinned him down. One of these logs was near his head, and with a last desperate effort Hose grimaced and sank his teeth into it, then died.

Word of Hose's capture reached Atlanta before the lynching was carried out. So, too, did word that the lynching was planned, and trains were hastily chartered to transport people to Newnan so they could watch it like spectators at a sporting event. Therefore, when the sun climbed into the sky on April 24th, W.E.B. Du Bois was very much aware of what had happened outside of Newnan the day before.

31 years old at the time and already a renowned author, Du Bois had been living in Atlanta for two years. Troubled by what he had already learned while researching lynching, and by the fact that Sam Hose had just been lynched not far from where he lived, Du Bois decided to do something about it. He donned his best clothes, grabbed his walking cane, left his home, and began walking through downtown. He carried with him a letter of introduction to Joe Harris, an editorial writer for the Atlanta Constitution who openly supported black rights and condemned lynching.

Du Bois's intention, as he later told it, was to speak with Harris and "try to put before the South what happened in cases of this sort, and try to see if I couldn't start some sort of movement." As he made his way down Mitchell Street, however, he heard that Sam Hose's knuckles had been brought to Atlanta and were on sale at a grocery store mere blocks away. This news delivered a shock that Du Bois said "pulled me off my feet," and likely drove him to fear. It prodded him to turn around and head back home, and his hoped-for meeting with Harris never happened.

*     *     *     *     *

That, my friends, is what it means to be lynched. And the victims of every lynching include more than the person who was actually lynched.

Consider the case of Sam Hose. He was of course the primary victim, but when you read about the horrors of his final hour, it becomes easy to forget that Alfred Cranford also died a horrific death when the blade of an axe was smashed into his skull eleven days earlier.

Then there was Mattie Cranford, who, at best, witnessed the killing of her husband; or, at worst, witnessed his killing and was then immediately and violently raped while his corpse laid nearby. Mattie was only 24 at the time and died just 23 years later, after moving inside of Newnan's town limits and living a sullen life, sewing to support her family and rarely leaving the house

Which brings us to the matter of her and Alfred's children. Obviously, they were left fatherless by the events of 1899, but what I did not mention above is that they were also injured during the attack that left their father dead. The youngest son, Clifford, was blinded in his left eye.

All black residents in the area were victims, in that they must have lived the remainder of their lives on a razor's edge of fear, knowing what fate could befall them if somebody decided to accuse them of a crime.

Hose's mother was a victim, left ill and frail and without her son.

The consciences of white people in the area -- those who were sickened by the wickedness of the lynching yet had to keep living amid those who did it -- were also victims

Honor was a victim because the Newnan residents who tried to stop the lynching -- one of whom was a former governor, William Yates Atkinson -- never got the recognition they deserved.

Truth was a victim because there is no way to know if Hose was innocent or guilty of killing Alfred and raping Mattie.

Justice was a victim because Hose was killed without proof of wrongdoing, without even being allowed to defend himself... and justice was also a victim because if Hose was in fact innocent, then it means the killer walked free and remained able to harm others.

W.E.B. Du Bois's faith in humanity and the United States were victims, for he lost them both and understandably so. Although he went on to have a long and decent life, often advocating for civil rights and not dying until the age of 95, it is a stain on our history that one of our most brilliant minds wound up feeling compelled to flee into the arms of Communist sympathizing; and I can't help but wonder if the lynching of San Hose was a major reason that happened.

And, though it is easy not to think about them, the souls of some of the people who participated in the lynching were victims, as were the souls of some of the people who watched and enjoyed it. It has been said that several perpetrators struggled with emotional problems for the remainder of their days. In 2006, a Coweta County retiree said that an older relative once confessed to having participated in the lynching and to spending the rest of his life struggling to come to terms with his actions that night. The anguish of the guilty in this case was as nothing compared to the anguish of the innocent -- and I suspect it was no different than the anguish of Marley's ghost, who declared "I wear the chain I forged in life" -- yet I do believe that for some of them, it was just as sincere as it was deserved.

But here is the ultimate kicker: The lynching of Sam Hose was not even remotely unique. According to the Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive, there were 4,743 documented lynchings in this country between 1882 and 1968, with the victims being black in almost three-fourths of them. This equates to 55 per year, which is an average of more than one per week. That average was certainly higher during the early decades of the period in question, and would probably be higher still if statistics were known for the years between 1865 (when the Civil War ended) and 1882.

Lynching was a real phenomenon and was not confined to the distant past. We should never forget that. And when somebody claims that they feel like they were lynched because they were the subject of criticism or jokes, we should tell them we understand that the experience had to hurt -- and then we should gently explain to them what it really means to be lynched.

Addendum:  There is an interesting side note regarding Joe Harris, the editorial writer that W.E.B. Du Bois intended to meet with. Although he went by Joe Harris as a journalist, people today are more likely to know him by his full given name, Joel Chandler Harris, under which he wrote the Uncle Remus stories when he was younger.

No comments: