By Mary Trent
A photographer’s flash illuminates a crowd gathered at night looking up at the branches of a tree. Several onlookers turn to make eye contact with the camera. One points at the branches above to draw the viewer’s gaze to the subject of the crowd’s attention. Yet, nothing is there but a dark emptiness. A notation scratched into the photograph’s emulsion marks the location as the small city of Marion, Indiana, and the date as August 7, 1930. On that day, a (warning: the original violent image will be visible if you click on the following link) notorious lynching occurred of two young African American men—Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith—who had been arrested as suspects in a robbery, murder, and rape case. After their arrest, word spread fast across Indiana that an unofficial hanging of the men was planned. A crowd of thousands, many of whom had traveled to Marion by train for the event, broke into the jail. Unwilling to await a trial, they dragged the young men out, brutally beat and killed them, hanging their bodies from a tree in the courthouse yard.
Photography and lynching
Local photographer Lawrence Beitler captured the crowd posing below the bodies of Shipp and Smith. He printed and sold thousands of copies. Lynching photographs like this one proliferated in the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century. Friends and family collected them, shared them, and even mailed them as postcards. The trend was so popular that the U.S. Postal Service had to ban their distribution via mail in 1908, though they continued to be shared in other ways. Later, they would largely be forgotten by the public until a New York exhibition of a private collection of 145 such photographs resurfaced them in 2000, resulting in subsequent publications and exhibitions.
In 2002, Ken Gonzales-Day began to research and manipulate these newly unearthed photographs of historical lynchings in the United States. Using Adobe Photoshop, he removed the victims’ bodies and the ropes from dozens of images, including Beitler’s. He then reprinted them at a similar size and on cardstock to replicate the scale and materiality of the original works, as in the example above. By removing the brutally beaten bodies like Shipp’s and Smith’s, his images prevent re-victimizing the subjects of the violence. They also avoid shocking contemporary audiences and creating feelings of helplessness . Additionally, they resist the fetishistic, sadistic spectatorship of viewing abused Black bodies. Nevertheless, the artist retains his subjects’ identities. If it is known or can be uncovered through his research, Gonzales-Day adds the victims’ names to the titles, along with the dates and locations of their deaths. In this way, his image still honors the memory of the victims. It is almost as if his photographs have respectfully taken down and properly buried the bodies, while exposing the crowds to the viewers’ gaze.
The above photograph belongs to Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynchings series, which shifts contemporary viewers’ focus to the men, women, and children socializing underneath. Pressed closely together with some smiling, the crowds seem to enjoy the empowerment brought about by their collective action and ritual, and to invite the viewer into the celebration. In fact, the original images were celebratory assertions of a white community’s power, which was meant to extend to any willing white witness of the event or its photographic depiction.
These images also functioned as weapons of terror. They were part of a broader campaign to threaten Black communities in the post-Civil War era. These threats were directed at Black claims for political, social, or economic equality with white people, such as attempting to vote.
To read full essay visit smarthistory
Dr. Mary Trent, “Ken Gonzales-Day, Erased Lynching Series,” in Smarthistory, November 1, 2022, accessed November 2, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/ken-gonzales-day-erased-lynching-series/.