Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

John Samuel Tieman: The Lynching Museum — A Pilgrimage

Truth and reconciliation are sequential.
You can’t have reconciliation until you have truth.

— Bryan Stevenson

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On the 28 April 1836, the steamboat “Flora” docked in St. Louis. The “Lady Jackson” was berthed near-by. Francis McIntosh, the cook aboard the “Flora”, went to visit a chambermaid aboard the “Lady Jackson”. McIntosh was a mixed race freeman. As he left the “Flora”, two policemen ran by, policemen in pursuit of another sailor involved in a fight. They ordered McIntosh to aid them in the apprehension. He refused. So McIntosh was arrested for interfering with an arrest. He was cooperative. At the justice of the peace, he asked about a possible sentence. A constable said he would get five years. McIntosh panicked. He made a desperate dash for freedom, killing one officer and stabbing the other. He fled down Market Street, but was captured and jailed. A mob soon broke into the jail, and took him to the outskirts of town, 7thand Chestnut Streets. They chained him to a locust tree, piled wood up to his knees, and burned him. When someone in the crowd thought he was dead, McIntosh cried, “No. No. I feel as much as any of you. Shoot me. Shoot me.” An alderman threatened to shoot anyone who would speed the man’s death. He took twenty minutes to die. The mob numbered in the hundreds at a time when St. Louis numbered maybe 15,000. The next day, in an attempt to break the skull, boys threw rocks at the corpse.

There is no historical marker for Francis McIntosh. At 7thand Chestnut now, there are office buildings, a plaza, a Hooters. His few known words will have to be his memorial. “I feel as much as any of you,” he said. “I feel as much as any of you.”

—–

By way of introduction, we’re white. My beloved is a psychoanalyst. I am a retired teacher. We’re native to St. Louis, and in our sixties.

My wife and I were watching “60 Minutes” when we heard Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. He founded the National Memorial For Peace And Justice, which commemorates African Americans killed in acts of “racial terror”. We didn’t simply want to go. We needed to go.

During our planning, our vocabulary changed from “vacation” to “pilgrimage,” as much a pilgrimage as any journey to Rome, Jerusalem, Canterbury, or Santiago De Compostela.

—–

August and it’s hot in Alabama. The memorial is outside. It’s surrounded by a kind of stockade. It sits on a rise, a black rectangle. We walked up a winding path with statues of slaves and explanatory plaques.

The memorial embodies the thesis that slavery did not end: it evolved.

They call them “statues”, rusting rectangles the size of small coffins, each inscribed with the state, county, and name or names of folks lynched in that county. As we entered the memorial, the statues are even with us. We have to walk around them. It’s like being in a thick forest. Phoebe and I lose sight of each other. As we wander further into the memorial, the floor descends, but the statues remain on the same plane. As the memorial descends, finally we are in a long corridor with the statues above us. Like a lynching. I think of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.

Lynching is clear: anyone who interferes with white supremacy will be killed.

But killing is not enough. Like Francis McIntosh, folks may be torn, tortured, burned, mutilated. Which still isn’t enough. Because the point isn’t simply terror. It’s submission.

I pause; I look up; I am overwhelmed by names. I read a plaque. “Dozens of men, women, and children, were lynched in a massacre in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917.” I remember my mother telling me how, as a girl, she stood on Wharf Street, and watched the east side burn. Another plaque reads, “A lynch mob of more than 1,000 men, women, and children, burned Zachariah Walker alive in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in 1911.” I pray softly, “I am so sorry this happened to you.” But I know my prayer is not enough.

Towards the end of the memorial, there is a plaque that reads –

For the hanged and beaten.
For the shot, drowned, and burned.
For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized.
For the abandoned by the rule of law.

We will remember.

With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.

 

—–

The memorial is a work or art, actually many works of art.

There is also a museum. The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Both the museum and the art are dedicated to the thesis – this cannot be repeated often enough – that slavery did not end. It evolved.

The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to end the ideas and conditions that made it possible. Thus did slavery evolve. In the years after the Civil War, the belief in racial hierarchy justified terrorism and exploitation. Thus the exhibits and displays of lynching, segregation, multi-generational poverty, the ghetto, inadequate education, unequal opportunity, mass incarceration. The museum itself is built on the site of a former warehouse where slaves were imprisoned. Folks were taken from here to an auction block just up the street, where there is now a lovely fountain. This is where they were sold.

At the back of the museum, there is a hall dedicated to the nobility of the human spirit. Photographs of folks, some of whom I admire and know so well that I whispered their first names or initials. Langston. W. E. B. . Booker T. . Zora Neale Hurston. A. Philip Randolph. Ida B. Wells. Then I saw the photograph of Paul Robeson. I could almost hear him singing “Joe Hill”. And I cried. No words. Nor explanation. No interpretation. I just cried.

I found my wife sitting before the photograph of an incarcerated woman. That’s where her tears fell.

—–

The next day, we visited The Confederate White House, the first executive mansion of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis lived here in 1861. It is a two storied Italianate mansion. Davis held cabinet meetings here. There were formal balls.

At one point, I whisper to my wife, “It’s a Scarlett O’Hara Theme Park.” Besides the building itself, on display are gowns and frock coats and all manner of formal wear. There are Confederate flags. It is a fantasy of the Old South.

The museum is dedicated to The Lost Cause. It extols the presumed virtues of the antebellum South. It views the Civil War as an honorable struggle to preserve those southern virtues. Such historiography, embodied in this house, operates as a form of intellectualization. It functions as a defense against all the pain white people caused. As near as we can tell, it doesn’t mention slavery at all.

Two little things struck me. They sell gray Confederate kepis. I couldn’t help but wonder where someone would wear such a thing.

I was also found curious the medal. The Southern Cross Of Honor. On the second floor, one of these medals is on display. During the war, the Confederate government authorized medals for bravery, but never had a chance to award them. So, in 1899, the United Daughters Of The Confederacy created the Southern Cross Of Honor. The first such medal was awarded in 1900 to Alexander S. Erwin, who fought at Gettysburg. I wonder how folks would feel if a Nazi was awarded a medal in 1980.

As we leave the house, it occurs to us that almost all of the Black folks here are the descendants of slaves. Black freemen were expelled from Alabama years before the war.

—–

My great-great-grand-uncle, John Wimer, was Mayor of St. Louis. He owned three slaves in 1850. An adult male, a teenaged male, and a female child. These he may have sold.

The 1860 census records that he by then owned an adult male, an adult female, and three children. A family perhaps. My family owned a family.

When I first found that census, I felt like I should make some grand thesis out of all this. But I just didn’t have such a thing then. I don’t have one now. All I’ve got is a kind of shudder.

Maybe that’s the realization, the shudder. The realization that, if slavery is America’s original sin, then I am not unblemished born. I am left with the feelings about the real that I can never understand. My family owned eight slaves. My family owned a family. For this do I shudder, and for this do I mourn.

The 1850 “slave schedule” reads as follows:

approximate age      gender           race                owner                         residence

6                                  female            mulatto           John M. Wimer         St. Louis, Missouri

13                               male               black              John M. Wimer         St. Louis, Missouri

27                               male               black              John M. Wimer         St. Louis, Missouri

 

The 1860 “slave schedule” reads:

 

38                               female            black              John M. Wimer         St. Louis, Missouri

35                               male               black              John M. Wimer         St. Louis, Missouri

14                               male               mulatto           John M. Wimer         St. Louis, Missouri

7                                  female            mulatto           John M. Wimer         St. Louis, Missouri

5                                  female            mulatto           John M. Wimer         St. Louis, Missouri

 

They asked the age, and this was recorded. They asked the gender, and this was recorded. They asked the race, and this was recorded. The location was obvious. The name of the owner was recorded. The slave’s name was not recorded. I inherited the only recorded first name, John. Wimer is my mother’s maiden name.

I consider the implications of mulatto children. I consider the whip.

Given that there were no more “slave schedules” by 1870, it is impossible to tell what became of these folks when Lt. Col. Wimer died in battle, fighting for the South, in 1863. Sold. Or perhaps inherited. What was it like to inherit human beings?

—–

16 January 1894. A Tuesday. St. Louis County, in 1894, was rural. A Black man, John Buckner, was arrested in Manchester, little more than a village in those days. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he was accused of assaulting two women, “Mrs. Al Mungo, the wife of a colored farmer”, and “Miss Alice, the daughter of his employer”, a white woman. He was arrested, taken before a justice of the peace, and was being held by a constable. He was to be transported to Clayton, the county seat, for trial.

In the near-by village of Valley Park, a mob formed. Shortly after midnight on the 17th, John Buckner was hanged from a railroad bridge over the Meramec River.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the flagship of the Pulitzer empire, was unblinking in its front page support of the mob. Its opening description of Buckner was “a negro ravisher”. The newspaper took delight in recounting Buckner’s cries for mercy. “Ten feet of rope had been allowed for the drop, and the wretch’s last scream was choked off before it was fairly uttered.” There was a sadistic glee in reporting how difficult his death was. “After waiting five minutes the body was hauled up to see if life was extinct; a roll of the negro’s eyes showed that he still lived and it was lowered again. For a quarter of an hour it hung before the mob dispersed.” There was talk of shooting up the body, which was not done out of decency but because of the lateness of the hour. “A verdict of suicide will be rendered if the citizens of Valley Park are put upon the Coroner’s jury.”

The Woods Mill Road bridge is in roughly the same location as the old bridge from which John Buckner hung. The area is now suburbia. There’s a small park, a Catholic church and its school, a Moto Mart. The bridge is just a few miles to the southwest of Ferguson, where, a little over a century later, Officer Darren Wilson would shoot Michael Brown.

—–

The last stop on our pilgrimage was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The tour of the church is more a service in the spirit of Dr. King, who became pastor in 1954. From here he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.

Wanda Battle, our tour guide, led us in song, in recitations of lines from “I Have A Dream”. She told us of her own struggles when she, a graduate of Spelman College, found herself homeless. How she found faith in this church. How Dr. King preached “from that very pulpit.” Like Dr. King, she preached with passion and joy and hope.

Alabama tried to obliterate this church through eminent domain. Fortunately, in 1974 the church was designated a National Historic Landmark.

We concluded by singing “We Shall Overcome”, singing that hymn in the basement of that church, on the very spot where that young martyr organized the boycott. My beloved and I were brought to tears.

—–

My father told this story. The early 1900’s. My great-something, I forget the name. The foothills of the Missouri Ozarks. He was sheriff of Crawford County. One night, a mob took from his custody a Black prisoner. They lynched him from a bridge. In the original telling of the story, my great-something was always overpowered by the mob.

One evening, my father, now in his old age, admitted that the sheriff willingly opened the jail’s door for the mob. My ancestor was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

My father had not told that truth in fifty years. Neither have I until now.

—–

I think of Frederick Douglass. In his Narrative, he speaks of the damage that slavery did to a white woman, Mrs. Auld. “When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.”

If slavery has evolved, then how has the damage, to the souls of white folks, evolved?

As we left Montgomery, as we drove north on Highway 65, visible for miles was a Confederate battle flag as big as a billboard. Below it was an enormous sign —

ALABAMA DIVISION

SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS

I again thought of that souvenir shop in the Confederate White House. They sold, among other things, gray Confederate kepis. I wondered where someone would wear such things. I no longer wonder. Folks wear them right here. And I am not speaking of Alabama. I am speaking of here. The United States.


 

Copyright 2018 John Samuel Tieman

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The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., remembers the thousands of victims of lynchings.

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