Burned at the Stake: A Black Man Pays for a Town’s Outrage

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From the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, the term “lynching” did not have any racial implications. Targets included Tories, horse thieves, gamblers, and abolitionists. But starting in the 1880s, mob violence was increasingly directed at African Americans. Between 1882 and 1964, nearly five thousand people died from lynching, the majority African-American. The 1890s witnessed the worst period of lynching in U.S. history. The grim statistical record almost certainly understates the story. Many lynchings were not recorded outside their immediate locality, and pure numbers do not convey the brutality of lynching. In early 1893, a white reporter, writing in the New York Sun, offered a grisly account of the burning at the stake in Paris, Texas, of a black man accused of molesting a white girl. As press accounts like this make clear, to witness a lynching—or even just glimpse its aftermath—could be a searing experience for those who were the most likely victims of the lynch mob—young African-American males. That, indeed, was the intention—the threat of lynching was a powerful mechanism for keeping black Southerners in line.

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