Lynching is as American as cherry pie. It continues to be the “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday first sang about in 1939: Black body swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. This brutal form of mob violence spread across the South after the Civil War but it never found fertile soil in Connecticut. Well, not quite.
The noose began to make a comeback as the racist symbol of choice in Jena. Louisiana in 2006. More than just a reminder of racist terror, the knotted rope is in fact a death threat, designed to produce a chilling effect on the struggle for equality.
There have been 4,743 documented lynchings in the United States since the 1800’s, according to statistics first collected by the Tuskegee Institute. Black men have been the overwhelming target, but black women and children have been lynched as well. Connecticut is one of only six states that has no recorded lynching deaths. But while we don’t appear on that shameful list, our state had its share of near misses:
William Morrison of Bridgeport was accused by a mob of attacking an elderly white woman in 1899, but the local authorities prevented his lynching;
Frank Smith was saved from a South Norwalk lynch mob in 1907 when he was charged with molesting a child;
William Taylor was almost lynched in 1912 when a crowd tied his hands, placed a noose around his neck and dragged him through the town of Derby. The crowd took him to the home of the alleged victim, a young white woman who denied that Taylor had assaulted her. A judge later nolled the charges against the mob’s ringleaders;
That same year, Davis Boland would certainly have been lynched in a dispute during a railroad strike, but instead, he and his opponent were both wounded in a gun battle and police arrested Boland.
In each one of these cases, white Connecticut citizens were prepared to take the law into their own hands, stopped only when legal authorities intervened.
The anti-lynching movement was organized throughout the U.S. in response to this epidemic of violence against African Americans. In church halls and union halls, Hartford people were inspired by visits of famous civil rights advocates who came to the city in order to take on the lynching epidemic.
Booker T. Washington, educator and Tuskegee founder, spoke to local admirers to urge action against the violence. Writer James Weldon Johnson, a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, also stopped here and demanded that Congress pass the Dyer bill in Congress which would impose criminal penalties for those who allowed lynchings to take place (Johnson may be most famous for composing the lyrics to Lift Every Voice and Sing). And the widow of black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar urged government action against the brutal tactic.
In Hartford, local committees with names like the Anti-Lynching Crusaders and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Club organized to condemn the practice. The city’s own Mary Townsend Seymour, known for her work in civil rights, women’s suffrage, and labor organizing also took up the cause. In 1919 at the downtown Center Church, she decried the murder of African American veterans who were lynched in their uniforms by howling crowds not long after the World War armistice was signed.
Hate speech is protected by law, but death threats are not. The noose is more than just an ugly symptom of homegrown terrorism. It is an attempt to intimidate our co-workers and neighbors with lawless aggression, as deadly today as it was throughout the 1900s. The Southern Poverty Law Center points to a 40% rise in hate groups in recent years as well as an astonishing 190,000 hate incidents a year recorded by the U.S. Department of Justice. The civil rights group urges us to take such incidents seriously and not dismiss them as pranks. “Regardless of the perpetrator’s intent, the noose and other hate symbols still have the power to signal violence – a power that not everyone recognizes,” writes the center’s Carrie Kilman.
The challenge to call out the racist nature of this hateful symbol is as important now as it was to Mary Townsend Seymour ninety years ago.