One of many expressions of violence directed mostly towards African Americans following Reconstruction and lasting well into the twentieth century was lynching. According to one set of statistics, lynch mobs in the old Confederate states, including Tennessee, killed 2,805 people, roughly one victim every week, between 1882 and 1930. Tennessee had 214 confirmed lynch victims during this period; 37 victims were white, 177 were African American. An additional 34 remain as unreconciled listings. Tennessee ranks sixth in the nation in the number of lynchings behind Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama.
Most Tennessee lynchings occurred in West and Middle Tennessee. Various causes were cited for lynchings, including rape, murder, theft, trouble with a white man, arson, attempted rape, criminal assault, mother of arsonists, barn-burning, preaching Mormonism, keeping a white woman, bad character, testifying, fighting a white man, conflict over fishing rights, and manslaughter.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) created a lynching profile, which included four components: 1) evidence that person was killed; 2) the victim met death illegally; 3) a group of three or more persons participated in the killing; and 4) the group acted under the pretext of service to justice or tradition. Sociologists and authors E. M. Beck and Stewart A. Tolnay compiled a new inventory of southern lynchings through careful research of the files of the NAACP, Tuskegee Institute, and the Chicago Tribune, which they compared to contemporary newspaper coverage to confirm actual lynchings.
Lynchings occurred in seventy Tennessee counties. Shelby County ranked first in the state with 18, and Obion County was second with 17. The largest documented group lynching took place in August 1894 in Shelby County, where six men accused of arson were lynched. Davidson County recorded three lynchings, Hamilton County four, and Knox County one during the same period. Local newspapers frequently described a spectacle or celebratory atmosphere that accompanied lynchings. Announcements and promotions of lynchings prior to their occurrence were printed in newspapers or spread by word of mouth via railroad conductors. The Memphis Press declared the burning of prisoner Henry Lowery “an outstanding lynch success.” (1) Tennessee's “greatest lynching carnival” was held in Memphis in May 1917 when Ell Person, the allegedly confessed ax-murderer of a sixteen-year-old white girl, was burned to death in the presence of fifteen thousand men, women, and little children. The mother of the murdered child cheered the mob as they poured oil on the man and set him afire. The Memphis Press said that “the mob fought and screamed and crowded to get a glimpse of him and the mob closed in and struggled about the fire.” (2)
African American victims, both men and women, were regularly tortured with methods that included eye-gouging, cutting off of the ears and nose, and cutting off fingers and toes joint by joint for souvenirs. Lynch mobs used corkscrews to tear flesh and wire pliers to extract teeth. African American men were usually unsexed as part of the lynching; African American women were raped. According to the evidence, white male lynching victims were not tortured before death, nor were white females raped.
Social, cultural, economic, and political forces supported lynching in the South. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1875 legislated open access to public transportation and public facilities, the U.S. Supreme Court nullified the law in an 1883 decision. The continuation of the plantation system, economic exploitation through the crop-lien system, and dependency on the paternalism of landlords made it difficult for African American workers to escape poverty and degradation. Southern political leaders crusaded on the theme of racial superiority.
Lynchings created a form of social control that effectively limited full access to the story of lynching: victims' families, friends, and community members lived in fear and adopted a code of silence. Coroner's juries attributed the cause of death for lynching victims to have occurred “at the hands of parties unknown” or suggested suicide in the case of hanging. The identity of lynchers was rarely hidden, and local police often helped with traffic control and assisted in the protection of participants. Lynchers were chiefly young men ranging in age from late teens to twenty-five years of age. They came from an unattached group of people who exercised the least responsibility and were farthest removed from institutions and agencies determining accepted standards of conduct. Ninety-nine percent of mob members escaped arrest and punishment.
Antilynching efforts included those of African American journalist T. Thomas Fortune and Memphis resident Ida B. Wells; Jessie Daniel Ames, Director of Women's Work in the Commission on Interracial Cooperation; and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. In 1897 Tennessee became one of three states to enact an antilynching law, making lynching a felony. Two antilynching bills failed Congress: the Dyer Bill of 1920, which would have made lynching a federal crime and imposed a minimum five-year jail sentence for any state or federal employee who did not attempt to prevent a lynching, and the Wagner Bill of 1938. According to statistics kept by Fisk University, Elbert Williams of Haywood County became the last recorded lynching victim in Tennessee in June 1940 when he attempted to register to vote and establish a NAACP chapter in Brownsville.
Judith Jackson Fossett and Jeffrey A. Tucker, eds., Race Consciousness: African American Studies for a New Century (1997); Donald Lee Grant, The Anti-Lynching Movement, 1883-1932 (1975); Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930 (1995)