Keilah Davis | Staff Writer

On February 16 at noon, Dr. Blair Kelley, associate professor of history, presented “Lynching: Remembering Our History” in the Honors Village Commons. The event was co-sponsored by the University Honors Program and the Interdisciplinary Studies program in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“I’m a historian of the African American experience,” Kelley said. “My first book is about the turn of the 20th century so it inevitably deals with lynching. It deals with politics in the age of lynching. Lynching has not been the heart of my work but it definitely undergirds that period of time in history.”

Kelley began her presentation by giving the historical context for the rise of lynchings in the South.

“Slavery, although inherently violent, in a weird quirk of its systematic organization, actually protected the enslaved because they had property value.” Kelley compared the worth of a young enslaved male then to what a Toyota Camry is worth now.

“As much as slavery was profoundly brutal to African American communities, families and any progress being made toward real American citizenship, there was this protection of their lives,” Kelley said. “The end of slavery ends this protection.”

According to Kelley, over 3,000 lynchings occurred between 1890 and 1917. This averages to 2 or 3 lynchings per week.

“It really created a climate of terror throughout the South,” Kelley said.

“I’m always surprised by the number of lynchings that happened. It’s pretty striking every time,” Hannah Scruggs, a graduate student in public history, said.

“Lynchings had existed before this time period and were thought to be frontier justice in places where government was not as organized,” Kelley said. “It changed in the hands of southern lynchers who were using it as racialized justice, often taking people away from police stations and sometimes assisted by police or sheriffs, in ritualized killings watched by hundreds or thousands. They really became public rituals of terror.”

Kelley’s talk was coupled with photographs of original Ku Klux Klan uniforms, anti-lynching propaganda and postcards showing the bodies of lynched men, women, and children. Some attendees were visibly emotional after viewing these images.

“This is a hard history,” Kelley said. “When do you teach kids this? There is no perfect way to say we were the site of a horror but it has to be said.”

“It was a really eye-opening experience for me,” Maggie Thompson, a senior studying creative writing and plant biology, said. “I thought I had learned about lynching during high school, but after listening to Dr. Kelley I realized that I didn’t actually know much about lynching at all. It makes you wonder about the way our nation’s history is presented through textbooks and classes.”

“I think we teach history very badly,” Kelley said. “I think understanding what happened in the past is incredibly useful. I think it’s incredibly empowering to know what happened. We all have to be uncomfortable to learn.”

A Q&A session followed Kelley’s talk and audience members posed questions that connected the history of lynching to contemporary social issues. Kelly shared how the killing of Trayvon Martin challenged her perspective.

“When I first started teaching, I used to tell my students that if someone was lynched in that tree over there, then the police would come and investigate it,” Kelley said. “Trayvon Martin made me think differently about that because he was followed, targeted and killed. That’s not a lynching but it does have the illogic of black men being extraordinarily violent. Somehow they are men when they are boys. Somehow they are capable of things normal people aren’t capable of.”

Kelley also stated that the logic that black people are less valuable, which is at the heart of lynching, also propagates to issues ranging from sentencing and the death penalty to doctors giving less pain medications to black people after surgery.

“There is fundamental change and yet we keep bringing some stuff with us.”