The Crying Tree


WARNING: This newsletter contains imagery and descriptions that may be upsetting to some readers/listeners, particularly young children. So, if you want to use this as a teaching or conversation tool with young or vulnerable readers/listeners, you will want to have a chat with them first to prepare them, after reading it to decide whether or not to omit select words or cover an image.

At 10 a.m. today, Eno Laget and I hosted a reading. We were honored to be joined by other activists, advocates and community members from Pennsylvania and Michigan who agreed that this was a thing that needed to be done. We read names. And we shared poetry (including A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay, nicely read by Pauline Feltner of Swords Into Plowshares) with related narratives which follow below.

     Our list contaied more than 225 names. Just a small portion of those belonging to the more than 4,700 victims of reported lynchings on American soil since 1836. Men. Children. Yes, children. And women. Some with unborn babies alive inside them. Some were tire-chained to trees, castrated and mutilated, or tortured with blowtorches, and hung from their necks until undoubtedly dead.

     One fetus was stomped to death, an adult was drug behind a truck until his body parts fell by one, and bodies burned alive and charred, were savagely destroyed to the glee of packed audiences that included children and said pillars of the community.

    The reasons? Some were white, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, Chinese... Most were black. Black victims in particular stood accused of crimes as weak as moving too slowly to satisfy the presumptuous pride of a white passerby.    

     Accusations, often bogus, were typical pretexts in the 19th and 20th centuries especially for killing black people who violated Jim Crow etiquette which was, under any terms, unjust and exceedingly if not insultingly unreasonable. And some victims were executed for engaging in economic competition with white people – in other words, trying to survive with normal business practices in a capitalist and double-standard-driven economy and society.

     Time screams their names beneath a Crying Tree. And we stand beneath it, decrying the injustice, and remembering the life that was taken.

     Jesse Washington confessed to a murder and, for his admission, after his trial was dragged behind a car. And he was castrated, had his fingers cut off, and his ear, and was burned…alive.   

     The public execution was professionally photographed, with pictures sold as postcards, and the event said to be of political gain to the Sheriff and to the Judge who presided over his trial. 

     People on the way to the scene of the burning expressed their venom by striking him with anything they had in their hands: shovels, bricks, clubs, and stabbing implements. When he was finally roped, his body was said to have been redSolid red. Waco, TX, 1916. He was 17 years old.     

No due process for 19- and 28-year old Herman and Irving Arthur, Waco, TX, 1917. They were pulled out of jail and burned alive.

     For stabbing arresting deputies, likely in a surge of fear – if he was sober – after being charged for disturbing the peace, a young man was burned alive. Francis, McIntosh, age 26, St. Louis, Missouri, 1836. 

     And because he ran the abolitionist newspaper, which reported the McIntosh lynching, and others, an editor was lynched in the Midwest, He had moved there to escape the violence in St. Louis, Missouri. Elijah Lovejoy, age 35. Alton, Illinois, 1837.

     For moving too slowly out of a white woman’s way, WWI veteran Clinton Briggs was chained to a tree and shot till dead. Lincoln, Arkansas, 1919.

     For the crime of sending a Christmas card with "a note of affection" to a white girl, he was forced to jump into the Suwanee River, to his death. He was 15. Willie James Howard, Live Oak, Florida, 1944.

     And, because he asked for change from a streetcar conductor, Sgt. Major John Green was shot 3 times in the head in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1919.

     For the crime of supporting Union soldiers, at least 3 white men were shot, and another 41 hung on several specific days in October by Confederate supporters in Gainesville, Texas. Sixteen of them in one fell swoop. The year was 1862.

     For the accidental killing of a white rancher, Ah Wing and at least 15 other Chinese immigrants were hung. Los Angeles, California, 1871.

     And for the crime of trying to protect and defend her 14-year-old son, during an investigation of dubious caliber, she was gang-raped and then lynched with her son. Laura and L.D. Nelson, Okemah, Oklahoma, 1911.

     For the crime of publicly opposing and threatening legal action against white people (who had murdered her husband, who she believed was unfairly accused of killing an abusive landowner), Mary Turner was hanged upside down from a tree, doused in gasoline and motor oil and then set on fire.

     Mary was still alive when a member of the mob split her abdomen open with a knife and her unborn child fell on the ground. The baby was stomped and crushed as it fell to the ground and the few feeble cries it was able to make were said to be audible. Turner's body was riddled with hundreds of bullets. She is estimated to have been 33 years old, and her unborn baby, 8 months, when murdered on the border between Brooks and Lowndes Counties in Georgia in 1918. 

          Fast forward to 49-year-old James Byrd, Jr., dragged to death for three miles on asphalt behind a pickup truck, until his head struck a culvert. The crime he’d committed? Absolutely none, other than perhaps being a black man in the presence of white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, 1998.

     Other than the leaves and fruit that grow from them, trees were never meant for hanging men. Never meant taking live flesh. Not meant for hatred’s laundry. These were, "leaves taken from the Tree of Life and hung from the root of hatred bodies stolen” and “suspended in Cain’s pride and Abel’s blood. But we declare them not forgotten.

     We just spoke more than 225 of over 4,700 names of victims of reported lynchings on U.S. soil from 1837 to date.

     Rightly accused. And unjustly executed.

     Or more often wrongly accused. And savagely executed.

     We cannot restore their lives, but in this time and space we can restore their worth as we acknowledge their existence and decree them unworthy of their deaths.

     We bring forth their names so that, somewhere, in the fullness of time, these souls know they are known, grieved, valued and remembered. And, hopefully, one day, know too, that their tragic, horrific deaths were not in vain. We fell the Crying Tree.


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