The Years America Ran Red: A History of Lynching in the United States

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday. Flag flying above Fifth Avenue, New York City, ca. 1938. Copyprint. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4734/LC-USZ62-33793 (6-10b) Courtesy of the NAACP

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.
Flag flying above Fifth Avenue, New York City, ca. 1938. Copyprint.
NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4734/LC-USZ62-33793 (6-10b)
Courtesy of the NAACP

Many would love to believe that life one hundred years ago was gentler, better mannered, and simpler than today. I love history dearly, and I love historic sites, period dramas, and the like. I wouldn’t be working in museums and archives if I didn’t believe in the power of history for truth, reconciliation, justice, and healing.

But the past isn’t the sepia tinted photographs of ancestors or the technicolor images of Downton Abbey. The past, to paraphrase L.P. Hartley, is sometimes a foreign country where they do things differently, but what happened then laid the groundwork for today. And that includes the most horrific, bloody, and unjust every day occurrence in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: lynching.

James Weldon Johnson labeled the year 1919 as the “Red Summer” because of the extraordinary violence and blood shed as African Americans, many of whom were returning home after serving in WWI, were met by Judge Lynch across most of the United States. The relationship between Americans and extralegal violence dates back to the Revolutionary War, where, according to Robert L. Zangrando, lynchings were “used initially to punish suspected criminals and Tories.” As the practice spread with western expansion across the frontier, it became a regular method of dealing with ” gamblers…antislavery advocates…Native Americans.” After the 1890s, immigrants, political radicals, and others who broke local mores were targets of mob violence. During Reconstruction, lynching became the method of intimidating, terrorizing, and controlling African Americans; the various vigilante groups we often identify as “KKK” expanded in the South on the backs of such violence.

The Gilded Age was in full swing in the 1890s, but so was the increasing use of lynchings to oppress African Americans and halt their attempts to achieve economic, educational, and civic prosperity. Ida B. Wells emerged during this decade as a powerful anti-lynching crusader after the murders of two businessmen friends in Memphis, whose successful grocery store aroused the resentment of their white competition.

OUR country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. — “Lynch Law in America,” The Arena 23.1 (January 1900): 15-24.

Wells’ activism, the attention of the black press, and various organizations (some made up of white and black members), placed significant pressure on government officials to respond to lynching. Presidents Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt condemned lynching during their administrations, and a number of congressmen attempted to introduce anti-lynching bills between 1884 and the early 1900s, but public sentiment about the cause of lynchings–the threat black men posed to white women–hampered any serious efforts to make them a crime. Even Mark Twain was moved by the violence to pen a lament against lynching in his essay “The United States of Lyncherdom,” but he declined to publish it in his lifetime, declaring “I shouldn’t have even half a friend left down there [in the South], after it issued from the press.”

The NAACP, formed in 1909, increased its membership in the 1910s on the platform of pouring resources and strength by anti-lynching legislation. The appointments of James Weldon Johnson and Walter Francis White focused the organization’s anti-lynching crusade, particularly in the racist, xenophobic atmosphere fostered by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), whose revisionist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction inspired a new Ku Klux Klan; their targets this time were blacks, Jews, Catholics, and other “undesirables” who undermined good, moral American values.

This film only fanned the flames of the general anti-immigrant and anti “hyphenated Americans” anxieties of the WWI era, where many German Americans were interned in camps as alleged German spies, where the government instituted surveillance against African Americans deemed as “unpatriotic,” and mob violence struck East St. Louis in 1917 and in Georgia, where a Jewish American factory superintendent named Leo Frank was lynched after being wrongly convicted of murdering a thirteen year old white female employee.

The Red Summer was only the culmination of an inflamed America. Between April and November, African Americans were lynched and terrorized from coast to coast, with the uprisings in Chicago, Elaine (AK), Knoxville (TN), and Washington DC being the most notable. It is sadly ironic that the NAACP released a book of their investigative research, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918, right as the Red Summer began. In it, the NAACP detailed the lynchings of black and white men and women (“78.2 per cent. of the victims were Negroes and 21.8 per cent. white persons”), their geographic location, offenses, and charts of all facts, and included the stories of one hundred lynchings during the period.


NAACP efforts increased in the 1920s, focusing mostly on the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which was introduced by Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer (R-MO) to Congress during the 1922-24 sessions–and was filibustered by Southern Democrats all three times. By the end of the decade, lynchings had decreased, perhaps because the general prosperity of the Roaring Twenties was a good distraction; however, the Great Depression spurred a renewal of lynchings and the NAACP and their Congressional allies pushed once more for anti-lynching laws. Once again, they were met with failure, as first the New Deal and then WWII ensnared America’s attention. Yet, according to many historians, the fight for anti-lynching inspired significant interracial and inter-class partnerships to rid the United States of this injustice.

Looking back at this period from 2016 reveals that the past isn’t a foreign country–it illuminates and shapes today. And just as the violence touched the lives of the diversity of people who make up the United States then, it remains the same right now, and it takes courageous people, politicians, and organizations to fight for justice.

Further Reading

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950 by Robert L. Zangrando
Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter
On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation by Robert Whitaker
Anti-Racism in 19th Century Britain
‘Terrorism’ of Lynching: See How Nonprofit Collects Soil From Lynching Sites for National Memorial

Views of Los Angeles from 100 Years Ago

Los Angeles in 1913 had a population of 465,000, and boasted of over 600 miles of graded and graveled streets, of its position as the commercial capital of southern California, and of its spacious homes. The following photographs are from Frank W. Staley’s Views of Los Angeles.

Weeping Willow, Echo Park

Weeping Willow, Echo Park

Residence and Park, Beverly Hills

Residence and Park, Beverly Hills

Pacific Ave and Park, House facing the sea, Long Beach

Pacific Ave and Park, Long Beach

Hollywood Residences

Hollywood Residences

Bathing Scene and Amusement Pier, Venice

Bathing Scene and Amusement Pier, Venice

Boulevard, Hollywood

Boulevard, Hollywood

Broadway, north from 8th Street

Broadway, north from 8th Street

Primer to Gilded Age New York Society

julian fellowes

By now you’ve probably heard the news of NBC’s new deal with Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes to create a period drama set in Gilded Age New York titled–naturally–“The Gilded Age.”

In its release, NBC described the series, which will be called “The Gilded Age,” as an “epic tale of the princes of the American Renaissance, and the vast fortunes they made — and spent — in late 19th century New York.”

Mr. Fellowes said in a statement, “This was a vivid time with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls, of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry; a time when money was king.”

I fell in love with the Gilded Age after reading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth when I was a teenager, and couldn’t resist setting a significant portion of my book, The Townsend Inheritance, in New York and Newport, so I am excited to see it gaining more attention–both positive and negative–on this side of the pond. American history isn’t just about the Civil War! *g* I have blogged a fair bit about life in America (specifically New York City), but to refresh your memory I am creating a brief primer, and look for more posts about the era in the future.


The lavishness we associate with the Gilded Age did not reach its fruition until the 1880s, when “swells” like the Vanderbilts–spearheaded by Alva Vanderbilt, wife of Willie K.–launched a social campaign against the small, snobbish clique of old New York elite known as the Knickerbockers. These were the descendants of the great Anglo-Dutch families who settled in New Amsterdam in the 17th and 18th centuries, and built their wealth on “respectable” trades like shipping and real estate. The boom in American industry after the Civil War created millionaires out of nobodies, and the glitter and glamor of New York attracted them over any other major US city, which meant the old Knickerbockers had to devise ways to keep them out.

Most of the old, genteel Knickerbockers retained their English brownstones in quiet and elegant Washington Square, though some had begun to move up Fifth Avenue towards Central Park. Department store millionaire A. T. Stewart threw down the first gauntlet when he built a grand marble mansion directly across from the Mrs. Astor’s discreet brownstone, but she pointedly never acknowledged the man or his wife, and after their deaths in 1876 and 1886, respectively, Stewart’s magnificent house was rented to the exclusive Manhattan Club–the irony!–before being razed in 1901 to make room for the new premises of the Knickerbocker Trust Company. Many other new millionaires attempted to assail the deeply entrenched society focused around Caroline Astor and her “court jester”, Ward McAllister (from whom the term “The Four Hundred” derived), but it took a woman to best Mrs. Astor at her own game–the pugnacious Southern belle, Alva Erskine Smith.

Alva married William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of the family patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt, in 1875. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s vulgar behavior kept the family out of NY high society, but Alva was determined to use her new millions to become a social leader. She noticed that the stuffiness of the Knickerbockers, with their simple dinners and quiet living, was beginning to grate on younger members of society and correctly predicted that they as well as New Yorkers, thirsted for lavish consumption. She immediately commissioned a magnificent house from Richard Morris Hunt at 660 Fifth Avenue. Her father-in-law, William H. Vanderbilt, had commissioned twin mansions nearby, and both Vanderbilt homes were completed around the same time.

The size and grandeur of these mansions staggered New York, and set off a flurry of media attention about the size and dimensions, the treasures that lay within, and the lifestyle of those who lived within them. Alva solidified her pursuit of prominence by hosting a fancy dress ball for 1000 guests at a cost of $3 million. Carrie Astor, Caroline’s favorite daughter, spent weeks practicing a quadrille with her friends, and in a cunning move, Alva sadly mentioned that Carrie could not take part in the quadrille as she did not know her mother. That sent the Mrs. Astor scrambling to pay a call on Alva Vanderbilt after repeated snubs, and Alva promptly dispatched an invitation to the ball!

Another coup in which Alva was involved was the establishment of the Metropolitan Opera House. Weekly attendance at the opera was de rigueur for Knickerbocker elite, and the opera boxes in the small Academy of Music were coveted by nouveaux riche who were barred from purchasing even one by the directors. The millionaires got their revenge when the Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1883. This building was, as usual, lavish, opulent, lush, and grand, and the three tiers of boxes designated for high society were known as the “golden horseshoe”. The Metropolitan Opera House supplanted the Academy of Music within three years, forcing the Academy out of the opera business and into cheaper entertainments like vaudeville! After these K.O.’s to the Knickerbockers, New York established itself as the playground for America’s social elite, and other major cities emulated their markers of prominence (wealth, mansions, summer homes, Paris fashions, exclusive dances and clubs, and of course, American heiresses).


For a closer peek, here are some of my previous posts on the topic!

The New York Social Season

The Four Hundred

The Origins of the Waldorf=Astoria

Upstairs Downstairs in Gilded Age America

Lobster Palace Society

American Resorts: Newport

Further Reading:
To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York by Greg King
When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age by Justin Kaplan
Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt by Arthur T. Vanderbilt
Gilded: How Newport Became America’s Richest Resort by Deborah Davis
Edith Wharton at Home: Life at the Mount by Richard Guy Wilson, John Arthur and Pauline C. Metcalf
First Four Hundred : New York and the Gilded Age by Jerry E. Patterson
The Splendor Seekers: An informal Glimpse of America’s Multimillionaire Spenders by Allen Churchill
The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age