Class memorializes lynching victims, educates the campus

Hoping to shed light on a dark recess of America's past, students at Gettysburg (Pa.) College this week strung a large banner across their campus to memorialize victims of lynching.

The 18 upperclassmen planned the project as part of an African-American-studies course called Discourse of Resistance.

"We recognized a need to educate the community on a piece of history that was systematically removed or dramatically underemphasized in education for far too long," student Brian Allen says.

The course is taught by professor Deborah Barnes, who says there are several common misperceptions of lynching: that it happened a long time ago, it occurred only in the South, and that the people who did it were crazy.

"But, in reality, lynching went on all over the US as late as the 1950s ... and some people who participated are still very much alive Â- as is the market and desire to see mangled black bodies," she says. For example, Internet sites sensationalize these images and in some cases sell them.

The practice of "spectacle lynching" was at its height between the 1880s and the 1940s. During that time, so-called criminals Â- mostly African-Americans Â- were killed before a majority-white mass of men, women, and children, who sometimes dressed up and brought picnic baskets as if it were a social affair. Meanwhile, photographs of bodies dangling from trees were mass-produced as post cards.

"The irony of the photos," says Mr. Allen, "is that they always say the person is lynched by 'persons unknown.' But in some photos you can actually see who the very lynchers are, not to mention the bystanders who condoned the practice."

Members of the college class have set up an exhibit in the busy lobby of the student union, displaying photographs of spectacle lynchings along with researched descriptions of each event and the people who came to watch.

They are also taking turns at desks set up in the lobby to answer any questions, and to promote a website they're still working on that will compile information and resources on lynching. Today at lunch, they will also facilitate a campuswide discussion on the topic.

Professor Barnes says the purpose of her course is to "have students identify something ... problematic, challenge it, and then inform the public and generate a response."

In short, students have learned how to launch a grass-roots initiative Â- including raising the $3,000 needed to create the banner and the exhibit. The nylon banner is 4-feet high, 45-feet long, and displays the names of about 2,200 lynching victims Â- those the students could compile from books, websites, and the Library of Congress. Experts estimate that at least 4,700 people were lynched in the US, most of them African-Americans.

Allen, who is African-American, says that as he learned about the gruesome history of lynching, he was surprised he hadn't ever been taught about it before. Only in the past several years has the subject received renewed public attention, through a variety of books and museum exhibits.

"Lynching is a huge part of our modern identity, and it offers important insight on the problems of race relations today," Allen says.

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