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An Obsessive Quest to Make People See

After antique collector James Allen discovered scores of lynching photos, black Americans were grateful--and confused. Was his motive compassion--or something else?


From historians and collectors Allen learned that postcards of lynchings were once as common as postcards of Niagara Falls. Even after the U.S. Postal Service banned "violent" mail in 1908, a photographer could make a living off lynchings alone, selling the photos door to door, and especially at the lynchings themselves. Postcards and souvenir photos of lynchings allowed white mobs to spread their terror far and wide.

Allen bought the Frank postcard for $15, then found another, of Laura Nelson, a black woman in eastern Oklahoma. Nelson's 14-year-old son was accused of shooting the local sheriff. When Nelson tried to hold off a posse of white men who came for the boy, she too was arrested. Weeks later a mob broke into the jail and took Nelson and her son to the Canadian River. They raped Nelson and hanged her from a bridge, and hanged her son alongside, his pants around his ankles.

Someone snapped a photo that day--May 25, 1911. The photo probably got passed around and went into a drawer and collected dust for decades before Allen saw it at a flea market and bought it for $75. When he found another photo, and another, he began to suspect that untold numbers of lynching photos must be out there, their existence unknown to Americans. He'd already established a national reputation as a "picker," someone who finds and resells rare objects. But picking was only paying the bills. Finding lynching photos, he thought, could change the world.

Gradually the search for the photos consumed Allen. He canvassed the South. He haunted flea markets and pawnshops and antique stores. He peered into crawl spaces and attics and cellars, even under one old grandmother's bed. He pored through albums and scrapbooks and family Bibles. He made hundreds of phone calls and mailed thousands of fliers. He advertised in newspapers and antique journals and on the Internet. He set up a toll-free number, launched his own Web site, and became a fixture at gun shows and gatherings of Civil War buffs. He spent thousands of dollars he didn't have, including $30,000 for one rare photo of Frank Embree, gazing into the camera, a mixture of terror and rage on his face, just minutes before the mob lynched him.

Last year Allen decided to show the nation what he'd found. He chose to publish most of his 145 lynching photos in a book, "Without Sanctuary." Then, last winter, he organized some of the photos into a small New York exhibit, and when the exhibit drew more visitors than the gallery could accommodate, when it sparked editorials and essays and furious debate in the black community, he helped move it to the larger New York Historical Society, where it remained on display until earlier this month. (More than 80 cities have offered to host the exhibit next.) This fall, Allen will take his photos to the Sorbonne in Paris. Next year he hopes to mount an enormous and potentially explosive exhibit in Atlanta.

Because of Allen, historians say, Americans in great numbers are talking about lynching for the first time since the 1930s, when the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People lobbied hard, but without success, for federal anti-lynching laws.

"These images have not really been part of our photographic and cultural history," says Leon F. Litwack, the A.F. and May T. Morrison professor of American history at UC Berkeley, who contributed an essay to Allen's book. "Now they're unavoidable."

Countless books have been written about lynching. But there is something different about 145 photos. By collecting so much visual evidence, many say, Allen has dispelled the notion that lynchings were rare, or that they happened long ago.

"In 30 years working in the field of African American studies," says Randall Burkett, an archivist at Emory University in Atlanta, "there's nothing I've encountered that enables white folk to understand the reality of racism in America in the way these images do."

While collecting photos, Allen also gathered facts. He learned everything he could about lynching, beginning with the definition: A lynching is when three people or more, outside the legal system, kill someone accused of some crime or offense. Hanging is often, but not always, the method of the lynch mob. Victims are often burned alive, mutilated, dismembered, their teeth and fingers and ashes and clothes and internal organs sold as keepsakes. Allen found people still saving lips and locks of hair from lynching victims.

Allen learned that tickets were sold to lynchings, that the mood of white mobs was exuberant--men cheering, women preening, children frolicking around the corpse as if it were a maypole. He learned that special excursion trains carried people to lynchings from farms and outlying areas, that some lynchings were staged like theater, the victims dressed in costumes to deepen their degradation.

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