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SUNDAY REPORT

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?

August 27, 2000|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He learned that, in much of the U.S., lynching wasn't exempt from the law, it was the law. Between 1880 and 1930, a black Southerner died at the hands of a white mob more than twice a week.

Six years ago, Allen devoted himself full time to the search for lynching photos, in part because he could see himself in each new photo he found.

"I'm a gay man," he says. "And the discrimination I've known in my life has been from white males. I'm just angry, and this is a way to express my anger."

Echoes of Lynching

He learned about the white males leering out of the photos, their eyes glazed with blood lust, by digging through old newspapers--which not only covered lynchings but often advertised them. Whenever he "exposed" another villain, Allen says, "it was a feeling of 'gotcha!' "

In one photo, a grotesque little white man in the foreground points to the hanging bodies of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. "Bo pointn to his niga," someone scrawled in the margin of the photo, which Allen bought for $750 at an Orlando, Fla., card show. Besides acquiring the photo, Allen thinks he knows who Bo was, which may prove equally useful. Even if members of lynch mobs can't be brought to justice, he says, their names should be recorded. "I'm building a case," he says. "I'm building the truth."

Allen believes lynchings didn't disappear but took new forms. Echoes of lynching can be found everywhere, he says, from the death penalty to the current epidemic of police brutality. Whenever reporters ask the date of the last lynching, Allen answers grimly: "The last lynching hasn't happened yet."

Part of Allen's education involved learning to do business with dangerous people. One day he phoned to make an appointment with a man who owned a rare lynching photo.

"When you get here," the man said, "remind me to show you a picture of the nigger I blew away myself."

Last year Allen got a call from a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The man was willing to sell his prized lynching photos, so Allen and his partner, John Littlefield, raced across northern Georgia, into the Alabama forest, reaching the man's house in the middle of the night. When the man produced a noose and waved it at them with a sneer, Allen realized he'd been had, and wondered if he and Littlefield would live to see the sun rise.

Lately, Allen has been learning to cope with blacks' reactions to his photos. Most blacks thank him for his efforts, but many are troubled that he is earning money from his $60 book, which has sold 20,000 copies and briefly became a top seller on Amazon.com.

"To commercialize the suffering of black people is to do the ultimate disservice to black people," says Michael Dyson, a black scholar at DePaul University who holds the Ida B. Wells-Barnett professorship, named after the great anti-lynching crusader. "To make coffee-table books out of that kind of pain is highly problematic."

Some of Allen's critics are less offended by how much he profits than by how he presents himself. It's fine to be a scavenger, they say, so long as you don't call yourself an avenger.

"He's not a saint," says Julia Hotton, a black independent museum curator in New York and a consultant to the New York Historical Society. "I know why he did it. He did it because he's a dealer. And that's all he has to say."

Hotton says older blacks especially can't help feeling suspicious when they see Allen, and when they hear him.

"If they hear a white man with a Southern accent is collecting these photos," she says, "they get a little skittish."

On Internet bulletin boards, some blacks talk angrily about the fact that a white man is telling their story. One man says that white people exhibiting lynching photos is like Germans running a Holocaust museum. Others question the value of anyone, black or white, perpetuating such painful images. In the comment section of the online general-interest magazine Journal E, someone writes: "If Mr. Allen really wants to help African Americans, he could do much, much better than to pound fresh salt into old wounds."

Not all the anger is aimed at Allen. Many of the 7,000 messages in the electronic guest book at the New York Historical Society, and the hundreds in the guest book from the photo gallery where the exhibit started, describe an unfocused rage. "To tell you the truth," an 11-year-old girl writes, "I feel so mad and upset now I feel like killing whites. I know it was a lot, not all of them. I understand. But they still could of helped us."

Whatever the reaction, Allen meets it head on. He repeatedly accepts invitations to speak to black groups, even when he knows the reception is likely to be hostile, and he's spent many hours at the New York Historical Society, introducing himself to visitors.

Just recently, Allen approached a young black man looking at one of the photos.

"What do you think of the exhibit?" Allen asked.

"What do you think I think?" the man snapped.

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