"Without Sanctuary:
Lynching Photography In America"

at the Charles H. Wright Museum
of African American History

by Von Thornton


As a young black child in a public school district in Detroit I learned American history. It was the concise, streamlined version that all youngsters are taught, a series of digestible events. Essentially it was a tale of how America grew from the original thirteen colonies to emerge today as the preeminent superpower - a nation all the others look to. But there is a scab on America's history - America has secrets.

High school history classes do tell us (at least briefly) that for over 300 years, ships sailed from Africa bearing human cargo brought to this country to serve a single purpose… helping to build a nation on their backs, shoulders, sweat, and tears. We also learn that even after slavery officially came to an end, while they were allowed to build their lives without the title of slave, they would not be allowed to do so with the title of citizen. My great-grandfather was one such non-citizen. To be a black person in America in the early 1900s meant that there was always a cloud hanging over your head. The photo exhibition "Without Sanctuary" illuminates the terror African Americans experienced in this period - a side to this country's history that our simplified textbooks never confront.

As I drove south on Woodward Avenue to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History I thought I was prepared for what I was about to see: I knew that I was about to spend a moment in the company of death; I knew that I would see victims that looked like me and were targeted because of their appearance; I knew that the stories that my grandfather told would no longer be simply in the abstract.

I was not prepared for what I saw.

As I entered the museum and approached the door leading to the hall, I noticed the disclaimer:


Presenting more than 100 postcards of lynching, and related material, the exhibition, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America contains images that are graphic and potentially disturbing, particularly to young children. Due to the nature of its content, this installation may not be suitable for viewing by children under the age of 13, the elderly or individuals suffering from certain medical conditions (heart problems, high blood pressure, nausea, etc.)


While this gave me a moment of pause, I did not feel that there was anything behind these doors that I could not handle.

I was wrong.

At first, the exhibit appears to be like any other. Small groups of people huddled together sharing opinions and interpretations. People were speaking in hushed tones so as not to disturb those around them. As I stood in front of the first piece, I realized that the hushed tones weren't necessary. They would not disturb me. This exhibit would.

I was shocked to realize that these first pieces I came upon were not just a group of newspaper articles and photographs - many of the items on display are actual postcards! On the front side they display images depicting the mutilated faces and bodies of human beings, while well wishes and a "look at what we have at home" messages are handwritten on the back. America has secrets.

Another photograph shows a burned body hanging from a tree. A plaque next to the photo bears the victim's name. At that point the pure harsh reality of what I am looking at is thrust upon me. He had a name: "William Brown." I will never forget his name. I can't. I will never forget his body, either. While his corpse lay naked and smoldering, a crowd of white men stood over him and posed for pictures. America has secrets.

After the first 10 minutes of similar imagery I began to become desensitized and it became an almost out of body experience. I floated from one photo to the next observing the most cruel, inhumane treatment I had ever witnessed. And then I came crashing back to Earth. In one photo a man in the background holds a little girl. She was small and couldn't see through the dense crowd that had gathered. They are both white. He is helping her get a better view of the body hanging from the tree. The body is black. What is he leaning into her ear to whisper? One can only look into her eyes and imagine. America has secrets.

After I gathered myself and moved on, the out of body sensation returned. The weight and magnitude were replaced with the feeling of sensory overload. This exhibit was simply too much to process. Again, I began to float. Again, I came crashing down. This time, the cause of the crash made me gasp at the reality of who I am in this country.

In the summer of 1981, a 19-year-old black man went to buy a pack of cigarettes on a cool summer evening. He never returned. The following morning he was found hanging from a tree. This is in 1981! I was 8 years old at the time. There were parts of the country that I was not welcome because of the ebony hue of my skin. Those parts, however large or small, still exist. These photographs bring the reality to your face. I didn't think there was anything else to stop me in my tracks. Yet again, I was mistaken.

In addition to the photographs, there is also a large mural on display at the exhibition. I found myself involuntarily moving closer and closer to it until I was at the foot of this massive, ominous piece. On its black surface, etched in gold letters are the names of individuals who were lynched in modern America. Each state is listed along with the names of those victims of Jim Crow injustice. While some states such as Alaska are noticeably absent, others, like Alabama and Mississippi, carry long lists of names. The only experience that can be compared to this would be for Viet Nam vets visiting "The Wall." This is a sobering reminder of the horrors people have been through. The list of names includes men, women, and children - all people who had mothers and fathers, and perhaps sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters. They looked like me. And they died because of it. Not only does this carry the names of those people murdered, for every state present after the last name is listed there is one final entry. For Michigan, it said twenty-seven: unidentified. Right here in my home state, there were twenty-seven persons murdered who were never identified. Somewhere, twenty-seven families waited for their loved one to come home - someone who never would. Twenty-seven individual questions that eventually led to many more, all unanswered.

This exhibit is not for the faint of heart. It is a powerful eye opener for those who still retain an elementary picture of this country and its history. America has secrets. "Without Sanctuary" screams loud and clear to anyone who dares to listen. - Von Thornton

All Images ©2002 collection of James Allen and John Littelfield. All rights reserved.

"Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography In America" runs July 15, 2004 - February 27, 2005

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is located at 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit.


Museum Hours:
Tuesdays: 9:30 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Wednesday through Saturday: 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Sunday: 1:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Museum Admission:
Adults (13 - 61) - $8.00
Seniors (62+) - $5.00
Youth (3 - 12) - $5.00
Children (Under 3) - Free
Members admitted free.

For more information, online images, and a narrated flash presentation go to www.withoutsanctuary.com.


© 2002 thedetroiter.com