Map shows lynching went far beyond the U.S. south

Photograph of a memorial dedicated October 10, 2003, in Duluth, Minnesota, honoring the three victims of the lynchings that occurred there on June 15, 1920. (Credit: Carol M. Highsmith/Wikimedia Commons)

An interactive map of lynching in the US from 1883 to 1941 reveals the surprising extent of mob violence.

It also underscores how the economy, topography, and law enforcement infrastructure paved the way for these brutal, violent crimes, according to researchers.

Although often thought of as unique to states in the southern US, Americans practiced lynching across the country and, although Southern blacks were by far the most common victim, the violence left few races and ethnic groups unscathed, says Charles Seguin, assistant professor of sociology and social data analytics at Penn State and an affiliate of the Institute for CyberScience.

View the interactive map here.

Seguin adds that slavery and racism’s effect on this mob violence is deeply etched into the patterns of lynching displayed on the map, but lynching also occurred in Northern states, which had abolished slavery long before the Civil War.

lynching map
A map of lynchings with a break down of the race of victims. (Credit: Charles Seguin/Penn State)

‘Our national crime’

“Although people knew about these lynchings at the time, I doubt many people today now know that brutal lynchings occurred in places like Chicago, Illinois; Duluth, Minnesota; or in Coatesville, Pennsylvania,” says Seguin.

“Further, many people probably do not realize just how brutal those lynchings were. What we are showing here is a legacy of racism and vigilante violence that stretches far beyond what is commonly remembered. I think that Ida B. Wells-Barnett put it best when she says that lynching was ‘our national crime.'”

The researchers drew on data the NAACP and Chicago Tribune collected of lynchings reported in the contiguous US from 1883 to 1941, as well as data from lists historians have published. Of the 4,467 people listed as victims of lynching, 3,265 were black, 1,082 were white, 71 were Mexican or of Mexican descent, and 38 were American Indian.

The researchers confirmed the data the Chicago Tribune and the NAACP collected by verifying the accounts in local newspapers. They also used the newspaper accounts to estimate the mob size and determine the race and gender of the victim, alleged offense that incited the mob, and the method of murder.

The aftermath of slavery

According to the researchers, the victims of mob violence in the South were overwhelmingly black. This pattern of violence, however, extended to areas outside of the deep Southern states, but remained centered in areas where slavery-intensive industries—including cotton, tobacco, and hemp farming—were located.

“In Missouri, for example, the map shows a cluster of black lynchings along the Missouri River, which was called Little Dixie, where slavery was prevalent in the growing of hemp and tobacco,” says Seguin. “In West Texas, also, you see another cluster of black lynchings. That marks the western edge of the cotton agriculture at that time.”

Seguin adds that other cultural and economic elements of slavery served as the infrastructure of the lynching regimes in that region.

“The almost perfect correlation between slavery and lynchings was surprising, but we’ve known that lynching was a legacy of slavery for a number of reasons,” says Seguin.

“Racism, of course, is a part of that legacy, but also how slavery structured the economy, placing poor whites in competition with newly freed black people. Much of the infrastructure used to carry out lynchings was also laid out in slavery. For example, slave patrols, which were made up of private citizens who formed manhunts to find escaped slaves, later served to conduct manhunts for lynching victims.”

In the American West, victims tended to be white, although there were also black, American Indian, Mexican nationals and people of Mexican descent, and Asian victims. In this region, which includes the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, and other Western states, the lynchings appear to be connected to a lack of official law enforcement organizations in those areas, according to the researchers.

The map also shows that topography and geography may have played an underlying role in lynching patterns. For example, in the Appalachian region, geography made the land unsuitable for large scale slave-based cotton agriculture. Many of those who lived there were whites engaged in herding agriculture, which tends to produce conflict over property, and a culture that emphasized the importance of defending one’s honor—violently if necessary. Lynching victims in much of the Appalachian tended to be white as a result, says Seguin

Future research may look at how certain lynching events served as a springboard for legal changes and shifts in public opinion on mob violence, says Seguin.

The research appears in the journal Socius. The data for this study are available on the researcher’s website.

David Rigby from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is also a coauthor. The National Science Foundation supported this work.

Source: Penn State