Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Segment of a video interview conducted by the National Visionary Leadership Project.

Above is a video of James Cameron, who, at the time of his death in 2006, was the only known survivor of a lynching in the U.S.. It was 1930, in Marion, Indiana, and a huge mob had forcibly removed Cameron (then 16 years old) and two friends from the local jail, where they were being held on the charges of murder and rape. The mob -- needless to say, ignoring due process -- hanged Cameron's two friends from a tree. A rope was then put around Mr. Cameron's neck. He was praying to God for mercy and to forgive him his sins (which did not include the murder and rape), when a voice called out that Cameron was not guilty. He was taken away by the police, and -- despite his innocence -- jailed for four years.

Inspired by a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in 1979, Cameron spent years building support for what would become the Black Holocaust Museum, which opened on Juneteenth (June 19) of 1988 in Milwaukee, and was dedicated to preserving the history of lynching. It started out as a two-room basement space with some books and artifacts that Mr. Cameron collected, and later moved into a larger building and launched more programs. Sadly, the museum closed in 2008, as reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I can't help but feel a little relieved that Mr. Cameron didn't have to see the closure of the museum he'd worked so hard to create. What moves me most about this is that he had this dreadful experience -- I mean, the man had just seen the murder of two friends, had a noose around his neck, and was surrounded by a thousands-strong bloodthirsty mob of white people, many of them treating it like a ghastly form of entertainment -- and felt deeply compelled to preserve the larger history of lynching.

Statistics show 4,743 documented lynchings from 1882 to 1965, but some sources say the actual number may be ten times that figure. Lynch mobs often tortured or dismembered their victims before killing them, and the practice grew hideously after the end of slavery as a means of maintaining white supremacy by terrorizing African Americans (and, to a lesser extent, the white people who sympathized with them). 

Let's start with the proposition that lynching is an important, if horrifying, piece of American history that must be preserved. So why did the museum close, and how might it have survived? It had an estimated 25,000 visitors a year when it shut down, but nevertheless lacked the financial support necessary to pay rent and keep its doors open. I don't know anything about the museum, never visited the place or saw its website. But let me speculate for a moment about what they could have done to keep going. They might have started charging more for admission, but that probably would have meant fewer visitors, and therefore fewer people learning about lynching, which was the museum's mission. Instead, they could have shored up their infrastructure by attracting more board members to raise funds, or affiliating with a local university that would support and house them. Assuming they had just the one permanent exhibition, they might have created rotating exhibits, so that people would have had reason to visit more than once. Another way to attract repeat visitors would have been to host lectures, short performances or even art installations that dealt with lynching and related topics. Or perhaps they might have worked with educators to expand their programs for students, and created a series of age-appropriate curricula for all grade levels, featuring text, images, and video drawing on the museum's collection. Such curricula could have been used by teachers around the country, turning the museum into a museum without walls. A website could have served as more than just an advertisement for the museum, but a rich multimedia resource on the history and legacy of lynching. The museum might have actually done all of this and more, I have no idea. Again, I'm just speculating. But the closure of an institution on so important a topic raises the question, how can history museums stay current, and useful, and open? Certainly, the history of lynching can be preserved by other means than a museum; however, I must say I'm partial to museums and think they can serve a unique function in historical education.     

I came upon Mr. Cameron's story because I've been looking at some online oral history archives, including those of the National Visionary Leadership Project, which conducts interviews with African American elders. You can see Mr. Cameron's bio and other video segments of his astounding story on this page.

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