A Lynching Near You

In yet another stroke of genius in the fields of reconciliation and redemption, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, recently opened a national memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, which, among other things, pays homage to the history of lynching in America. Stephenson and his colleagues have cataloged nearly 4,400 lynchings across the country, and while some historians estimate the total number could be a couple of thousand higher, it will be impossible ever to definitively know what the total number truly is.

In honor of the new monument, I decided to visit the site of a lynching, something I had never before done. Back home in southern Illinois, there is a cornucopia of terror to choose from, 56 reported lynching sites, 40 of them in St. Claire County, just two counties and a half-hour’s drive from my own. Out here in New York, there are far fewer to choose from, but no matter where you might be in America, if there’s one thing you can really count on, it is a historical site of violence towards brown-skinned people. Turns out there were two New York lynchings, both relatively close to my town, one of a black man named Mulliner in 1863 in Newburgh, NY, and another of a black man named Bob Lewis in 1892 in Port Jervis, NY. I opted to visit the latter because, in my research, I stumbled upon a Master’s thesis written by Kristopher Burrell that chronicles in detail the history of the Bob Lewis lynching. Any history of that event that I cite was taken from that paper.

The reason for the lynching of Bob Lewis was the usual—supposedly he raped a white woman, Lena McMahon, a troubled twenty-one-year-old with a seedy boyfriend eleven years older, Peter Foley. Foley had moved to town in 1891 and stayed at the Delaware House, a hotel where Bob Lewis worked. Foley was arrested in January of 1892 for not paying his bill, and from then on young Lena’s parents forbade her from seeing him, but as so often happens, that didn’t stop her. This is when facts get murky. One story has it that Foley used Lewis as the go-between to arrange dates with McMahon, and another story suggests Foley actually pimped her to Lewis to help pay his own debts. As for the assault, Lewis confessed Foley put him up to it to punish McMahon for something, but he made that confession after he’d been captured, a time when a black man charged with raping a white woman is likely to confess anything. One report has Bob Lewis holding bystanders at bay with a gun while he committed the rape, a detail that strikes me as laughably ridiculous. After all of these years, it seems somewhat certain that Robert Lewis, a black man, had sex with Lena McMahon, a white woman, on the banks of the Neversink River shortly after Peter Foley, who had been accompanying McMahon, left to retrieve them some lunch. The only truly certain fact is that later that same day Lewis was lynched by a local mob. It all happened on June 2, so it was on June 2 that I headed to Port Jervis myself to visit the site of the event.

Port Jervis is idyllically situated in the Catskill Mountains, just across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania. A once thriving Erie Railroad depot, the town, like so many, is struggling these days. I was accompanied by my friend, Dro, fellow cigar smoker, African-American, and as nerdy a fan of off-beat Americana as I am; plus he used to come to the area every year with his father to hunt, and he wanted check out some of the old haunts. It was an unpleasantly hot and muggy day, and we pulled into town and parked in front of Drew United Methodist Church because it was from a maple tree next to the church that Lewis was hung. The original structure was actually destroyed, twice, first by a cyclone in 1893 (divine retribution?) and then by a fire almost a hundred years later, but both times the congregation elected to rebuild on the same site. The maple tree is no longer there; for days following the lynching, men, women and children hacked at it for souvenirs. The night of the event, bits of the rope that was used were cut and distributed to the crowd, common behavior at a lynching, whether they were organized in advance or impromptu. The recently deceased giant of a theologian, James H. Cone, writes in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree:

“Often, as many as ten to twenty thousand men, women and children attended the event. It was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims—burning black flesh and cutting off genitals, fingers, toes and ears as souvenirs. Postcards were made from the photographs taken of black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera. They were sold for ten to twenty-five cents to members of the crowd, who then mailed them to relatives and friends, often with a note saying something like this: ‘This is the barbecue we had last night.’”

I walked around the church and was soon sweating profusely. There were no trees offering any shade. Dro crossed the street rather quickly to a heavily-shaded public park full of monuments to the local war dead. There was no marker anywhere near the church indicating where the lynching might have occurred, but just by standing near the church, I knew I was near where it had happened. I thought maybe I would feel something profound, but I didn’t. Maybe I was too damned hot. I soon crossed over into the cooler park where Dro stood before the tall monument dedicated to the soldiers who died in the Civil War. It’s something I appreciate about the northeast—all the monuments to the Union dead, the ones in that war who weren’t traitors and who didn’t fight to perpetuate slavery, the ones, in other words, who deserve a monument. I stared up at the soldier atop the tall monument and thought of Lowell’s poem, “Ode to the Union Dead.”

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier

grow slimmer and younger each year—

wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets

and muse through their sideburns.

 

“Come read this,” Dro said, referring to the carved granite inscription on the monument. A breeze came through and, in the shade, it felt like a miracle. I read the inscription: “This monument was erected by the patriotic generosity of Diana Farnum and was dedicated July 4, 1885, to the memory of the men of Deerpark who, by their services and lives in the Civil War of 1861-5, aided in preserving the Union and in securing equality of human rights for all.” (Port Jervis is a hamlet within the town of Deerpark.)

I knew immediately why Dro’d had me read this—the brutal irony of a lynching occurring approximately twenty yards from that inscription, especially those final words. “1885,” I said by way of confirming that I got it. “Means it was here that night.”

“Yep,” he said.

I had wanted to speak with some locals and had expected that would be easy, given the close proximity of the lynching site to Main Street, but it was such a muggy, warm day that hardly anyone was about, even in the shady park. Finally, an old black man, skinny and white-haired and stooped, came pushing a cart along the sidewalk, obviously having just gone grocery shopping. I walked quickly to him. “Excuse me,” I said, and he stopped. “We’re here because on this day in 1892, a man was lynched over there next to the Methodist Church. Do you know anything about that?”

“Yes, I believe I’ve heard something about that. I’ve heard the old folks discussing it,” he said, as if, hovering somewhere in his mid- to late-seventies himself, he didn’t count as an old folk. “You might want to talk with some of them.”

“What about some of the people involved that night. Would you know if they’re families are still around? Yaples or Howell?”

“Yaples, no, but I believe I’ve heard of some Howells still around. Like I said, you might want to talk to some of the old folks. Or maybe go to the library.”

“Where is that?” I asked. He pointed to a building half a block away, downhill and probably air-conditioned. We thanked him for his time.

Yaples and Howell were two of the almost-heroes that night, Simon Yaples, the police officer who tried to protect Lewis from the mob, and O.P. Howell, the town President who teamed up with Yaples on the futile task. Another hero was William Howe Crane, a prominent lawyer and judge who lived near the site of the hanging and rushed from his home to aid in trying to prevent it. William was the older brother of Stephen who lived off and on in Port Jervis during the 1890’s and wrote large portions of The Red Badge of Courage there but was not in town the night Bob Lewis died.

In front of the library sat three young black kids, eleven or twelve years old, skateboards, and I weighed telling them about the lynching of Bob Lewis. We said hi, and they said hi back, and I decided just to keep moving, and I’ve been mad at myself for it ever since. I doubt it would have had any impact, and of course they’d have thought I was just some weird old dude, but it is always a mistake to forego the opportunity to teach somebody something, especially the young.

Inside was blissfully cool. Behind the front desk sat two women, one in her forties, another her early sixties. After we exchanged greetings, I again said, “I’m here because on this day in 1892, a black man was lynched over by the Methodist Church. Do you know anything about that?”

The younger one shook her head. “Never heard of it,” she said. The older one was not familiar with the history either.

Truth be told, I don’t know what I was expecting that day. I guess part of me thought that someone in town would have heard that on their Main Street, a mob lynched a human being, but if the town librarians hadn’t heard of it, who could I expect had? But then, why would anyone have heard of it? After all, I knew only because I did some concerted research and stumbled upon a Master’s thesis covering the incident. It was one of those events that people have a tendency to bury. The act was shameful, as was the subsequent trial, which found no one guilty, claiming Lewis was hung by “persons unknown.” (It all grew more shameful in light of the fact that one month later, a local white man, John Damm, was arrested for assault on a nine-year-old girl but was sentenced to just two months in jail because he “was intoxicated at the time and did not know what he was doing.”) As regards the Lewis hanging, the town immediately distanced itself from the event, prominent citizens writing articles and op-eds that claimed ruffian outsiders were responsible, and that alcohol played a key role, and that while Lewis was clearly guilty, the process of justice, law and order, needed to be allowed to take its course.

Thus, since it was, almost immediately, an act of shame, why would the town keep the history of the incident alive? Why should I expect the people of Port Jervis to embrace the dark side of their past? And yet, I was disappointed in the two librarians because I did expect at least them to know something. I’ve always held librarians in the highest of esteem, and I thought they should know about Bob Lewis. That they didn’t is one of the key reasons, I think, Stephenson built his monument to lynching, so that we’re no longer allowed not to know the black human beings we hung, the ones we slowly roasted over fires, the one we dragged behind a truck in Texas in 1998. The more we bury that past, the easier it is to excuse it and emulate it in modern, updated forms, like George Zimmerman shooting Trayvon Martin, or law enforcement shooting unarmed black men, or border patrol ripping children from their parents. It’s all of a piece.

We got back into my mini-van, Dro driving, and relit our cigars. We went a couple of blocks, and I saw a very skinny, very old man walking down his sidewalk to his porch. I told Dro to stop, and I got out to speak with the old guy. He had to be at least ninety, his hair soft and white as flour. We had a pleasant conversation; he was a veteran, a retired policeman, and he’d never heard of the Bob Lewis lynching. He did point to a historical marker across the street, so I checked that out. It had something to do with the Revolutionary War, though I don’t remember what.

We crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania and drove through the mountains to view the places where Dro used to hunt with his father, a Mississippi native who grew up hunting and fishing. The mountain driving on windy, unlined roads was cool—heavily shaded with rain clouds moving in. It was also surpassingly beautiful, the ground covered in ferns from the spring’s heavy rains, the streams running high, the boulders vying for subdued attention with the moss, fallen trees the color of cinnamon stretched straight or aslant atop the fecund land. We stopped at the cabin where Dro and his father used to stay and even tracked down the former caretaker of the land, a white woman in her nineties who recognized Dro the minute we entered her living room, even though she’d not seen him in at least fifteen years. She was overjoyed to see him and said we made her day.

Eventually we headed back to Port Jervis on the futile errand of finding Lewis’ grave. I knew only that he’d been buried but did not know where. We drove to a cemetery we’d remembered passing on the way in, and two older people were there planting flowers, the man white-haired and overweight, the woman white-haired and not. We stopped behind their truck, where the man sorted flowers, and I got out and used my line, the one about a black man being hung on this very day in 1892.

“You know,” he said, “I actually read about that a couple of months ago. I’ve read about it before. Every few years the local paper runs a story on that lynching.”

I was amazed. And pleased. So the town was keeping the story alive after all. I told the old guy all about the lynching—where it was, who was involved, how it all unfolded. “Now I’m going to have to go research this in-depth,” he said. “You’ve got my curiosity.”

“I came in here because I thought I’d try to find his grave, but I’m pretty sure he’s not buried in here.” It was a Catholic cemetery, and none of the gravestones across its field looked that old.

“I’m guessing the man lynched was an Afro-American who didn’t have a lot of money,” the guy said. I nodded that he was and that, in addition, he probably wasn’t Catholic. “I have to believe he was buried in some potter’s field somewhere,” he said.

“Do you know of any other cemeteries?” I asked.

“Well, the oldest one in town is right over there, on the other side of the fence from this one,” he said, pointing to the distance. “You might check there.”

“Thanks,” I said, heading back to the van.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’m going to research that lynching.” A mustard seed, I thought. Maybe it will blossom into significant action, perhaps even a monument on the site.

We went to that oldest cemetery, but Bob Lewis was not there. It was 1700’s old and contained what must have been the town’s founding families. On the drive out of town we stumbled upon Port Jervis’ main cemetery and drove through it with absolutely no hope of finding Bob Lewis’ tombstone, even if he had been buried there, which we were pretty sure he hadn’t. “The local black community had to raise money just to get him a cheap pine coffin,” I told Dro. “He was buried in some potter’s field.”

“Probably where there’s some apartment complex today,” he said.

We headed home.

“I can’t imagine the terror,” I said, thinking about comments from James Cone’s book: The lynching tree was the most horrifying symbol of white supremacy in black life. The fear of lynching was so deep and widespread that most blacks were too scared even to talk publicly about it. “What’s it like, that terror?” I asked Dro. “Is it constant?”

“No, it’s not constant,” he said. “Most times I’m not scared. Sometimes I am, but I’m only really terrified whenever a cop pulls me over.”

That’s the part that those who revile Colin Kaepernick don’t get—the terror. Statistically, yes, the incidents of police officers shooting innocent, unarmed black men may be rare, but statistically, lynchings were rare. But the awareness that it could happen to any black man at any time is never-ending, and the terror that accompanies that reality is what, in part, compels people like Kaepernick to resist paying full homage to the flag. Just because they are talented and hard-working enough to have earned millions from their labor doesn’t mean they aren’t any less likely to have an unfair, unfree encounter with law enforcement that could end in their deaths. Just ask James Blake. Or Sterling Brown. Or Michael Bennett. That some people fail to comprehend this shows a lack of empathy and imagination or a willful ignorance. That some people choose to make this whole issue about respecting the troops is just mendacious deflection or cowardice.

It requires a spiritual and emotional strength to face these truths, this past. And doing so also offers a path towards redemption. Bryan Stephenson has discussed how the monument to lynching can be a means towards a “just mercy” for those guilty of racial violence and hatred. Redemption is possible for everyone. For the theologian James Cone, redemption comes through an innocent black being lynched as it came through Jesus being crucified; indeed, crucifixion was merely the state-sanctioned lynching of its day. “The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned and tortured,” he writes. “The cross is the most empowering symbol of God’s loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices.” And finally: “humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.”

So a day trip to a lynching near you might be more than just an exercise in living history; it might also be a surprising step towards redemption, individual and collective.

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