Lynched: A Community Sanctioned Killing

The rise of the Klu Klux Klan, founded in 1865, would usher in domestic terrorism and violence towards African Americans living in the south and elsewhere in the United States. Between 1882 and 1964 over 4,000 people were lynched in the United States. Most of the lynchings took place in the deep south, most of the mobs were white and 72 percent of the victims were Black. My grandmother would tell me the story of her great uncle, Weldon Boylan, who she says was lynched for owning land in Tennessee.

Every time I took out the photo she would tell me the story, “They lynched Uncle Weldon because his father left him land.”

She never gave me the ugly details but she made sure I knew it existed. It wouldn’t be until I saw the Without Sanctuary: Lynching in America exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2012 that I understood the gravity of the type of hatred and violence my family experienced and witnessed living in the South.

James Allen, an antique collector, had collected over 100 postcards and photos of lynchings in America. Allen was interviewed on CSPAN in 2005 to talk about his book Without Sanctuary: Lynching in America. He defines lynching as a community sanctioned killing, where victims were hung either before or after they had been murdered, mutilated and sometimes burned. He also says that photography offers irrefutable proof of this history. This is especially important because it is not taught in our schools or discussed in many American History courses in primary and secondary education, and since this history has been hidden and the crimes covered up.

Allen says, “Usually there is some sort of allegation or breaking with convention, like looking back at a white woman, not stepping off the sidewalk, the African American person was manifesting business smarts, making money, buying land and threatening the status of whites.”

Glen Burkins, publisher of Qcity Metro, an online local newspaper partnered with the Levine Museum of the New South to sponsor a viewing of the exhibit for Qcity Metro readers. My friend Charles Easley and I pitched an idea to document the experience of the participants through video for Qcity Metro.

The Tuskegee Institute records the lynchings 3,436 blacks between the years of 1882-1950. Although these numbers are recorded there are thousands of more that went unreported. It would take over twenty years, obtaining a bachelors and masters degree before I understood what my grandmother meant when she said the word lynched.

Nanny and Granddad

They were Nanny and Granddad to the family but their birth names were Ethel Bumpas and Alfonso Lomax. They were married September 7, 1932 in Shelby County, Tennessee. According to their marriage license they were seventeen and eighteen years old. This was the first public record I discovered when I started researching my family’s ancestry.

1932 Marriage License, Shelby County, Tennesee

They were more than my great grand parents, they were a direct line to the past, to the beginning. To be in their presence was to be among the stars and knowing them was a priviledge. Their existence and experience was a record of history and the embodiment of the American dream and nightmare.

They would leave the south with millions of other black folks during the height of the Great Migration, fleeing the violence and racial hatred of the South. They were sharecroppers, domestic and factory workers. They would move several times before settling in Cleveland, Ohio and buying their first home in the historic Glenville neighborhood. They started out north and lived in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.

There was a sturdiness about them, a sure dependable constance. You knew that if trouble came knocking they could handle it with the quickness. When I would visit their home on Parmlee in Cleveland, Ohio I would sneak upstairs and peak inside their bedroom. There was a rifle that hung above their bed. I never heard them speak much about Tennessee or what they experienced when they lived there. I knew childhood friends who talked about traveling South for the summer but we never did. My grandmother, their only child would tell stories about her childhood in Tennessee. She told stories about lychings and a subversive cruelty that existed in whites and blacks. I looked at them with curious eyes. Who were these people and what horrors did they witness? I wanted to know more and understand what shaped their perception of the world around them and their place in it.

They cherished each other and their family. Nanny was a phenomenal cook and every Thanksgiving she would pull out real china, table cloth, cloth napkins and real silver. My mother says, “Nanny was a real woman, she made sure when us children stepped outside the house our clothes were pressed, our hair neat and we were clean.” Granddad still worked even when I was a kid. He didn’t say much he just went to work and came home to his wife.

My great grandparents marriage license would be the first document I would discovered when I started researching my family’s ancestry. I would use details from stories I heard as a child. The names of people, places and events would fuel my search. My grandmother said they were from Shelby County, Tennessee and that the surname of the slave owner who owned our ancestors was Boyland. She also talked about a family secret that involved a photo of what I thought was a white child, a murder and land.