History of Lynching

in Virginia


Background: Lynching in the American South


The background below was researched and written by Hannah Ayers, Lance Warren, and the Virginia Library Association, with support from Virginia Humanities and the American Library Association. The text is part of a Community Discussion Guide to accompany Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren's documentary on lynching in the American South, An Outrage.


African Americans saw a new beginning after the Civil War. Twelve generations of slavery were over. America promised freedom—freedom that many black people had fought hard to secure. From daily efforts to undermine the power of their enslavers to taking up arms for the United States during the Civil War, African Americans had earned the freedom they deserved from birth. Congress voted to pass constitutional amendments, ratified by states in the late 1860s, that eliminated most forms of slavery, guaranteed citizenship rights to all people born in the United States, and extended voting rights to African American men.

In the years that followed, African Americans eagerly embraced their new rights—their citizenship. Some ran for office and many enjoyed the opportunity to vote. Black businesses took root, black farmers tilled land, and black people of all backgrounds sought to establish foundations in a rapidly changing world. Freedom called, and a generation of new American citizens answered unequivocally.

To help ensure a transition to freedom and democracy, US Army soldiers occupied the South. The federal government also dispatched Reconstruction officials tasked with extending education and opportunity to newly freed black people. Yet even in the presence of federal boots on the ground, white southerners struck back.

The postwar South was a place of breathtaking violence. Cheap guns proliferated, and the region had one of the highest murder rates in the world. Violence among both black and white southerners was commonplace. But white violence directed at black citizens would define the region for generations to come.

Reconstruction agents reported daily assaults on black people by their white neighbors, and these federal officials complained of too few resources to fight back. Social dislocation spurred by the war made matters worse. Violence against African Americans was especially pronounced in sparsely populated areas and counties that saw large numbers of people moving in and out. These demographic forces combined with the availability of weapons, underfunding of Reconstruction efforts, prevailing racism, and bitterness over Civil War defeat to make black life in the postwar South exceptionally vulnerable.

The new and tenuous freedom enjoyed by African Americans was made possible by courageous black voters, candidates, and officeholders—and by Reconstruction policies. Black members of Congress reminded their colleagues that these gains could be easily lost. Black journalists warned of the consequences if the government abandoned a people so recently enslaved. Meanwhile, the boldness of black people claiming citizenship rights was stirring bitterness among their unreconstructed white neighbors. Already, violence against African Americans was an epidemic. Black leaders worried that the withdrawal of federal government support could cause the situation to spiral out of control.

But white members of Congress—comprising the vast majority of the seats—eventually grew tired of defending equality. They deemed the effort to reconstruct the South ineffective and too expensive. When the presidential election of 1876 ended in a tie requiring Congress to break it, the party of Lincoln traded its legacy of emancipation for the support of southern allies. They pledged to remove federal troops from the South if their candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, could count on a majority of votes to send him to the White House.

The deal was made, Reconstruction was over—and lynching, already commonplace, surged. By the 1890s, an African American person was lynched every four days.

Lynching is a particular type of killing, occurring outside of the legal system and with social sanction. African Americans who were lynched were rarely put on trial for alleged wrongs, and their killers were not prosecuted. Law enforcement officers were often implicated in the violence, whether by participating in lynch mobs or allowing African Americans they had arrested—unjustly—to be taken away from the relative safety of the town jail. Lynching harnessed the ugly power of white supremacy to attack the nation’s newest citizens with sickening violence.

The racial terror of lynching encompassed far more than the noose that often is symbolically used to conjure its memory today. While public hangings did take place, so too did prolonged acts of torture. Victims of lynching often were beaten and even mutilated, castrated, dismembered, burned alive, or any combination of these acts.

These killings were deliberate, premeditated, and often public. Many lynchings took place in quiet places under cover of darkness, but others unfolded on town squares by day. Often, a crowd of hundreds or thousands of people bore witness to the violence.

Frequently, concessions were sold, witnesses posed for photographs with the corpse—later buying and selling postcards commemorating their deed—and members of the crowd left with detached body parts of the dead as souvenirs.

Thousands of African Americans died by lynching. In the most comprehensive report on the subject, the Equal Justice Initiative estimates that more than 4,000 black people were killed from 1877 to 1950—in 12 southern states. Yet the presence of lynching elsewhere in the United States, even in much smaller numbers, long served as a warning to African Americans, other people of color, and even whites seen as outsiders that American terror was never far away.

Many African Americans worked to resist and reveal the scope of racial terror in the South. The black press, in particular, worked hard to provide a voice for the victims and to call for justice. Journalists Ida B. Wells and John Mitchell Jr. worked tirelessly to expose the horrors of lynching, dedicating their lives and sacrificing much to the cause. At the same time, activists boycotted businesses tied to perpetrators of lynchings and provided shelter to black people in danger of violence. Others organized into groups such as the NAACP.

Looking Forward

The Great Migration—during which millions of black Americans fled the South—transformed urban populations across the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Today, families only a few generations removed from experiencing lynching firsthand still feel the economic and psychological impact of having had family members who were killed or had their lives upended as a result of racial terror.

Confronting the reach of racial terror must include recognizing its reach into today’s criminal justice system. Jim Crow laws evolved into mass incarceration, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the disproportionate application of the death penalty. These state-sanctioned proxies for systems of racial control are revealed by statistics. Judges and juries today disproportionately sentence people of color to death, put them behind bars, and, in doing so, devastate the communities where people incarcerated and condemned once called “home.” The horrors and history of lynching do not exist in a distant or detached past.

An Outrage highlights community change makers who are giving voice to victims and families whom white supremacists tried to silence through acts of racial terror. The film encourages viewers to look back at a history that they may not have seen in their textbooks. It also encourages them to take steps toward a better future.

“By facing the awfulness done by Americans who came before us, identifying the behaviors and biases within us all that perpetuate the pain of those acts, and discussing how to remember and rise above that past, we can do better,” says filmmaker Lance Warren. “We can be better.”