Building the Archive: Finding “Lost” Cases of Lynching and Police Brutality

Development of a Research Strategy 

In 2008, CRRJ begun unearthing little-known cases of lynching and other forms of homicidal racial violence. During these early days, working closely with Northeastern University School of Law professors, law students publicized hundreds of records about these events, and collaborated with family members to generate increased public attention and reparative measures.  

While these research efforts produced original scholarship and crucial findings for the affected communities, it proved challenging to pry loose records that are in the custody of federal agencies. 

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) although intended to expand access to these records, made it difficult fully to discover the federal role in these events.

Dr. Jay Driskell, a professional historian, joined us in October 2016, and designed a research strategy that accelerated ongoing records collection processes, and ultimately led to the release of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.

In this series, Driskell pulls back the curtain to reveal the processes, challenges and achievements that have come from working closely with National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) records, Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) records, the records of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), and newspaper archives.

This essay details the archive’s creation and Driskell’s research strategy development.

When I began my work with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project in October of 2016, I never thought I would still be uncovering unknown cases of racialized violence in the Jim Crow South more than a year later.

After my initial meeting with MIT Dean and CRRJ cofounder, Melissa Nobles, I had a spreadsheet containing 229 cases that previous research had unearthed. Dean Nobles told me to find out what I could about these cases and see if there were any others the CRRJ had missed. She was specifically interested in a thorough exploration of the NAACP papers at the Library of Congress and the records of the Department of Justice at the National Archives in College Park. MD.

When I began my research, I was primarily focused on lynchings and crafted a strategy aimed at finding cases that prior investigations may have missed. When we expanded the scope of our investigations to include killings at the hands of police and other individuals able to act with impunity, this initial program became the template for the rest of the project.

At the beginning, I knew I wouldn’t find that much by retracing the paths traveled by previous researchers, especially given how picked over the existing sources were. What I needed to do was to identify sources that had not been examined. To locate those, I reimagined the events leading to and the consequences stemming from each incident. From this, I could then identify each participant and witness, and the type of evidence they might have left behind. It is useful to visualize these as a series of concentric circles radiating outwards from the moment of violence.

At the center of the circle is a victim and unless the victim survived, they didn’t leave much in the way of evidence – besides their bodies.

Begin your exploration of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

About the Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these uncovered stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.

The killers themselves, the first circle orbiting that central point, are also unlikely to leave a record trail. While previous generations has been able to commit their crimes with loud impunity, public agitation against lynching and other similar acts of violence over the course of the 1930s had begun to contest its legitimacy. By the middle of the 20th century, lynchers still killed without consequence, but for local law enforcement to justify their failure to prosecute these torturers and murderers, that impunity had necessarily grown more muted. 

The next circle is comprised of law officers. The records left behind by sheriffs, police, and FBI agents have proven to be the most significant source of material for the purpose of reconstructing these incidents. These have been valuable for several reasons. Not only were local police interested in any violence that happened within their jurisdiction — particularly violence that transgressed the monopoly on state violence held by the police — officers themselves were often participants in or accomplices to mob violence. Even more importantly, these officials were embedded in bureaucracies that became increasingly more far reaching in scope as the century progressed and which generated a considerable number of records about each incident.

Letter from U.S. Attorney Malcolm Lafargue on the case of John C. Jones, 1947. courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Letter from U.S. Attorney Malcolm Lafargue on the case of John C. Jones, 1947. courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Edward Williams, killed in 1937 in Ocala, Marion County, Florida. He had been held in Ocala County jail on vague charges of attacking a white woman. Photo courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, https://repository.library.northeastern.edu/downloads/neu:4f17rv401?datastream_id=content
Edward Williams, killed in 1937 in Marion County, Florida. He had been held in jail on vague charges of attacking a white woman. Photo courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.

If a killing was committed due to negligence or participation of local law enforcement, it came to the attention of the Department of Justice as a civil rights violation. The DOJ then turned the case over to the FBI, who created an investigative record. Because they tend to be well-organized and located in publicly accessible repositories, the bulk of the law enforcement records we’ve collected have been federal rather than state and local. The state and local law enforcement records we have collected have presented their own unique challenges.

The third circle of witnesses and participants contains the national and local press. Reporters from small town newspapers sometimes attended lynchings as participants and reported on them approvingly. Others chronicled them as local news of note. Outside of police investigations, these have proven to be the most common sources of information about incidents of violence. Ironically, as the ongoing mass digitization of newspapers proceeds, finding “lost” lynchings in the press will become easier in 2024 than it was throughout the 20th century.

Of all the press sources I’ve examined, it’s been the local white press that has generally proven most useful. While these sources are rarely sympathetic, they frequently contain details that don’t make it into the national press — whether Black, white, or communist. Local Black papers will sometimes report on unique details about an incident of violence, but these often come out only on a weekly basis, are undercapitalized and sometimes dependent on local white toleration or advertising dollars. 

The next circle of witnesses comprises civil rights organizations like the NAACP, the ASWPL, International Labor Defense and Tuskegee Institute.

Occasionally, these organizations sent their own investigators into the aftermath of a lynching. The NAACP relied on the talented Howard Kester, a white organizer with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union throughout the 1930s for this. The ASWPL relied on white women in local chapters to conduct investigations. Less frequently, correspondents from a community affected by anti-Black violence would reach out to these organizations directly.

However, for the most part, these organizations relied almost exclusively on national or regional press accounts of lynchings. This meant that the records of these organizations, which generations of historians have used to record the annual number of lynchings in the United States, are several steps removed from the initial encounters between killers and victims that generated each evidentiary trail.

The conclusions of the literature on mid-20th century anti-Black violence have been based on a serious undercount of the number of incidents. 

The outermost circle comprises archives themselves. All the records described above are only accessible to modern-day researchers because they have been arranged, cataloged, and described by archivists and made available in publicly accessible repositories. As they organize these records, archivists use the prevailing understandings of the terms applicable to the records they are working with, and this will shape how they are described in the finding aid.

For example, when I approached Dr. Adrienne Cannon, the African American history manuscript specialist in charge of the NAACP records at the Library of Congress, concerning any records pertaining to lynching, she directed me to those parts of the collection dealing with lynching that were already clearly identified in the finding aid. Because it is a very well-written finding aid, none of the cases it described were among those that had not yet been discovered by previous researchers.

What the Library of Congress’ finding aid defined as a lynching — and what many contemporary researchers define as a lynching — was profoundly shaped by the NAACP’s own definition, which excluded lynchings:

  • Involving police or officially deputized posses as perpetrators
  • In which the body was never discovered
  • That involved fewer than three perpetrators
  • That were connected to labor violence or political conflict.

The records detailing an incident of lethal violence that arrived at the NAACP were not always understood through the lens of lynching and would not have been filed there. Many of the newly “discovered” cases in our archive I found only after some creative searching through the NAACP records under such headings as “Crime”, “Prisons”, and “Soldier Trouble,” among others.

After eight years, it has become evident that most of the cases we describe in our archive were not lost so much as they were suppressed by the stories told about each killing by the perpetrators themselves. It is the purpose of this archive to challenge the dominant narratives crafted by police, coroners, judges and juries about how each of these men and women met their end. It is our mission to listen for and make audible the voices of those victims who would otherwise be forever silenced.

After eight years, it has become evident that most of the cases we describe in the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive were not lost so much as suppressed. It is the purpose of this archive to challenge the dominant narratives crafted by police, coroners, judges and juries about how each of these men and women met their end. It is our mission to listen for and make audible the voices of those victims who would otherwise be forever silenced.

Authored by Dr. Jay Driskell, CRRJ’s Lead Historian, who has served as a consulting historian for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  His book in progress is “A History of Impunity: Lynchings and Police Violence in the Twentieth Century.”  He is the author of “Schooling Jim Crow: The Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics” (U. VA Press, 2014) and many articles and book chapters. Driskell holds a PhD and MA from Yale University (History), and a BA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Read more from this series...​

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