Building the Archive: Researching NAACP Records at the Library of Congress

When I joined the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive project in October of 2016, my initial mandate was to find all the lynching cases in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) records at the Library of Congress (LOC) with explicit instructions to find cases that previous researchers may have missed.

Shortly after I began, I met with Dr. Adrienne Cannon, the African American history manuscript specialist in charge of the NAACP records at the LOC. She directed me to parts of the collection that deal with lynching as clearly identified in the finding aid.

While heeding the direction of archivists is always an excellent place to begin research, this approach did not yield any unknown or forgotten lynching cases. The reason for this had a lot to do with the contested history of the definition of lynching.

In 1940, the NAACP, the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), and the Tuskegee Institute settled on a negotiated definition of lynching, following years of conflict between these three organizations over the annual tally of lynchings that each released. This 1940 definition tended to exclude lynchings that involved police or officially deputized posses as perpetrators, lynchings in which the body was never discovered, lynchings involving fewer than three perpetrators, and lynchings connected to labor violence or political conflict.

When Dr. Cannon responded to my email, she drew upon this definition, which had already been used to organize the NAACP’s papers. If I was going to find any lynching cases that previous researchers had missed, I would have to embark on an exhaustive search of the records.

This began with an examination of all the files dealing with lynching that Dr. Cannon had pointed out. I then moved on to explore the NAACP records on anti-lynching, prisons, and police brutality. Finally, I also examined every section of the NAACP branch files from 1930-1954 covering the seventeen southern and border states and Washington, DC from which the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive draws its source material.

I discovered the NAACP had lost numerous cases in its own records, the result of several factors that track the NAACP’s development as an organization through the mid-20th century.

Publication by the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, February 1937. Courtesy of The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Publication by the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, February 1937. Courtesy of The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.

Disorganization in the NAACP Records

In the 1930s, the decade that marks the chronological beginning of our work, the NAACP ranked as the nation’s most visible civil rights organization but was forced to operate on a shoestring budget. The Depression had dried up its dues base and its staff were stretched incredibly thin. Additionally, the huge partisan shift in the mid-1930s, where millions of African Americans “turned Lincoln’s picture to the wall” and abandoned the Party of Lincoln for the Party of the New Deal, generated a tremendous amount of conflict within local NAACP branches as the leadership hashed out their political differences. All of this severely hampered the NAACP’s ability to track and respond to lynchings.

Compounding the problem was the increasing prevalence of more private and less spectacular lynchings that drew smaller crowds, during this period. The NAACP noted this development in its 1940 report, Lynching Goes Underground. Based on the investigative work of Howard Kester, the report concluded that “countless Negroes are lynched yearly, but their disappearance is shrouded in mystery, for they are dispatched quietly and without general knowledge … [A] small body of men do the job formerly done by a vast, howling blood-thirsty mob composed of men, women, and children. This is the new and dangerous method, devised by those who seek to rule by terror and intimidation.”[1]

With fewer resources and with the perpetrators of lynch violence increasingly seeking to hide their deeds, many instances of violence left only the faintest trace in the NAACP’s records.

During World War II, the Association had the opposite problem. The return of prosperity, the impact of the Second Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the fields of the South to the cities of the North and West, and the entry of those millions into the defense industry gave Black Americans the financial means to join the NAACP.

Soon, the Association – once on the verge of perpetual bankruptcy – was boasting 400,000 members. The NAACP grew so quickly that the basic machinery of maintaining lists of dues paying members almost overwhelmed the staff. In addition, the war gave the NAACP the leverage to effectively make a much broader set of demands. In the context of WWII and the Cold War that followed, the Association diversified its program shifting its focus away from the anti-lynching organizing that had shaped much of its program for the first three decades.

Though it now had the resources to effectively track and respond to lynchings, this effectiveness was limited by both a more diffuse mission and the bureaucratic complexity of managing an organization that had grown by 1000%.

Errors lead to the discovery of new cases

Despite my own fears that these records had been thoroughly mined, the NAACP’s own disorganization led to the recovery of several “lost” lynching cases.

Edward Williams disappeared from Ocala, FL. in May 1937. His body was later found in February 1938. Initially, the NAACP identified the missing man as Edward Williams and names him as such on a list  of 1937 disappearances. Nearly a year later in April of 1938, Williams’ mother Dinah Kirkland writes to the NAACP informing them that her son’s body had been found in early February. It was at this point that the NAACP records go awry. Because Williams’ mother’s last name is Kirkland, Williams gets confused with another victim named Willie Kirkland, who was killed in Thomasville, GA. in 1930. The difficulty was compounded by the attitude of the local NAACP investigator who dismissed Edward Williams’ mother as poor, illiterate and ignorant.

Even though they have her (very difficult to read) letters describing the details of the disappearance and the victim’s name, it’s clear that the initial investigator lost his patience with Ms. Kirkland and came to his own conclusions. Subsequent investigators corrected some of these initial mistakes, but the initial confusion over Williams’ identity persisted. This, in effect, ensured that the case would remain “lost” within the NAACP’s own records.[2]

NAACP records pertaining to the murder of Luke McElroy in Alabama in 1949. courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
NAACP records pertaining to the murder of Luke McElroy in Alabama in 1949. courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.

In a 1947 memo from NAACP President Walter White to Assistant Special Counsel Marian Wynn Perry, lynching cases that had been brought to the attention of the Department of Justice were detailed. White’s memo includes an account of the 1943 “case of Sellos Harrison, a member of a mob which lynched John Mayo, of Jackson County, Florida.”[3] Not only does White misspell Cellos Harrison’s name, but he also confuses Harrison (the victim of the lynch mob) with Mayo (the white man whom Harrison was accused of killing).

Correspondence by the NAACP concerning the lynching of Cellos Harrison, July 1943. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Correspondence by the NAACP concerning the lynching of Cellos Harrison, July 1943. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Correspondence by the NAACP concerning the lynching of Cellos Harrison, July 1943. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.

By the time Walter White mixed up the details of Cellos Harrison’s killing, the NAACP had dramatically expanded both its program and membership and was well on the way to securing its historic victory in Brown v. Board of Education. Once central to the NAACP’s mission, the fight against lynching had become marginal, even as racially-motivated homicides continued under the guise of killings by law enforcement and other individuals, undertaken with impunity.

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.

Footnotes:

[1] Howard Kester, “Lynching Goes Underground: A Report on a New Technique” (Jan, 1940). NAACP Records, Series I, Box C359, Folder 22.

[2] For details on the Edward Williams case, see the NAACP Records, Series I, Box C342, Folders 9, 12, and 14, and NAACP Records, Series I, Box C353, Folders 6 and 11.

[3] Walter White to Marian Wynn Perry, 14 May 1947. NAACP Records, Series II, Box A407, Folder 9.

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