Research & Methodology
Introduction and Key Premises
Our efforts to uncover lives lost to lynching is built on a series of methodological decisions. The goal of this page is to illuminate the choices that guided our research, how we went about our work, and why we think it is important to the study of Alabama and the South.
We join a long line of researchers seeking to shed light on lynching history from 1874 to 1981. Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois, famously, dedicated their lives at the turn of the twentieth century to calling attention to the murder of blacks by white mobs on the basis of supposed criminal charges and without proper legal defenses. Wells and DuBois pointed to white society’s widespread efforts to intimidate and control the behavior of black citizens as a primary motivation for these murders. They begged as well the American public to see through the rantings of white politicians and journalists, who hastened these public extralegal executions of African Americans by accusing them of committing gross acts of physical and sexual assault, violating codes governing racial conduct, and not being worthy of a day in court. Wells and Du Bois knew all too well the important role that white newspapers played in publicizing lies of black delinquency and whipping up popular support for lynch mobs. While minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, novels, art and other forms of popular culture did as well, newspapers were by far the most common and widespread agent.
Wells and Du Bois point to two bedrock assumptions of our work:
- First, that lynching was fundamentally an act of racial terror. White citizens widely turned to lynching as a lethal tool to manipulate the mobility, politics, and labor of black men, women, and children. It was essential to securing and then maintaining white social power after the end of slavery and extending through the mid-twentieth century. Even in decades when the number of lynchings dipped, their power to demonstrate the ferocity of white supremacy and strike fear deep in the heart of black communities never died.
- Second, that white newspapers, as primary sources of evidence documenting lynching history, are deeply flawed and unfortunately too often function as the single form of evidence in lynching histories. Most white presses practiced conventions of racialized reporting that cared little about exposing the truth of any case involving alleged black wrongdoing. They gave their readers what they wanted to read: namely, a steady flow of sensationalized accounts about Blacks who allegedly stole from whites, killed whites, and raped white women. This river of lies fed narratives of black criminality that washed across the South for generations and empowered whites to discipline Black Americans with a vast arsenal of weapons, including lynching.
Even though white newspapers contributed heavily to the lynching of black Americans through sensationalized and deliberately misleading reporting, they still persist as the most common and available record documenting racial terror. The question then is: how do we use them?
For all their problems, white presses still offer a valuable place to start any investigation about a lynching. Articles frequently reveal names, locations, landmarks, and the role of police, courts, and the government. The key to using these newspapers, then, is reading them with a skeptical eye that takes into account what we know about the publisher’s inherent bias and motivation during the period, using additional sources of evidence in order to draw a more accurate historical portrait. We study black newspapers as a way to hear different voices; we record vital statistics, census data, probate files, criminal proceedings, and employment and banking records; and we scan cemetery records, memoirs, local histories, and official state papers of the Governor and Attorney General.
We seek to create a lynching history that documents the humanity of the victims as well as the circumstance of their deaths. Indeed, we hope to discover not simply why or where a black person was lynched but who they were – who they loved, where they lived, where they worked, and who they left behind.
Central to our research effort is an ongoing campaign to collect and preserve as many newspaper article about each lynching victim in Alabama as is feasible, including articles published inside and outside of Alabama and even internationally in some cases. Our database also contains non-newspaper sources to provide a collective vehicle to identify and cross-reference details about individual lynchings. Perhaps more important, though, this database offers a chance to witness little-glimpsed aspects of the legacy of lynching. For example, our database tracks precisely where hundreds of newspaper stories of lynching were published over more than a half-century. Capturing this regional and national publication network helps us understand the slow evolution of modern discourses of racial difference and superiority. We also transcribe newspaper articles, offering a literary window onto how local white ideas of black criminality and danger became nationalized and achieved a life of their own that extended far beyond Alabama’s borders.
The ability to conduct lynching research is changing swiftly, allowing the public greater access to records that only a few years ago were the purview of highly specialized scholars. Driving the change is the rapid digitization of older lynching studies and their integration into new online databases. What is now emerging is the possibility of imaging a new southern landscape of memory. Indeed, when we illuminate the darkest moments of our past we start to ask why we know so little about them. We begin to reconsider the history taught to us in school or the Confederate-themed monuments that decorate our town squares and state land and wonder where are the acknowledgements of a past where violence was done.
The promise of our research, at its broadest level, is a democratizing of southern history. By creating new histories and databases for lynching victims in the state we hope to invite a new generation of southerners to search for and see the stories of lives forgotten. More people can discover histories never meant to be written down. Once emboldened with this new knowledge, we can collectively ask why so much of our shared history has been hidden for so long and at what cost to our appreciation of southern society.
Definition of Lynching.
Significantly, the scholarly meaning of the term “lynching” has shifted subtly over time, as William Carrigan has shown in an important 2017 essay, “The Strange Career of Judge Lynch: Why the Study of Lynching Needs to Be Refocused on the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Our work both builds on and extends his definition of lynching. For Carrigan, a lynching occurred when one of the following conditions must be met. We quote in full: “first, the viewing of the execution by spectators who either stand aside or actively support the actions of the murderers; second, the discovery of a hanged body in a public space; third, the discovery of a mutilated corpse in a public place; fourth, a murder accompanied by a broadly aimed public defense that justifies the killing on the basis of the alleged actions (murder, sexual assault, violation of social mores); fifth, the participation of a large group of people in the killing, such as the shooting of an individual by a group of twenty or more persons; sixth, the failure of local authorities to even investigate the circumstances of the murder; seventh, an individual murdered while in the custody of local authorities, that is, while lodged in jail, after capture by posse, et cetera; and, finally, the public complicity of local authorities in the murder, such as endorsing mob action or aiding and abetting murderers by providing access to prisoners.” To this list, however, we add the intentional forgetting and erasing of the lynching from subsequent public histories of the locale and region; or the precise opposite – the use of the lynching to publicly celebrate and reify white supremacy in these histories.
Racial Terror Lynchings
We focus specifically on lynchings of Black Americans by white Americans for the purpose, be it stated or implied, of strengthening and extending white supremacy. Racial terror lynchings occurred outside of any legal process and were not some form of “frontier justice.” It was meant to subdue, intimidate, and control Black Americans. Racial terror lynchings are by far the most common form of lynching in American history. The term was coined by the Equal Justice Initiative in in its 2017 report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.
Definition of Attempted Lynching
We include attempted lynchings in our tally of racial violence as a way to more fully appreciate the commonplace nature of lynching in Alabama. Attempted lynchings refer to near-killings where one or more of the required elements of a lynching were present but the intended victim escaped or was rescued. We rely on multiple newspaper reports and extant legal records to corroborate these incidents. For example, Elmore Clark was one of three black men accused of murdering a white woman in Tuscaloosa in 1933. While they were being transported to Birmingham for trial, a mob of white men overpowered law enforcement officers and shot the prisoners. Clark survived and fled.
We begin with the end of Reconstruction in Alabama in 1874 and end with the last recorded lynching in the state, in 1981. Like nearly every study of lynching history, we adopt this starting point because it marks a moment of profound political change. White Democrats won control of state and local governments as well as the governor’s office. Central to their success was to limit the Black vote through physical intimidation and violence. Once in power they swiftly wrote a new state constitution that stripped Blacks of many of their newly-won rights as American citizens. Democratic politicians preached white supremacy as the new law of the land and bragged about membership in groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Not surprisingly, the number of racial terror lynchings began to grow explosively.
Significantly, lynchings occurred in different counties and at different times in the state through the late nineteenth century and twentieth. For preliminary analyses of the state’s collectively lynching history, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive more information about a Comprehensive Lynching Review for Alabama conducted by students in summer 2020.
How We Research
We begin our work by selecting one to three counties and identifying all of the recorded lynching vicitms by comparing the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology (CSDE) Lynching Database and published data from the Tuskegee Institute. An undergraduate researcher is assigned to one or two victims and spends the next 15 weeks researching.
Students first work through three large newspaper databases: ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov, Newspaper.com, and Proquest Historical Newspapers. These databases host articles from newspapers published nationally, regionally, at the state level, and at the county and town level. The newspapers are mostly white, making even more important the students’ efforts to study databases of black newspapers, including African American Periodicals, 1825-1995 and individual runs of the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Baltimore Afro-American. Students identify, create, and save a pdf of all relevant articles. At this point they begin trying to make sense of each case, locating the names of the black victims and their family members and friends but also any white person involved, including law enforcement officers. With these names in hand, students scout Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, looking for any genealogical information. While reading the documents they pay particular attention to local geographic markers and descriptions of the landscape in order to identify where the murder occured as precisely as possible. The trace as well the route the victim may have taken when fleeing apprehension and, once apprehended, where the mob carried the victim. And when possible, they find out where the corpse was buried.
Students move into the communities where the lynching occur, too. They visit county archives, historical societies, libraries and courthouses and speak with professionals there. They ask for help from local community members and take pictures of the area where the crime occurred.
At the end of their work, every researcher is invited to include a personal response to their research on the website. Nearly all do so. The goal is to show how a dedicated effort to uncover a history of racial violence can change how we look at the world, even live in it.
 For an extensive review of lynching scholarship, see Giggie, John M., and Emma Jackson Pepperman. “Old and New Directions in the History of Lynching.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, forthcoming September 2020.
 William E. Carrigan “The Strange Career of Judge Lynch: Why the Study of Lynching Needs to be Refocused on the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, vol. 7 no. 2, 2017, p. 293-312.
 Significantly, the Equal Justice Initiative published in summer 2020 an account of lynchings that occurred during Reconstruction itself and indicated nearly 200 lynchings occurred in Alabama — 138 of them in Mobile over a three-month period in 1865. While Reconstruction was fundamentally a different political era, these lynchings should also be investigated. (https://eji.org/report/reconstruction-in-america/documenting-reconstruction-violence/#34-documented-mass-lynchings-during-the-reconstruction-era)