Injustice System

A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded Age by Philip Dray. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages. $26.

On June 2, 1892, in the ostensibly progressive railroad town of Port Jervis, New York, a white mob lynched Robert Lewis, a Black teamster who was accused of assaulting a white woman. The murder of Lewis is the subject of historian Philip Dray’s absorbing new book, A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded Age. A jury soon acquitted all of the accused, forcing the local coroner to render the murder committed by “persons unknown,” the “ubiquitous last word of coroner’s findings throughout the South, now invoked here in Port Jervis,” as Dray writes.

That coroner’s haunting phrase inspired the title of Dray’s in-depth 2002 study, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. In his newest book on the subject, Dray focuses on a crime that was commited at the “genesis of the anti-lynching crusade in America,” with the trailblazing journalist Ida B. Wells and her impassioned reporting on lynchings—including the Lewis case—gaining national prominence. Through a sinuous narrative that draws facts and insights from all aspects of nineteenth-century American life, the book focuses on this one telling case to remind us that “the historic confidence of any section of the United States in some immunity to racial injustice remains, as it was in Robert Lewis’s time, a false faith indeed.”

JUSTIN SLAUGHTER: Though the Lewis murder “lacked the ritualistic staging typical of many Southern lynchings,” as you write, it also stemmed from many of the same post–Civil War, white-male insecurities that fueled similar crimes in the South. Can you talk about those underlying factors?

PHILIP DRAY: Frederick Douglass thought lynching was a response to Black people’s advance since Emancipation, “on the same principle by which resistance to the course of a ship is created and increased in proportion to her speed,” in this case, white resentment at Blacks’ expanded rights and mobility. The Ku Klux Klan’s chief objective after its founding at the end of the Civil War was scaring Blacks away from the ballot box. Southern methods of disenfranchisement, when they didn’t continue in violence, simply took more subtle forms: legislative measures including poll taxes, all-white primaries, and pernicious sleights-of-hand such as “grandfather requirements” and “understanding clauses” crafted deliberately to deny Blacks the vote. Of course, the echoes of this antidemocratic project resound with tremendous clarity today.

Other social dynamics were influential, too. White women were becoming increasingly independent, leaving the family farm to hire on at textile mills or seek other salaried work. Now add to these changes the immense guilt of white men, who for generations had sexually exploited and assaulted Black women—either those who were enslaved or those over whom they held some other authority. This fueled the anxiety that any sexual bond between a Black man and a white woman must be as forced and nonconsensual as had been whites’ own predation. And so it was this allegation that often stirred the mob to life, the transgression that would hear of no refutation or inquiry. 

Speaking of antidemocratic projects, you reference the “mobocratic spirit” that Abraham Lincoln warned about in his lyceum address in 1838. What lessons can we draw from the mob violence at Port Jervis in the wake of the capital riot on January 6?

Lincoln’s 1838 lyceum address was a response to the mob murder of the white abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy outside St. Louis, and the lynching of gamblers and Black alleged plotters of insurrection in Mississippi. Lincoln warned sharply of the societal threat and inevitable stresses on the republic of vigilantism.

The January 6 insurrection made such anarchistic violence again vividly real. For me, the videos of the crowd’s charge up the Capitol steps and the hand-to-hand combat with police conjure vivid impressions of June 2, 1892 in Port Jervis, when the few officers trying to protect Robert Lewis were themselves brutally abused by the mob. One is left with a depressing sense of the tenacity of Lincoln’s “mobocratic spirit,” inspired now, as then, by white America’s anxiety in the face of change and a willingness to abandon democratic forms.  

On March 29, President Biden signed the “Emmett Till Antilynching Act” to make lynching a federal hate crime. What is the significance of this law passing now? 

It’s a welcome development, and as a century’s resistance to it suggests, is more than just symbolic. One of the guiding figures in the fight for such a law was James Weldon Johnson, who, upon investigating the lynching of Ell Persons in Memphis in 1917 for the NAACP, famously wrote that “in large measure the race question involves the saving of Black America’s body and white America’s soul.” The main push came between 1919 and World War II.  Lynching of Black people was rampant in those years, yet was seldom investigated, let alone prosecuted by the states. Although passage seemed assured once or twice, Congressional support repeatedly failed at the clinching moment; in the 1930s, when Eleanor Roosevelt was a prominent advocate for the bill, FDR worried about alienating Southern representatives whose votes he needed to secure elements of the New Deal. In retrospect, something was gained even though the campaign fell short, as the ongoing struggle forced the issue before white America and made it harder to ignore.  

A turning point in the white public’s awareness of lynching, however, came when anti-lynching crusaders began bypassing white news accounts and launching (and publicizing) their own intrepid investigations of the crime. Ida B. Wells, NAACP field secretaries, volunteers, and muckrakers gathered accounts from the Black community that exposed the often bigoted and misleading version of facts appearing in the white press. White investigators who posed as visiting land- or timber-buyers often found Southern whites themselves loquacious on the subject of a recent lynching, a major event in an isolated rural town. Flooding the mailboxes of the press and elected officials with these vital reports, the NAACP in particular did much to bring whites to understand lynching and mob vigilantism as repulsive and anarchistic. 

There was an irony that lynchings, on the one hand, were public spectacles, watched by massive crowds in person or retold through newspapers, while legally they were acts committed by “persons unknown,” with no perpetrators facing consequences. Can you talk more about that dynamic, then and today?

The very nature of a lynching is the obfuscation of facts and the denial of due process. It is an extrajudicial killing that leaves no transcript or lawyers’ arguments and holds no one accountable. Yet the irony was that a great many were covered exhaustively by the white press, lurid and excitable accounts that yet employed the ersatz discretion of the Victorian era, and often ran for several days, from the initial alleged “outrage” of a white woman to the pursuit of “the brute” by “determined men,” to the barbaric spectacle of his demise. The press were often complicit in generating lynching fervor, reporting that the intensity of local feeling would allow no other result. 

It should be said that countless incidents of racially motivated murder were never recorded. References to such assaults are listed in numbing repetition in the ledgers of the Reconstruction era’s “Freedmen’s Bureau,” held in the National Archives. Some lynchings, decades old, continue to come to light as the result of diligent research by universities, news organizations, and the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. 

There is a disturbing parallel in our own time. In 2014, after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it was found that there was a significant under-reporting nationwide of fatal police shootings. In response, the Washington Post since 2015 has independently culled news accounts, stories in social media, and police reports, to better collate this data, which shows that police consistently kill about 1,000 people per year. While half the victims are white, Black and Hispanic Americans are slain at a disproportionate rate.

Cell phone and police videos have been essential in showing white America the deadly police methods Black people have suffered for decades, and enabling the identification and prosecution of individual officers. However, because of 24/7 news, the internet, and social media, these same images, endlessly looped and accessible at the click of a mouse, have a devastating power to retraumatize victims, families, and the entire Black population. The resonance with nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century lynching is unmistakable, for the horrific crime’s purpose was white communal affirmation and the terrorization of Black citizens—children and adults—be they ten miles or ten states away.

You write about a Black Lives Matter march in Port Jervis on June 10, 2020 that publicly commemorated the Lewis lynching. What was the significance of this for you and the town?

Like many small cities in the Northeast, Port Jervis has endured deindustrialization, the loss of its historic status as a railroad hub, and the arrival of an Interstate highway, which allows travelers between the Eastern Seaboard and Pennsylvania to bypass the town. Efforts to commemorate the lynching, either with a marker or a modest annual procession, were long met with a collective shrug; in the first stages of my research, I often encountered silent indifference to the subject from whites, as well as reluctance among Blacks to speak of it.   

Governor Kathy Hochul’s announcement this February that a plaque would be struck has been gratifying, although I believe it was the Black Lives Matter march in Port Jervis on June 10, 2020, led by young women of color from Port Jervis lending their voices to the call for a national reckoning to lynching’s legacy, anti-Black police brutality, and racial injustice, that was the real breakthrough. It began a process in the town that has helped dispel a century of convenient amnesia. 

Justin Slaughter is a journalist and cultural critic in Brooklyn. He’s writing a book about C. L. R. James’s life and writings in America from the 1938 to 1953.