Black Vigilantism: The Rise and Decline of African American Lynch Mob Activity in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, 1883-1923

By Hill, Karlos K. | The Journal of African American History, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Black Vigilantism: The Rise and Decline of African American Lynch Mob Activity in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, 1883-1923


Hill, Karlos K., The Journal of African American History


In Issaquena County, Mississippi, in April 1884, Samuel T. Wilson, a white convict guard, allegedly ordered the murder of Negia McDaniel, a black fisherman. According to the newspaper account, Wilson and a crew of African American convicts under his command were hauling lumber aboard a river flatboat and landed near McDaniel, who was fishing. After Wilson and McDaniel started arguing, Wilson allegedly ordered two African American convicts to take McDaniel aboard the flatboat, beat him, and throw him overboard. Wilson was subsequently arrested for the alleged crime, and arraigned before Adam Jenkins, an African American justice of the peace, who allowed testimony from two African American witnesses, but allegedly refused to allow persons "friendly with Wilson" to testify. Based on the testimony of the two witnesses, Jenkins ruled that a grand jury should decide Wilson's fate. However, after hearing the testimony of the two witnesses describing Wilson's role in McDaniel's death, the African Americans in attendance, up to three hundred in number, began shouting that they intended to lynch Wilson. The outburst was so threatening that Jenkins requested Deputy Sheriff Lawson, a white officer, to escort Wilson out of town, presumably to a nearby jail. Sheriff Lawson arrived with three armed guards, and escorted Wilson away. About a half mile from the hearing location, however, a mob of local black residents forced the sheriff and guards to turn Wilson over to them. Wasting little time, the mob allegedly took Wilson to a nearby tree and lynched him. The newspaper reported that afterward the white residents in the area condemned the lynching because they considered the two convicts who testified against Wilson of poor character, but the report did not mention whether or not the white citizens took any action against the black vigilantes. (1)

The 1884 lynching of Samuel T. Wilson is important because it highlights heretofore submerged aspects in the complicated the history of lynching in the United States. In the early 1880s African Americans had not yet become the primary targets of lynch mob violence, nor had it become a dominant symbol for white supremacy. In 1884, for example, it has been estimated that 160 whites were lynched compared to only 51 African American victims. (2) Moreover, in the 1880s intra-racial lynching--African American mobs lynching other African Americans, or white mobs lynching other whites--was a more common occurrence. Yet, in less than a decade, the number of African American lynching victims increased dramatically. It was not until 1886 that the number of African Americans lynched (74) exceeded the number of whites lynched (64). In 1892 more than 160 African Americans were lynched, as opposed to only 69 whites. (3) In addition, in the 1890s, white mobs began to stage "spectacle lynchings" of African Americans so that hundreds of whites could witness the execution. (4)

The dramatic increase in African American lynchings was accompanied by the emergence of the "black beast rapist" discourse, which posited that as a result of emancipation, African American men were retrogressing to a "bestial" and "sexually depraved" condition. Whites were being told that this retrogressive behavior explained why so many African American men were being accused of raping white women. Thus, lynching was viewed as a necessary and appropriate response to subdue these "black savages." (5) By the late 1880s and early 1890s, lynching was becoming a more racialized phenomenon in which African Americans were the primary targets of white lynch mobs, and racist discourses were increasingly employed to justify these actions. These developments altered the social relations and meaning of lynching and mob violence for both whites and African Americans, particularly in the South.

Despite significant lynch mob activity among black southerners, only two scholars have examined the subject. Sociologist Stewart Tolnay in "When Race Didn't Matter" provided a comprehensive overview of black lynch mobs and highlighted the statistical trends in lynch mob activity among black southerners between the years 1882 and 1930, identifying several overall patterns. …

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Black Vigilantism: The Rise and Decline of African American Lynch Mob Activity in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, 1883-1923
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