Lynching to Belong: Claiming Whiteness through Racial Violence

Lynching to Belong: Claiming Whiteness through Racial Violence

Lynching to Belong: Claiming Whiteness through Racial Violence

Lynching to Belong: Claiming Whiteness through Racial Violence


Thousands of black men died violently at the hands of mobs in the post- Civil War South. But in Brazos County, Texas, argues Cynthia Nevels, five such deaths in particular point to an emerging social phenomenon of the time: the desire of newly arrived European immigrants to assert their place in society, and the use of racially motivated violence to achieve that end.

Driven by economics and the forces of history, the Italian, Irish, and Czech immigrants to this rich agricultural region were faced with the necessity of figuring out where they fit in a culture that had essentially two categories: white and black. In many ways, the newcomers realized, they belonged in neither position.

In the end, they found ways to resolve the ambiguity by taking advantage of and sometimes participating directly in the South's most brutal form of racial domination. For each of the immigrant groups caught up in the violence, the deaths of black men helped to establish racial identity and to bestow the all-important privileges of whiteness.

This compelling and superbly written study will appeal to students and scholars of social and racial history, both regional and national.


Our fellow citizens of foreign birth will, like all good citizens, vote intel
ligently, freely and conscientiously in the primary, and will stick to the
ticket like a man. of course, there are certain matters about which they
are very peculiar…

Bryan eagle, 26 June 1890

There was something unconventional about the reasons why five black men died in Brazos County, Texas, around the turn of the twentieth century. the victims died in a series of violent racial eruptions, but they were by no means the only black men in Brazos County to die a violent death at the hands of angry whites. At least sixteen were killed by various means in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a time when the lives of black men throughout the South were particularly vulnerable to brutal endings. and at first glance, nothing seemed exceptional about the deaths of these five. the causes were unremarkable. An alleged rape of a white woman or an attack on a respected public official sparked each of the three episodes. There was nothing extraordinary about the resulting lynchings and legal execution. They were closely similar to other such events occurring regularly across Texas and the rest of the South. At least on the surface, anyway, they all seemed to follow a standard script.

But there was an intriguing aspect, a curious twist, to these deaths. in each case, European immigrants of different nationalities—first Italian, then Irish, and finally Bohemian, or Czech—played crucial roles at the beginning of each story and helped to launch a series of events that culminated in death. the first two incidents, in 1896 and 1897, were mob-led lynchings. the third, a complex court case that stretched from 1900 to 1901, ended in an execution that was characteristic in some respects of a legal lynching. Why were these Europeans present in what were essentially southern racial affairs, and what did they stand to gain?

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