Black vigilantism: the rise and decline of African American lynch mob activity in the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas, 1883-1923.

Author:Hill, Karlos K.

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. Black lynch mobs occurred primarily in the late 19th century, principally between 1882 and 1900, and were concentrated in less developed, rural areas with weak judicial systems. These incidents took place more frequently in areas with large black populations such as the Mississippi and Arkansas delta regions. Moreover, black lynching victims were accused of much more serious crimes when compared to white-on-black lynchings. Tolnay reported that 36 percent of the incidents of black lynch mob activity involved the removal of black suspects from police custody. This led him to conclude that black mob action constituted a form of "popular justice" because of the belief that the white-dominated criminal justice system would not act swiftly or severely to punish crimes perpetrated against African Americans. (6)

Historian Bruce Baker's "Lynch Law Reversed" chronicled the lynching of Manse Waldrop, a white man, for raping and murdering Lula Sherman, a black child, in Pickens County, South Carolina, in 1887. According to Baker, Lula Sherman's father, Cato Sherman, and several other black men forcibly removed Manse Waldrop from police custody, shot Waldrop in the head, and hung him from a tree. In response, Cato Sherman and four others were arrested and subsequently charged with murdering Waldrop. Eventually, two of Cato Sherman's accomplices were sentenced to death, but curiously, Cato Sherman was found not guilty. In addition, black and white residents petitioned the governor of South Carolina, John P. Richardson, to pardon the two who were convicted. The governor eventually pardoned the two black defendants in the lynching of Manse Waldrop. (7)

These earlier scholars outlined the basic contours of the phenomenon and convincingly argued that black lynch mobs embraced extra-legal "justice" because they believed certain violent crimes warranted lynching. However, several important issues and questions remain. What factors contributed to the frequency of lynch mob activity among African Americans in areas with weak legal systems and large black populations? Although serious offenses such as murder or rape accounted for the bulk of the allegations that precipitated mob violence, it is often unclear who was murdered or raped and the circumstances surrounding these incidents. Who exactly were the victims of black lynch mob violence, long-term residents or strangers to the community? What patterns characterized this mob action? What information do we have on the size and composition of black lynch mobs? Were their victims simply hanged, or did they employ "rituals of violence" that came to be associated with spectacle lynchings such as burning and mutilating lynch victims' bodies? Why did black lynch mob activity peak during the 1880s and 1890s and dramatically decline after 1900?

This essay explores the impact that the racialization of lynching had upon the trajectory of lynch mob violence among black southerners. Specifically, I will offer some explanations for the rise and decline of lynch mob activity among African Americans in the Mississippi and Arkansas delta regions between the 1880s and early 1900s. I argue that prior to the racialization of lynching in the South, African American mobs lynched other African Americans because they viewed extra-legal violence as a necessary response to violent crimes. It appears that African American lynch mob incidents within the Delta region and throughout the South steadily declined in response to the racialization of lynching.


The rise of African American lynch mob incidents within the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas occurred within a frontier context. Historian John Solomon Otto described the lower Mississippi valley region, including Arkansas, Louisiana, the Mississippi deltas, as the country's ''final frontier" because it was a sparsely populated and agriculturally undeveloped region in the postbellum United States. (8) Prior to the Civil War, settlement in the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas was concentrated along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, whereas the interior Delta counties were comparatively unsettled. Therefore, unlike older cotton producing areas, the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas were dotted with only a few large plantations along the Mississippi River. (9)

The dense forest cover and continual flooding prevented large-scale settlement and development until the 1870s when federal, state, and local governments funded flood control programs in the Mississippi Delta, which soon prompted railroads, lumber companies, and land speculators to heavily invest in Delta real estate. Given the deteriorating social and agricultural conditions in older plantation regions, thousands of African Americans then began migrating to the Delta region due to the prospect of landownership and higher wages. (10) In 1880, for example, African Americans constituted 65 percent of the total population in the Arkansas and Mississippi deltas; however, by the end of the decade, the African American population had risen to 69 percent of the total (see table 1). (11)

Table 1. African American Population as a Percentage of Total Population in the Delta Region, 1880-1900 Year Total African Total African African Population, American Population, American American Arkansas Population, Mississippi Population, Delta Delta Arkansas Delta Mississippi Population Delta Delta as Percent of Total Population 1880 218,103 115,359 253,121 190,976 65 1890 318,230 185,094 335,955 262,171 68 1900 383,022 219,362 412,528 328,650 69 Source: Adapted from the Historical Census Browser, University of Virginia, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center...

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