James Cameron; Survived Lynching, Founded Museum

Cameron, founder of the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, celebrates his 85th birthday on the site of the museum's new exhibit hall with Milwaukee elementary school students, who serenaded him and gave him cards.
Cameron, founder of the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, celebrates his 85th birthday on the site of the museum's new exhibit hall with Milwaukee elementary school students, who serenaded him and gave him cards. (1999 Photo By Erwin Gebhard -- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

James Cameron, 92, who at 16 survived being lynched from a maple tree in Marion, Ind., and decades later was present when the U.S. Senate apologized for its failure to enact federal anti-lynching laws, died June 11 of congestive heart failure at a hospital in Milwaukee.

Mr. Cameron, who kept a piece of the rope that had scarred his neck moments before he was spared, was the only known survivor of a lynching attempt. An astute student of history, he lectured widely and in 1988 founded the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.

The museum, one of the first of its kind in the country, explores the story of African Americans from slavery to the present. Mr. Cameron started the museum in his basement, and it gained widespread support as a venue of reconciliation.

Marty Stein, one of the early benefactors, told the Milwaukee Journal in 2005 that the museum was a place "you go and ask questions and not be embarrassed that you might insult someone."

"It's a place where the two communities -- African Americans and Europeans -- can come together . . . to build bridges."

Mr. Cameron was born in La Crosse, Wis., and lived in Birmingham and Kokomo, Ind., before moving to Marion, Ind., at 14.

On Aug. 7, 1930, two years into Mr. Cameron's stay in Marion, the 16-year-old and two acquaintances were arrested and accused of murder, robbery and rape. A white couple was parked in a lovers lane when the trio came upon them and one of the group suggested robbing the couple.

Mr. Cameron later said he changed his mind and ran away before the man, Claude Deeter, 23, was fatally shot. The woman later denied being raped.

Within hours, the three young black men were in jail. A mob broke into the jail, beat them and dragged them into the street. Thomas Shipp, 18, and Abram Smith, 19, were hanged from trees in front of the courthouse. Then came Mr. Cameron's turn.

In his autobiography, Mr. Cameron recalled the raw, inhuman sound of the mob, which included members of the local Ku Klux Klan. He once said he still could remember the faces of the 2,000 white people who gathered there, some with their children. Some eating. He prayed for his life.

Then, as the noose grew tighter around his neck, a voice called out: "Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any raping or shooting of anybody."

His neck scarred, he was returned to jail and sentenced for robbery.

After serving about five years in prison in Marion, he left to live with an aunt in Detroit. He married there before moving in 1939 to Anderson, Ind. There he owned the only black business in town -- a combination shoeshine parlor, record shop and knickknack store.

In Anderson for about 10 years, he started chapters of the NAACP throughout Indiana. The civil rights work was difficult in the Klan-heavy state, and he felt support from local blacks was sometimes lacking because of fear, said his son, Virgil Cameron. He decided to leave Indiana and go to Canada, but when he stopped off in Milwaukee, several job opportunities caught his attention.

Mr. Cameron worked in a brewery for a few years and at Milprint packaging company awhile. He also went to a trade school to become a boiler engineer. He worked at one of the biggest malls in Milwaukee, Mayfair Shopping Center, until age 65. He also owned a rug-cleaning business, which afforded him the chance to travel.

In 1979, he and his wife went to Israel, where he visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the memorial to the 6 million people killed in the Holocaust. He returned to Milwaukee determined to build a museum telling the history and struggles of African Americans. He began by telling the story of the 4,700 people, mostly black, who were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968.

Last June, Mr. Cameron, frail and in a wheelchair, came to Washington to bear witness to the U.S. Senate apology condemning its past failures to outlaw lynching.

"It's 100-something years late," he said later. "But I'm glad they are doing it."

Besides his son of Milwaukee, survivors include his wife 68 years, Virginia Cameron of Milwaukee; two children, Walter Cameron of West Palm Beach, Fla., and Dolores Cameron of Chicago; five grandchildren; six great grandchildren; two great-great-grandchildren.

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