History's Healer

James Cameron holds his book,
James Cameron holds his book, "A Time of Terror." The Black Holocaust Museum founder bore scars from a 1930 lynching attempt. (2003 Photo By Morry Gash -- Associated Press)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

He symbolized one of the ugliest periods on our nation's history -- a time when fathers and husbands, brothers and sons, friends and neighbors were snatched from their homes and murdered at the end of a rope.

He symbolized how family histories were altered and family fortunes destroyed. He symbolized fear and hatred, anger and sorrow. He also symbolized endurance and transcendence: Despite the whips and chains, we would always find a way to survive and triumph.

But for me, James Cameron, who died at 92 on Sunday, nearly 76 years after he survived a lynching attempt in Marion, Ind., symbolized something more. His story to me is a family tale, a family legend. Family shame.

My family's history includes a lynching. We've never publicly talked about it and I still can't, though it's been whispered about for generations. When I covered last year's story of Cameron's involvement in an effort to get the U.S. Senate to apologize for never having enacted federal anti-lynching legislation, a beloved aunt admonished me to "keep your business out of the newspaper." She wanted to let our loved one's story remain untold, to let him remain another black man who disappeared one night.

Cameron's story is still an open wound in many American families -- black, like mine, and white -- across this country. He knew that. That's why he spent much of his life trying to salve the wound with knowledge, in hopes that one day it would heal.

"It was very important to him that this whole era be exposed," said Cameron's son Virgil in an interview yesterday. "There was always that fear that some people have that they shouldn't talk about it. That was the fear that was instilled by the people who did the lynchings. My father was adamant about exposing it, even if it shook people up. He wanted history not to repeat itself and believed that if we didn't talk about this terrible time in history, it could happen again."

Cameron was 16 years old on Aug. 7, 1930, when he and two buddies, Thomas Shipp, 18, and Abram Smith, 19, happened onto a lover's lane in Marion. According to Cameron, one of the others decided to rob a white couple as they sat in a car. Unknown to him, one of the friends had brought a gun, he said.

One of the young men opened the car door, Cameron recognized the white man, Claude Deeter, 23, and decided to leave. As he ran away, he heard a shot. Deeter was killed. Hours after the slaying, a mob came for Cameron and dragged him to jail. Shipp and Smith were already there. A crowd of whites demanded that the three African Americans be lynched. Shipp and Smith were hanged from maple trees in front of the courthouse. Then Cameron was brought out.

A rope was pulled so tightly that it left marks for the rest of his life. As the crowd screamed racial epithets, he prayed. "Lord, forgive me my sins," Cameron recalled saying, in an interview last year.

As he waited to die, a voice he did not recognize called out that Cameron had had nothing to do with the slaying. He was cut down, the only person known to have survived a lynching attempt. Many years later he was given a piece of the rope. He kept it at the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, which he founded to teach the history of African Americans, including the ugly story of lynching.

Official accounts put the number of lynching victims at about 4,700, though there were likely many more. The recorded lynchings were documented by reporters and photographers. Postcards depicting lynchings became popular souvenirs until the same Congress that never outlawed lynching made the postcards illegal.

Cameron and I talked about those postcards once. He told me I needed to see them so that I could understand how it had been. How ugly and hateful.

I was physically ill the first time I saw one. I had gone to buy a copy of "Without Sanctuary," a book by Atlanta antiques dealer James Allen that depicts hundreds of the postcards. I opened to a picture of four men hanging from a tree somewhere in Texas, necks distended, faces distorted. I left the bookstore biting my lip so I wouldn't cry or vomit. I dreamed about the pictures that night. I dreamed about a man who looked like me being lynched. I dreamed about James Cameron being lynched.

My research into the apology story led me to descendants of lynching victims: Doria Johnson of Evanston, Ill., the great-great-granddaughter of Anthony Crawford, a wealthy black businessman lynched in Abbeville, S.C., in 1916; and Betty Greene of Detroit, whose great-uncle Richard Puckett was lynched in 1913. I wrote a story about a luncheon where the descendants met. I wrote about the kinship they felt, the connection that was almost visceral. No one knew that I felt that kinship, too.

On the day the Senate prepared to vote, the descendants, legislators and others gathered in a conference room on Capitol Hill. I had brought my son, Zachary, and one of his friends because I wanted them to see history in the making. The apology, which was issued a year ago today, was the first time that our elected officials had apologized to African Americans.

As I circulated, I found myself growing breathless for Cameron to arrive. When he was wheeled in, silver-haired and elegant, I felt near tears again. When I shook his hand, I couldn't speak. When he shook Zachary's hand, I fought tears. It was like we were meeting someone who had a connection to our past, someone who knew our story.

I have thought about James Cameron a hundred times since. I have often wondered how my family's history would have been changed if a man related to me also had been spared the rope. I planned to visit Cameron's museum on a trip to the Midwest next month with my husband and son. I hoped that seeing the displays that he conceived would help me to understand how he could dedicate his life to telling the story of lynching, instead of hiding his story in shame.

I hoped that seeing him again would help me to be more like him, willing to put myself out there to help somebody understand just how horrible that time had been. But now I'll never have the chance.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company