It was like a family reunion, except that the people sharing food and fellowship in a makeshift dining room at the U. S. Capitol were not related.
They were bonded instead by a common history -- a heritage of pain born when their ancestors were beaten, tortured, burned at the stake and hanged.
They were descendants of lynching victims.
"My first reaction, seeing the other descendants, was a little like surprise, because for some reason, I had always thought that my family was in a vacuum, that this was something that had happened to just us," said Betty Greene of Detroit, whose great-uncle Richard Puckett was lynched in Laurens, S.C., in 1913. "To see how many other people and families had been affected, and in all the different ways, was very powerful."
The descendants, some 200 strong, had come to Washington at the invitation of a group of civil rights activists to meet two national lawmakers on a mission to right a wrong perpetrated against Greene's great-uncle and many others decades ago -- the U. S. Senate's refusal, on several occasions, to make lynching a federal offense.
Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and George Allen (R-Va.) welcomed the descendants to the nation's capital last week to witness the passage of a resolution apologizing for the Senate's failure, the first time the body had officially acknowledged an atrocity against African Americans.
The House of Representatives, responding to pleas from civil rights groups such as the NAACP, three times passed such measures. But, each time, the Senate killed the proposed legislation. Powerful southern lawmakers defended the states' rights to mete out justice without federal interference, employing the filibuster to block votes, excerpts from the Congressional Record show.
As part of the historic occasion June 13, civil rights activists and lawmakers held a luncheon for the descendants in a room where senators usually mull policy.
Over tuna, turkey and ham sandwiches served by Capitol Hill staff members, the guests shared details about their murdered loved ones and pondered their family histories.
There was Janet Langhart Cohen of Chevy Chase, elegant former television personality and wife of former Republican U.S. senator and defense secretary William S. Cohen. Langhart Cohen is the third cousin of Jimmy Gillenwaters, 17, who was lynched near Bowling Green, Ky., in 1912. She sat next to the erudite Doria Johnson, 44, of Evanston, Ill., whose great-great-grandfather Anthony P. Crawford was lynched in Abbeville, S.C., at age 51 in 1916. Johnson knows more about the horrors of lynching than do most professors of black history.
There was Dan Duster, a handsome great-grandson of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, whose office was destroyed by fire after she wrote an editorial about black rights. Not far from Duster sat James Cameron, 91, at once strong and frail in a wheelchair, the only known living survivor of a lynching attempt. There was Simeon Wright, 62, the cousin beside whom Emmett Till lay when the mob came to get him in August 1955 in Money, Miss., to beat him beyond recognition and lynch him for whistling at a white store owner's wife.
'The Way Things Were Done'
Meeting each other felt somewhat surreal, some of the descendants said.
"I was especially struck by meeting Ida B. Wells's great-grandson and Emmett Till's cousin, because those people were brought alive to me," Greene said. "It took them off the page and made them three-dimensional for me."
Cameron fielded questions from the descendants about how he had survived the rope. "I admire you, Mr. Cameron," a young descendant of Crawford told him. "We learned about you in school."
Cameron told the story about how he was almost murdered. He was only 16 years old when a mob came for him at the jail in Marion, Ind., in 1930. He and two friends, Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp, were accused of robbing and killing a white man at a lover's lane. Initial reports said a woman in the car was raped, although the woman denied it.
Smith and Shipp had been severely beaten and hanged by the time Cameron was dragged out of the jail and over to the base of a huge maple tree in the town square near the courthouse. As he prayed for God to forgive his sins and a rope tightened around his neck, a crowd of more than 1,000 men, women and children watched in rapt fascination. When a voice rang out, saying, "Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any killing or rape," Cameron was spared, but he never forgot the faces that anticipated his death.
"His story is so powerful," Langhart Cohen said. "It is so amazing that his life was spared so he could tell people about what happened to him."
The best records kept on lynchings cover only those that were reported in news accounts, and number them at 4,743 between 1882, when the practice began to increase, and 1968, when it had become infrequent. Most of the victims were black men, and the majority of the killings happened in the South.
Maryland logged 29 lynchings, including two on the old Marlboro bridge in Upper Marlboro, a short walk from where the County Administration Building stands today.
History does not disclose how old Stephen Williams was on the day he died on the bridge, or what he did for a living. It records only that he was viciously attacked by a masked mob for allegedly snatching a white woman, after they had words when he tried to see her husband. After he was beaten and hanged, on Oct. 20, 1894, the mob mutilated Williams's body with bullets, The Washington Post reported at the time.
Many towns had lynching places, and spectators would memorialize the brutality and blood lust by purchasing photographs of the corpses or pieces of the ropes that had snapped the victims' necks.
Schools and businesses closed, trains ran special excursions to lynching sites and newspapers announced the locations, guaranteeing crowds.
A book by Atlanta antiques dealer James Allen, called "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," contains more than 100 images of lynching victims and the crowds that gathered to witness them.
Although the Senate never passed federal anti-lynching legislation, it did in 1908 make it a violation of U.S. postal regulations to mail postcards depicting lynched corpses, saying that the cards might incite violence, according to a report from the Committee for a Formal Apology, which lobbied for last week's Senate measure. The picture postcards were often sold as souvenirs of lynchings; some were even created as advertisements.
The Harkrider Drug Co. in 1908 published a postcard featuring a picture of the corpses of five black men who had been killed in southeast Texas and a poem entitled "The Dogwood Tree," which warned blacks to "stay in the negro's place . . . or they'll suffer the fate" of being lynched.
Although the pictures are gruesome, some descendants said they grudgingly kept them as a record of how their loved ones died. Greene's mother, Winona Puckett Padgett, gave Allen a photo of her uncle's lynching that a family friend had given her in the 1970s.
Lawrence Guyot, a black civil rights activist and educator, said the pictures are an important vehicle to show the "carnival atmosphere" of lynchings and the lack of concern by those who witnessed or committed the crimes that they would suffer any legal consequences.
"When a black person was lynched, no one had to answer," he said. "Lynching was the way things were done. Nobody spoke against it, and nobody did anything about it."
Although blacks were most frequently the victims, statistics from Tuskegee University in Alabama, which keeps records on lynchings, show that other minorities and sometimes whites were also terrorized by mobs. The records reveal that about 1,300 of the nation's lynching victims were white, Hispanic, Asian American or Native American.
Sometimes lynch mobs operated in direct defiance of the law.
For example, Gov. John Slaton of Georgia commuted to life in prison the sentence of Leo Frank, a 29-year-old Jewish pencil factory manager who had been convicted and condemned to death for killing a white girl in Marietta. In August 1915, Frank was lynched. After his life was threatened by the same mob that killed Frank, Slaton became the first governor in history to call out a militia to protect himself, historians said. Slaton was forced to move out of Georgia for several years, records from the apology committee show. Frank's lynching helped galvanize the formation of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
In the only instance of the U.S. Supreme Court trying a criminal case, the justices in 1909 found Sheriff Joseph Shipp, a jailer, and four members of a Chattanooga mob guilty of criminal contempt for their involvement in the lynching of Ed Johnson, an African American day worker who had been convicted on questionable evidence in the rape of a white woman.
After Johnson was sentenced to death, Chattanooga lawyer Noah Parden and Washington lawyer Emanuel Hewlett appealed to Justice John Marshall Harlan, the only dissenter in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that established the separate but equal doctrine and the justice who had proclaimed the Constitution to be "colorblind." Harlan took the matter to his colleagues, who, in an unprecedented move, stayed Johnson's execution.
When word of the decision reached Chattanooga, a mob descended on the Hamilton County jail, where Shipp had left a single guard on duty, and snatched Johnson from his cell, beat him, shot him and hanged him over the Tennessee River, historical records show. The high court held that Shipp and the mob had defied their stay and sentenced each man to 60 to 90 days in jail, according to historical accounts.
Although several states, including Georgia and Virginia, had anti-lynching laws on the books -- in Georgia, as early as 1893 -- lynching was never a federal crime. Because most states refused to try a white man for killing a black person, fewer than one percent of lynchers were ever brought to justice.
Cameron, who opened a museum in Milwaukee 20 years ago to educate people about atrocities suffered by African Americans throughout history, said it took him years to overcome the hate he felt toward white people after almost losing his life to a lynch mob.
Lanhart Cohen said she doesn't hate, but she still feels anger. Unlike some descendants, she can't go to history books to find out what happened to her cousin. The only record of his murder is in the stories her grandparents and other relatives tell about the nightriders who fired shots into her grandfather's farm house. After the shooting stopped, family members went to sleep believing that everyone had been spared. It wasn't until the next morning that her Aunt Bertha noticed her son was missing, Langhart Cohen said. She found her son hanging from a tree.
An Uncle's Murder
Betty Greene said the apology was the best way for the federal government to acknowledge the history of racism in the United States.
As a child, Greene, 58, who grew up in Detroit, was confused by segregated facilities when she traveled south with her mother. "I remember my reaction the first time I saw water fountains marked 'white' and 'colored.' I went to the one that said white, because I thought that meant the water would be closer to clear. A white man . . . asked me why I was drinking from the fountain. I didn't choose the one marked colored because I thought that meant the water would be colored, like colors," she said.
Greene's mother, Winona Puckett Padgett, 78, niece of lynching victim Richard Puckett, said she learned about her uncle's murder through "whispers from neighbors." When she was 15, she asked her father, James Malachi Puckett, if the rumors were true. Her father told her that Richard Puckett had gone to her family's home after he got into trouble for delivering a note to a white woman who was having an adulterous affair with a co-worker. The woman's husband was at home and accused Puckett of accosting her, Padgett said.
"My father told us about the lynch mob coming to our house because Uncle Richard had gone there after the incident," Padgett said. "My father told us how he stood his ground. He refused to give my uncle to the lynch mob. He said he would only give him to the police. He said he was trying to protect his wife and his babies, but he wasn't afraid for himself."
When her father turned Puckett over to the sheriff, the sheriff gave him to the lynch mob, who dragged him to a nearby train depot, beat him and hanged him from a trestle.
Thirty years ago, a friend found a picture of Puckett's suspended corpse and sent copies to his relatives. Padgett gave the picture to Allen, who used it in "Without Sanctuary."
Simeon Wright said he was "awed" by the descendants' stories and plans to visit the museum Cameron started.
"That Senator Landrieu and the others would even start this process was amazing," Wright said. "Then to have my senator, [Barack] Obama, involved, to get to come to Washington to meet the descendants and see the resolution passed. The whole thing was a moving, moving experience."