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, 58, 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."
As the nation celebrated its 229th birthday this week, a group of descendants of one of the most shameful periods of American history are savoring a step forward: the U.S. Senate's acknowledgment of the atrocity of lynching. In a historic move last month, the U.S. Senate approved Resolution 39, proposed by Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and George Allen (R-Va.). It called for the body to apologize for its failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation decades ago -- the first time the body apologized for the nation's treatment of African Americans. The action has a special resonance in the District, now home to many activists who were in the thick of the civil rights movement.
"Lynching is a concept that must be removed from the American political system root and branch," said Lawrence Guyot, a former LeDroit Park advisory neighborhood commissioner. He is a former chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and was jailed in his native Mississippi for registering black people to vote. "It was the most-used method to keep blacks from exercising their rights, and it was government sanctioned."
Lynching was never a federal offense. The House of Representatives, responding to pleas from civil rights groups such as the NAACP, three times in the first half of the last century passed measures that would have given the federal government the right to investigate and prosecute lynching cases. But each time, the proposed legislation was killed in the Senate by segregationist southern lawmakers.
Although there were no recorded lynchings in the District, African American citizens here were also the targets of publicly accepted racial violence, according to C.R. Gibbs, author of "Black, Copper and Bright: The District of Columbia's Black Civil War Regiment." He and other historians believe, however, that lynchings probably did occur in the nation's capital. A whipping post where black people were beaten with impunity for alleged infractions stood at Fourth and G streets NW. And the Freedmen's Bureau received many reports of racially motivated beatings, arsons and police brutality in the city, Gibbs said.
And over a four-day period in July 1919, white mobs randomly attacked black people in the city, prompting the NAACP to write President Woodrow Wilson to call his attention "to the shame put upon the country by the mobs, including United States soldiers, sailors and marines, which have assaulted innocent and unoffending negroes in the National Capital."
"It is surprising how hostile this town was to free blacks," Gibbs said.
That kind of hostility generated a climate of terror, particularly in the South, where African Americans lived with the specter of lynching. "My mother came up with a phrase, and I recall her using it as far back as I can remember: 'Be particular,' " said U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who grew up in Alabama. "She was saying, 'Be watchful, be mindful, be careful.' During that period there was so much racial violence. In the early days of the civil rights movement, that there was a tremendous amount of fear."
As part of a historic ceremony at the Capitol on June 13, civil rights activists who had lobbied for the apology as the Committee for a Formal Apology joined lawmakers in holding a luncheon for the descendants of lynching victims. Over tuna, turkey and ham sandwiches served by Senate staffers, the descendants shared details about their murdered loved ones and pondered their family histories.
There was Janet Langhart Cohen of Chevy Chase, the 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., a former Alexandria resident whose great-great-grandfather, Anthony P. Crawford, was lynched in Abbeville, S.C., at age 51 in 1916.
There was Dan Duster, a handsome great-grandson of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who frequently visited Washington to plead her cause. Not far from Duster sat James Cameron, 91, at the same time 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 two men came to get him in August 1955 in Money, Miss., to lynch him for whistling at a white store owner's wife.
The descendants later listened to Sens. Landrieu, Allen, John F. Kerry (D-Mass. ) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) explain why they needed to apologize.
On the Senate floor, Obama urged his colleagues to address today's racial injustice: "That means completing the unfinished work of the civil rights movement, that means closing the gap that still exists in health care and education and income."
Narrow Escape From Lynching
Cameron was only 16 years old when a mob came for him at the jail in Marion, Ind., in 1930, he recalled for luncheon participants. He and two friends, Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp, were accused of robbing and killing a white man at a lover's lane. Smith and Shipp had been beaten and hanged by the time Cameron was dragged to a huge maple tree near the courthouse and a rope tightened around his neck. When a voice rang out saying, "Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any killing or rape," Cameron was spared.
"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 written about in news accounts. There were at least 4,743 between 1882 and 1968, when the practice was most common, according to the Tuskegee University archives. Most of the victims were black men, and the majority of the mob killings happened in the South. Maryland logged 29 lynchings and Virginia had 100, ranking it 14th out of the 44 states where the crime occurred.
Though there were no recorded lynchings in the District, historical accounts indicate that black people living in the nation's capital had good reason to fear mob violence. A story on the front page of the May 9, 1896, Washington Post describes the arrest of Irwin T. Ford, a black man accused of killing a white woman. Ford, according to the article, was "in constant fear of being lynched by the crowd that surrounded the police station throughout the day." After hearing the case, including the confession that Ford's lawyers argued had been coerced, a jury took only four minutes to name a foreman and render a verdict of guilty.
"It made no material difference whether Ford confessed or not," The Post reported. "A chain of circumstantial evidence, binding and complete, had been woven about his cringing form, leaving no hope for him but the hangman's noose."
There were at least 15 lynchings in Northern Virginia and several in suburban Maryland. The lynchings in suburban Washington occurred at a time when many African Americans saw the city as a refuge and the place where black leaders lobbied the nation's elected leaders to stop the violence. On June 10, 1894, The Post reported Frederick Douglass's remarks about lynching during a visit to the Metropolitan AME church in Northwest.
"I have waited patiently and hopefully to see the end of this epidemic of persecution now prevailing in the South," said Douglass, who then lived in what is now Anacostia. "But great and terrible as it has been in the past, it now seems to be increasing, not only in the number of its victims, but in its frantic rage and savage extravagance."
Many towns had lynching places in that era, where mob justice was meted out while spectators with a blood lust or morbid curiosity watched, memorializing the mutilation by buying pieces of the nooses or postcards of the scenes.
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. The cards also were used as advertisements.
Guyot, the civil rights activist, said the pictures show the lack of concern by those who witnessed or committed the crimes that they would suffer any legal consequences.
"Lynching was the way things were done," he said. "Nobody spoke against it, and nobody did anything about it."
The Supreme Court did do something about it, however, in the only instance of a criminal case being tried by the justices. In 1909, they 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 the justices had stayed his execution.
Although several states, including Virginia and Georgia, had anti-lynching laws on the books, the laws were never used to convict a white man for killing a black person, according to historians.
Civil rights leaders said the Senate's apology is the latest development in the continuing struggle for justice, which has seen several attempts to redress past wrongs. Just last month, investigators exhumed Emmett Till's body as part of a renewed effort to discover who killed him, and former Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, 80, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for the 1964 slayings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Miss.
"These are not victories -- they are the beginning of change," said District social worker Dorie Ladner, 61. She is a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary and was in Ohio with the three workers when they headed south to investigate a church bombing and were murdered.
"Granted, they can't kill us like they used to by coming and taking us out of the house and murdering us on the street. There are laws now in place to prevent that," she said. "But we still bear the pain and there is a litany of pain of the people who died before us. We are still fighting institutionalized racism; they are just not killing us now for doing it."
in February. In the mid-1960s, Ladner worked in Ohio with three civil rights activists who later were murdered in Mississippi.
Lawrence Guyot, above, said lynching "must be removed from the American political system root and branch." Sens. John F. Kerry, George Allen and Mary Landrieu surround 91-year-old James Cameron, the only known living survivor of a lynching attempt.The front page of The Washington Post on May 9, 1896, described the arrest of Irwin T. Ford, a black man accused of killing a white woman