These incidents are happening at a time of nationwide racial upheaval — when people are already on edge and suspicious about police accounts of their encounters with black people. Tree hangings evoke traumatic memories of America’s grisly history of unpunished lynchings of thousands of black adults and children between 1880 and 1968.
Black people do commit suicide, of course, though the rate is 60 percent lower than for whites, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In black American culture, suicide is widely regarded as a shameful act; when it happens, it’s generally private, and hanging is not a preferred method.
“It is very uncommon for young black men to commit suicide, let alone by hanging,” says Raymond Winbush, a psychologist since 1976 who has treated hundreds of black men and boys and is the director of Morgan State University’s Institute for Urban Research. The American Association of Suicidology reports that firearms are the predominant method of suicide among African Americans (as they are for the nation overall), regardless of sex or age, followed by suffocation by plastic bags or gas inhalation.
So it is quite difficult for many black folks to believe that black people are choosing to hang themselves by the neck, in public, from trees, while the fire of racial politics continues to blaze.
Some other incidents happened before the protests began. Kenya Robinson, the mother of Titi Gulley, 31, a trans woman who was found hanging from a tree in Rocky Butte Park in Portland, Ore., on May 27, 2019, says she believes Gulley was murdered. Robinson says Portland police didn’t ask any questions about Gulley’s death and have treated her concerns with indifference.
“You saw a black [person] in a tree who was in a homeless camp, and you wrote [her] off as being a transient homeless, and wrote it off as suicide,” Robinson told the Portland Mercury. She had to demand an autopsy, which ultimately ruled Gulley’s death a suicide. She also reportedly told police that other homeless people said they witnessed Gulley being murdered and hung to make it look like a suicide, and that someone has video evidence.
The families of Malcolm Harsch and Robert Fuller, who were found hanging from trees in Southern California within 10 days and 50 miles of each other, are also denying police claims that the deaths were suicides. (On social media, attention is also focusing on the fact that Fuller’s brother, Terron Jammal Boone, was killed in a shootout with sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles County last week.)
The historical context is impossible to overlook as the number of similar deaths increases.
“The numerous accounts of a deceased black man found hanging in a tree are a horrific reminder of our country’s history. We are in a moment with parallels to the era of lynching that should cause us great suspicion of any rush to label the cases as suicide,” says Thomas Foster, author of “Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men” and a professor of history at Howard University.
During the lynching era, it was not uncommon for the deaths of black men to be ruled as suicides to cover up murders by white mobs and police officers. The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, based at Northeastern University, has been compiling a database of lynchings and other forms of anti-black murder. Jay Driskell, a consulting historian for the project, says the trend of declaring black lynchings to be suicides stretches back to the 1930s. So far, he’s found around two dozen cases from 1930 to 1956; in each case, a public figure, police officer, coroner or jury deemed the deaths to be suicides and not lynchings or extralegal murders.
There was Ab Young, a farm laborer from Slayden, Miss., who was killed on March 12, 1935, after being accused of killing a state highway worker. He fled to Tennessee and was captured by a mob that dragged him back to Mississippi, where he was hanged in a schoolyard, his body peppered with bullets. Though his lynching was advertised in advance, a reporter and photographer showed up to document the event and nearly 50 people were involved, a coroner’s jury ruled that Young’s death was a suicide.
“One of the first ways that lynchers and police who murdered blacks got exonerated was through the coroner,” Driskell says. Back then, coroners did not have to have medical training. “Once in a while, they would use suicide as a way to not do their job, to cover up for police officers they knew or community members they wanted to protect from prosecution.”
A few years after Young’s murder, the 19-year-old soldier Felix Hall went missing from his barracks at Fort Benning, Ga. On March 28, 1941, his body was found hanging over a ravine in the woods on the base. His hands and legs were tied behind his back with a wire. The NAACP tried to get the Department of War to investigate, but military officials said that death was a suicide even though a military doctor who had examined Hall’s body within two weeks of when it was found had said it was a homicide and put that on his death certificate.
James Johnson was beaten to death in a jail in Florence, S.C., on Dec. 5, 1939, after being pulled over by police around 2:30 a.m. Johnson had a good amount of lumber in his car, and officers suspected he had stolen it. Johnson struggled physically with police during his arrest. Once in his cell, a 14-year-old boy who was in custody witnessed the arresting officers beat Johnson and use one of his shoestrings to hang him. But despite the wounds on his head and bruises on his body, the coroner’s jury exonerated the officers by stating that “ ‘he butted his head deliberately against the bars of the cell. He cut himself from the glass of a broken milk bottle and tried to drown himself in a toilet on the cell block,’ ” Driskell says, reading from the file. “Even though the coroner says that the blow to his head from police could have been the one that killed him, the jury chose to believe that Johnson hung himself from a shoestring. The jury basically made up a story that this guy is crazy, suicidal and does all this damage to his body before killing himself.”
In perhaps the most bizarre case, Shadrack Thompson was found hanging on Sept. 15, 1932, in Linden, Va., after being accused of attacking a white farmer and his wife. Thompson vanished, and his body was found two months later. He was burned; dismembered body parts had been distributed to members of the community as celebratory souvenirs, and his head was put on display 25 miles away, in Warrenton. The official verdict on Thompson’s death was suicide.
There’s no way to know how black family members reacted to those murders that took place so long ago, Driskell says, because their voices are lost to history and don’t show up in records from the NAACP or the Department of Justice investigations. But “there’s a whole world of rumors of lynchings that are hard to dispel because so many of them occurred well beyond the range of news reporters or police records. Lynchings were a shared communal terror that got passed down from generation to generation like a bruise on a memory.”
That’s why the current deaths are unsettling — even though police say they’re not suspicious.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” says civil rights activist and theologian Ruby Sales, who ticks off the names of other recent cases authorities ruled to be suicides that she has investigated since 2008: Billy Joe Johnson, Chavis Carter, Roosevelt Champion, Lennon Lacy, Denzel Curnell, Kendrick Johnson, whose organs were missing, Kindra Chapman, and Wakiesha Wilson and other black women from Birmingham to California who allegedly hanged themselves in jail cells.
Of course, given the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic disaster, it is possible that rates of suicide have spiked. The pandemic has also brought massive economic dislocations in black communities — which were already in dire straits financially. “So it’s not outside the realm of possibility,” Driskell says. “But it’s plausible that some, if not all, are contemporary lynchings.”
These recent incidents do follow the historical pattern of displaying black bodies publicly to intimidate black communities. “Think of Michael Brown, whose body was left on the street for four hours as evidence of black people’s powerlessness. The spectacle of displaying the black corpse is meant as a deterrent to political action and resistance,” says Tommy Curry, author of “The Man-Not” and professor of philosophy and black male studies at the University of Edinburgh. “It says to the subjugated population that we can kill your men without consequence so your cause, your resistance, your attempt to overthrow the current rule is futile.”
The days when hundreds or thousands of white people show up to witness the barbaric torture and killing of black people at lynchings are over, Driskell says. But as the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement has taken off, there’s also growing resentment from members of angry white supremacist fringe groups, some of them with badges. There’s bound to be violent reactions.
No wonder black communities are skeptical of the official story, after centuries of ongoing racist terrorism and government failure to prosecute our serial murderers. Here in 2020, those pastoral scenes of the gallant South are still with us. Black bodies are a strange and bitter crop.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that six black people had been found dead by hanging in the last month. In fact, four people have been found this way recently. Titi Gulley's body was found in 2019, and a similar incident in Georgia happened in 2018.
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