Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
The practice wasn’t limited to the South, as this new visualization of racial violence in the Jim Crow era proves.
Lynchings formed the bloody backdrop of Southern life for a century after the Civil War. Between the 1860s and 1960s, thousands of black Americans were killed in public acts of racial terror. Millions more fled to cities in the North and West in an effort to escape this environment. Many soon discovered that, in many ways, the rest of American society was no less racist.
How many lynchings occurred during the Jim Crow era? Where? These are difficult questions to pinpoint. A November 2015 report by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative found that nearly 4,000 black people were killed in lynchings in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950—a higher number than any previous estimates. But lynchings were not strictly limited to the South. And, although black Americans were victimized in far greater numbers than any group, other minorities were also targets.
A new map project called Monroe Work Today—named after the pioneering black sociologist who gathered much of the data—aims to be the most comprehensive catalogue of proven lynchings that took place in the United States from 1835 to 1964. Not only does it reach back further in time than most studies or maps, it also spans all regions of the U.S. The mapmakers at Auut Studio developed the map as an interactive high-school lesson plan, spending four years synthesizing modern academic research with historical lynching records. Their interactive project lists 4,000 victims of lynchings nationwide, as well as nearly 600 additional victims of “racialized mob violence.”
Map readers can explore the database by bracketing a timeline to specific years. Click on color-coded pinpoints to learn each victim’s name, race, and circumstances of killing. Native Americans, as well as Mexican, Chinese, and Italian workers, were brutalized and murdered. Although the rural South was by far the bloodiest region nationally, no area was really safe. California and Texas emerge as particularly deadly places for Latinos and Asians, especially as those state borders were settled in the late 19th century. “Before this website, it was impossible to search the web and find an accurate scope of the history of American lynching,” the mapmakers write.
The mapmakers go into great detail on the sources and accuracy of their data. “We will never have a perfect list of all people who met their death by lynching in the U.S.,” they write in a lengthy FAQ—many victims were barely recorded. One archival database, gathered and housed at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, forms the foundation of this map. From 1912 to 1936, Monroe Work, the founder of Tuskegee’s Department of Records and Research, compiled biannual, independently verified lynching reports that reached back to the early 1880s. To build the map, Auut Studio checked and supplemented Work’s findings with reams of modern research on lynching and race riots, listed here. Every victim mentioned on the map has a citation to at least one or supporting source.
Monroe Work’s story lies at the convergence of urban and rural experiences at the turn of the 20th century. Urban populations ballooned in the latter half of the 19th century, with waves of African-American migration and Eastern European immigration. Housing and labor conditions were dismal and discriminatory. To temper seething inequality, social reformers lodged their trust in data, gathering statistics and drawing maps to advocate for the poor and abused.
Work was one of those advocates. Born to former slaves in North Carolina, he attended high school in Kansas and a seminary in Illinois before enrolling in the University of Chicago’s famed sociology department in the late 1890s, which made a science out of analyzing urban poverty and race. Work’s research correlating crime rates in black neighborhoods with housing conditions made him the first African-American man published the American Journal of Sociology; in 1908, he accepted the job at Tuskegee Institute. There, he turned his sociological training to lynching, and other scourges of rural black life.
Work’s biannual lynching reports were republished in national newspapers, which exposed millions of Americans outside of the South to the practice and helped shaped public discourse. They also contributed to the advocacy efforts of emerging black activist organizations like the NAACP, which helped bring about a sharp decline of lynchings in the 1930s. "In the end facts will help eradicate prejudice and misunderstanding," Work once wrote, "for facts are the truth and the truth shall set us free."
The legacy of lynching is still imprinted on American soil, though few sites of past racial violence are formally marked. In the wake of the recent presidential elections, reports of hate crimes surged nationally. (In one such case, black freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania were added anonymously to an online “Daily Lynching” social media group days after Trump’s election.) The heirs of Monroe Work are now compiling those incidents in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s national database of hate crimes and hate group activities. The threat of violence for Americans of color is alive and real. This is good time to revisit its history.