Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A British photojournalist is training his camera on the sites of the South’s ugliest open secret.
An empty trestle bridge spans a grey river. White-washed doors lean on the side of a barn. Telephone poles and a tin shed frame a half-mowed ravine.
Unseen in these otherwise mundane images of the American South: visual evidence for the acts of racial terror that once unfolded there.
“It seems that many Americans, especially white Americans, either don't know much about lynchings or are reticent to discuss it,” Oliver Clasper, a London-born photographer and journalist, says via email. Clasper has set out to provoke a conversation with a project he calls The Spaces We Inherit. In photographs and interviews, he is documenting historic sites where African Americans were terrorized and murdered by white neighbors, and how individuals living in the orbit of this buried past are affected by it today.
With logistical support from the NAACP and the Equal Justice Initiative, as well as research assistance from the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis and others, Clasper has pinpointed and photographed 10 sites so far, in Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. That is only a small fraction of the 4,000-plus known lynchings that have occurred throughout the U.S. since the 19th century. But Clasper’s selections testify to the breadth of circumstances and historic moments in which racially-fueled, extra-judicial killings occurred—and the silence and obscurity into which they’ve often been cast.
Some of the images speak to little-known lynchings flung far back in history, like one of a boarded-up brick building in Memphis that stands where a man named Lee Walker was hanged on a telephone pole by a mob in 1893. Others address incidents that are extremely well-known; two images of a Mississippi barn capture where the teenaged Emmett Till was murdered by two white men in 1955. Another photograph inscribes an even more recent act of terror: the 1981 beating and hanging of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama. What stands in place of this last-recorded KKK lynching is a suburban bungalow, painted a pleasant forest green. (A plaque memorializing the event stands just right of the house.*)
“There's certainly this notion that lynchings occurred in the distant past, but that's not the case,” says Clasper. In many cases, the town squares, roadsides, and neighborhood streets where these atrocities took place still exist—and remain unmarked, more often than not.
Clasper photographs these spots in natural light and on film, which allows a certain mundanity to seep through. The effect can be chilling. For example, the Till barn is little more than a tool shed, open to visitors only at the discretion of the owner. How can it be that the place of this watershed moment in civil rights history is not marked for the public?
Clasper’s interviews with individuals connected to the sites in his photographs shed some light on that question. “People here don’t want to be constantly reminded of how things were 60 years ago,” Jeff Andrews, the owner of the Till barn, told Clasper, according to transcripts provided to CityLab. “We’ve all moved forward, and sometimes people aren’t given enough credit for the changes we’ve made.”
But for many African Americans living in this landscape of swept-over terror, the acknowledgement of lynching may be a step towards healing. “I’m not sure that this trauma has been properly understood, and it needs to be,” Clarence Christian, a civil rights activist and professor whose uncle is believed to have been lynched, told Clasper.
Charles Griffin, who lives across from where Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart were lynched in late 19th-century Memphis, had a similar idea. “I’m not saying bring it up to cause a racial disturbance or violence, just to understand how or why it happened,” he told Clasper. “Everybody needs to know.”
Choosing what, whom, and how to memorialize is complicated anywhere in the world. But in a region where Confederate plaques seem as numerous as kudzu, the near-total absence of markers for lynching victims is all the more glaring.
Though Clasper does not advocate for one approach or another, he was inspired after learning about the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based civil rights organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration and “excessive punishment” in the United States. As part of EJI’s research on the history that shaped racial injustices in those systems today, volunteers have been collecting soil from scores of lynching sites throughout the South. Those bottles have already been exhibited at EJI headquarters, and represent a kind of preamble to a national lynching memorial the organization is currently raising funds to build outside Montgomery, Alabama. The design is composed of 800 heavy columns—one for every county where a lynching has been documented.
Clasper’s project is unfinished; he plans to speak with more descendants, both of victims and those who participated in lynchings. The project may take final form as a book or gallery exhibition, where field recordings he created at the sites would play in the background.
Making art out of racially sensitive terrain can be a perilous endeavor. (See, for example, the recent controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s brutalized face.) Clasper is an outsider, prodding a deep American wound. But he does so because he believes the potential for racial violence to recur in the era of Trump is too great to ignore.
“There's no one person who's best placed to tackle this project,” he says. “The objective has always been to initiate a dialogue about our surroundings”—to give voice to an open secret, at a moment when the stakes may be rising.
*This post has been updated to reflect the presence of a memorial to Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama.