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How Black activists used lynching souvenirs to expose American violence

For her new documentary, <em>Lynching Postcards: Token Of A Great Day, </em>filmmaker Christine Turner examined hundreds of black-and-white photographs that show how organized these events were and included chilling messages that shared the experience with those who weren't there. The postcard above shows the crowd at the lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, in 1893.
Photo by J.L. Mertins/Library of Congress
For her new documentary, Lynching Postcards: Token Of A Great Day, filmmaker Christine Turner examined hundreds of black-and-white photographs that show how organized these events were and included chilling messages that shared the experience with those who weren't there. The postcard above shows the crowd at the lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, in 1893.

Photos showing the lynchings of African Americans in the 19th and early 20th century are some of the most troubling records of the racist history of the United States.

But these black-and-white photographs are what filmmaker Christine Turner chose to focus on for her new documentary, Lynching Postcards: 'Token Of A Great Day'.

Turner examined hundreds of these pictures and primarily focused on the ones that people who attended these lynchings sent as postcards to family and friends.

As the film opens, the first postcard people see is an image of a Black man hanging from a tree, but it's zoomed in enough that all that can be seen of him are his dangling feet. The focus then becomes the white men standing behind him, looking directly at the camera, with some smiling.

Turner said she did this to train the audience's eyes to focus on the participants and see their "sense of pride."

"I think that for me, this story is so much about the participants of the lynching, more so than of the people who had been victimized," Turner said. "I think oftentimes we think that lynchings are these spontaneous events, right? That a group of men in the woods decide to suddenly lynch someone. But these were planned events."

These community events weren't just the work of the infamous Ku Klux Klan, but of ordinary people from all social classes, Turner said.

In an interview with All Things Considered, Turner spoke about the how photos from these events became postcards, how the postcards then became tools in anti-lynching campaigns, and the parallels with recent killings of Black men in America.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Adrian Florido: "Token Of A Great Day" — why that title?

Turner: "Token Of A Great Day" actually comes from a handwritten message on the back of one of these lynching postcards. And it speaks to the attitude and the viewpoint of many of the participants at these public spectacle lynchings. You know, these postcards were mementos. They were souvenirs from these events. And so for some, they were a token of a great day.

Something that surprised me watching your film was to learn that at the places where an upcoming lynching had been announced, photographers would strike deals with town officials to get a prime spot at the front of the crowd. These photographs and these postcards became a whole industry.

Exactly. And in the film, there's one particular lynching that we focus in on. It's the story of Jesse Washington, who was lynched in 1916 in Waco, Texas. And his lynching took place at city hall.

And the town photographer — his name was Fred Gildersleeve — actually worked with the local government to find a place to photograph the lynching that would take place. And these photographs that Gildersleeve took were later turned into postcards that were sold in the community.

Why did these pictures get turned into postcards? Why were people clamoring for these souvenirs from these events?

Really, it was a way, I think, to sort of relive that experience of attending the lynching, right? And that sense of power and control, as historian Leigh Raiford talks about in the film. And it was also a way to disseminate that experience and to share that experience with friends and family.

And in one postcard that is featured in the film, in the message on the back, the young man is writing to his parents, and he says, "This is the barbecue that we had last night". And I think, in a way, these messages on the back are just as chilling as the images on the front.

These postcards were clearly a celebration of white supremacy, right? But at some point, they did become a tool for people who decided to do something about lynching, to launch anti-lynching campaigns. How did these postcards become the tool that these activists used?

What anti-lynching activists such as the NAACP did is they really turned these postcards on their head, and they used them as evidence in their fight against lynching. So they laid them out there to really shame the country and the world and to make people aware of what was happening all over.

So in making this film, it was really important to me to make a film that wasn't just going to be another story of victimization. But really, this is a story of Black resistance. And at its core, it's about how these postcards were ultimately turned on their head and were subverted by these Black activists.

It reminded me of the way that images and films have become such an important part of today's fights for racial justice. The global uprising over George Floyd's killing under Derek Chauvin's knee was sparked by a cellphone video. The white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia — they filmed it themselves.

Both of those cases have been called modern-day lynchings caught on tape. Were those parallels on your mind at all as you made your film?

Absolutely. I mean, I was thinking a lot about Ahmaud Arbery's murder and the way in which it was captured on video by the murderers and then how that video was later used against them. And I think, for me, I was hoping that this film could help sort of lay out this lineage and this history and give us a better understanding of what might be occurring today.

NPR has compiled a list of stories, performances and other content that chronicles the Black American experience for Black History Month. See the whole collection here.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Megan Lim