tv Lynching in the Early 20th Century CSPAN April 10, 2021 3:29pm-4:01pm EDT
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next on american history tv alex treznowski talks about his book the rope a true story of murder heroism and the dawn of the naacp. he looks back in an asbury park, new jersey murder case against an african-american man arguing that there was little evidence against him. he recounts the case in the context of widespread lynching and other crimes against african-american the early 20th century the national archives hosted this event and provided the video. my name is alex treznowski. and i'm the author of the rope. and i'm very pleased to be able to share a couple stories from it with you today. it's it's a book that i really care about. and a book that while i was working on it became even more relevant than when i started just to fill you in on what it is a little bit it takes place in asbury park, new jersey in 1910 and asbury park was a little resort town built from
scrub grass as a haven for very godly white people essentially where they could go and engage in pure activities and you know things like even you know kissing on the board work or an allowed certainly no liquor or anything like that and as a turn of the century rolled by asbury park began to get more attractions more people more hotels and then of course the idea of this pure city. this angelic godly city sort of started to fall apart because human nature is what it is and everybody gathered there and things happened that were beyond the control of of james bradley who was the founder of the town. so the story starts with a murder. it's the murder of a young child a young girl named marie smith. she automated clock one morning and went to school with a younger brother. got to school. and was supposed to come home at 12:30 for lunch and never made it home. and that resulted in a five-day
manhunt with hundreds and hundreds of people scouring every square inch of asbury park for any sign of her and nothing turned up until five days. later. in the dark woods somebody did find a body and this was marie smith's body. she had been beaten she'd been abused. and it was just left there of a florist from a local town founder. and of course that sets off. you know murder investigation that is sort of the the propellant of this book. right after the murder the first thing that happened was that a black handyman named tom williams. he was an xboxer who fought under the name black diamond. was rounded up and he had painted a house near where the girl lived and he sort of vaguely knew the parents and very quickly they were able to put him in jail and sort of set him up as the likely killer of marie smith.
without any really process or anything in fact his second day in jail, white mob stormed the jail. and did their best to break him out and lynch him and and he narrowly escaped that by car with the help of a sergeant the station. so tom williams was in a position that a lot of black americans found themselves in back at the turn of the century and that sort of becomes the backdrop of my story. which is lynching it was it was a scourge in the country five year study published in 2015 by the equal justice initiative found that almost 4,000 black women men and children were lynched in the 12 southern states and just 70 years and the thing with lynching was we were in a part of the art history where the civil war was over and and black people were trying to integrate into society. and what happened was every
progress that they made was met by resistance. people who wanted the old order and one of the tools that they used was lynching extrajudicial killing. they would. find black people who are prominent and basically eliminate them and destroy them. and under the pretense of what was believed to be. they are savages and they they can only be dealt with this way when in fact the real reason behind a lot of the lynchings was that economic suppression. but that wasn't really accepted in the country at that time. so lynchings were were perfectly acceptable in a way. they were never prosecuted. i mean, they might have an inquest. but usually the decision would be that the black person was killed by persons unknown even though most people in white mobs were known to everyone they were fathers judges lawyers barbers
people from the town. but it was seen as a as a way of policing society. so it was it was. it was okay that they didn't get their due process because this was just the way it was handled at the turn of the century and that's one of the parts of our history that that we've never really confronted fully. you know, i found as i did this book that there's a lot of parts of our history that that you know, we've never really sat down and looked at in a sufficient way so that we all agree on what happened. for instance, even the civil war. there's not really an agreement on. what really caused the war and not a national agreement? so there's issues in our history that sort of want us and lynching is one of them as was working on this book. george floyd was killed by a police officer and we all saw that and that led to outrage and black lives matter movement. and i was reminded how relevant
this story is that i'm working on. it's not it's not old history. it's it's current history, you know. the events of 110 years ago are the same as the events now extra judicial killings. black rights the search for justice giving voice to the voiceless. and that's what i was writing about back then and it sort of came to life in a way where it just made it more imminent and urgent that we remember our past so that we can deal with the president and the future and you know, hopefully this book plays a tiny part in that dialogue. so getting back to the story now that we have tom williams in trouble and in a real threat of being lynched for a murder. which he may or may not have committed a second story comes into play. and this involves ida b wells and she is a well known. journalist activists public
speaker and at one point the most famous black woman in the world basically, and i her story appealed to me because the tom williams case was the third legal case ever handled by the end of lacp. the national association for the advancement of colored people. that was a brand new organization started in 1909. that was still trying to get its footing. at the time that the murder happened in asbury park and this became their third legal case ever. and i wanted to sort of see how that happened and how the naacp. played a part in this case. while at the same time looking at the case and the incredible efforts that were made to solve the case. that's a whole other story. so but on the ida well side. i really wanted to sort of look at her life and take five or six and events from her life. that led her to become motion became which is a pioneering
crusader against lynching for civil rights four black rights and possibly the most courageous woman i've ever read about or written she was a solitary force at her time. she fell into situations and rose to them. didn't want to be a public speaker. she became a public speaker, you know, she didn't necessarily want to be an outspoken journalist, but she became one because she was forced to she didn't always want to leave her home in four children to go out and defend somebody who was under the threat of lynching, but she did. and often save them and and made a huge difference on a granular level. but also in a way that moved history and then she is one of the founders of the naacp. so i really wanted to chart how she got there. and then how the end of lacp was able to step in the tom williams case, so i'll go back to the detective story in a bit. it's really a detective story
and then the story of the naacp and how they converge in 1910. but i also wanted to just tell one little story now about how to be wells from the book. that i felt really showed how individuals are moved and and into action. and how you face a moment where you have to make a decision of what kind of america you want to live in? and what role you want to play in that america and ida wells faced such a moment. in her life at the age of 30. by then she had been born into slavery. she's been born during civil war. where parent's diagnant she was very young from yellow fever. she had to stay with her young family and siblings to keep them together. she had very hard life. she took a job as a teacher and had a ride on a mule for for several miles back and forth. she been kicked off trains and stood up to the train companies. she'd had her share of.
of activism that just came naturally to her and and defiance. but at 30 she was a journalist. she was working and writing about the black issues of the day. but under a pen name and not quite as forcefully as history would require her to do at some point. so then an event happened and that's the event. i'd like to tell you a little bit about so idols at that time had an office where she worked at the free speech newspaper in memphis, tennessee. the neighborhood called the curve which was named after a railroad track that sort of bent through the town. it was a mixed neighborhood whites blacks and the mail carrier in that neighborhood was the man named thomas moss. young man ambitious guy he knew everybody in town because he was a male terrier and he also know all the good gossip in town. so when he would stop by the
office of the free press free speech, i'm sorry the newspaper on beale street. he would spend time with ida and they became really good friends, and i didn't even became a godmother to his young daughter maureen. who was one years old one year old and they became just friendly and i either called him. a finer cleaner man never walked the streets of memphis. she was incredibly impressed by him because he was future-oriented. he got together with 10 other prominent african-american and they started something called the people's grocery. and this was a collective. owned by 11 black people which became a very competitive grocery in the curve. they actually presented a pretty strong competition to a grocery store nearby. that was white owned. which was called barrett's grocery and it was owned by william russell barrett. a white man in town, so this was
an example of black progress of black initiative in a in a rough neighborhood, but a progressing neighborhood. and thomas morris is right at the heart of that. he was you know, trying to make a better life for himself for his family for his wife patty for his daughter. and for every other black in the curve and ida wells was a part of that. she was part of that group. and then came a terrible event. it began with two children. playing marbles on a front lawn and fight happened and an argument happened and then a scrabble happened and suddenly the kids were fighting suddenly adults joined in. the adults took sides the parents took sides and before long there was a full-blown melee. in the town whites against blacks and it went on for more
than a day it lingered for days. after the fight itself, and there were some injury during the fight one of the people injured was barrett the grocery store owner who said he was clubbed in the head by one of the black workers at the people's grocery? a man named will stewart so we have an angry grocery store owner who wants to prosecute will stewart. we have black people in town who are hearing rumors of white mobs coming to get them arrest them. and in fact a hundred white citizens do get deputized overnight and armed. and do confront the workers that the people's grocery and they're shoot out there. and some officers are injured and that results in the arrests of three people including tommy moss and will stewart and one other man. they are arrested and taken to a jail.
and patty immediately tried thomas's wife to bring some food over. they told her to go away. it's too dangerous come back in a couple of days. white mob is just constantly gathered around the prison comes and goes but is a very sort of fluid active event that these people are in jail now and it's sort of a great fear for everybody in the town. and of course, i didn't know about this and this is hoping it comes out. okay, so what happens is at 2 am one morning. 75 men in black masks surrounded the jail they broke out tommy moss and will stewart and the third man they dragged them. about a mile to an empty railroad yard. and then they shop. the newspapers called it a wholesale lynching. the curse of the southland the next day white looters went into the people's grocery and strip
the shelves of all the food. what remains of the inventory which is very little was sold. to william russell barrett for 18 cents on the dollar and so thomas morris was gone. the people's grocery was gone. in an instant in a couple of days and there was nothing anybody can do about it. there was an inquest and it was found to be persons unknown who committed this extrajudicial killing. and that's just the way things went there. so when i found that out. she was crushed. she decided she had to leave the south leave memphis her homeland. she was born in mississippi. and find another place to live and urged other blacks to leave memphis as well so they could find a place where they could find peace and justice and and they decided it couldn't be in the south and that's how hostile they found it there.
and then she had to make another decision because as soon as she left the office of the free speech were burned down. she was threatening with lynching. should she ever come back and set foot in memphis? she had to buy a gun for the first time to protect herself. and she left for brooklyn. and there she got another job as a newspaper writer, but had to decide what kind of writer what kind of reaction she would have. to this existential threat of lynching in america and she chose to become. a full-blown activist and really make a difference. and so between 1982 and 19 1892 and 1895. just one year after they killing of tommy moss. she put all our efforts into producing two incredible pamphlets southern horrors and a red record which were meticulously reported. recordings of all the lynchings in the south at the time
including the grizzly details of the lynchings and the reasons for the lynchings. and through that reportage this this incredible recording should this weight of her reportage? she was able to prove in her way that these people were not lynched because they were savages who attacked white women. or whistle that white women or any other offense like that. most of the time it was economic suppression. it was a way to eliminate competition like a grocery store or clear out of town or whatever. it might be the motives behind the lynchings. or much more complicated much more devious than just simply reacting to some kind of crime. and of course that caused an outrage, you know, that was not what was accepted to be true about lynching at the time. but ida had chosen her path and she was on her way, and she went around and started giving
speeches about lynching and and one of her first speeches at the lyric hall in 40 second street, new york city the heart new york city. she talked about thomas moss and it was obviously she was doing something else. she was not only talking about about lynching, but she was humanizing. the people who are gone. she was giving them a humanity that had never been given she was giving them a name a voice describing what they did describing their families. and standing up for them and saying they lived and they mattered and they shouldn't be forgotten and there should be justice for them. and in her first speech which she didn't want to give but gave anyway. through tears. she remembered thomas moss and hayward county historian going to the widow's house betty moss. and seeing two young children maureen and then also thomas jr. who had been born just a few weeks after after his father was killed. and ida wrote about seeing the
young daughter go over to the closet. she wrote the baby daughter of thomas too young to express how she misses her father. toddlers over to the wardrobe seizes the legs of her father's letter carrier uniform and hugs and kisses them. with evident delight and then she stretches up her little hands to be taken up in the arms. that will never more class for. this was the kind of story that had never been told about lynching victims the crowd at lyric hall was in tears. it was one of the most powerful speeches ever given the time about lynching. and it's sort of set right on the course that would lead her to the instrumental in the founding the end of aacp. add to the speech she said do we ask for?
what she had one? she said a public sentiment strong against lawlessness must be aroused. every individual can contribute to this awakening. when a sentiment against lynch law strong deep and mighty as that against slavery prevails. i have no fear of the result. the voice of the people is the voice of god? and in the story which is one of a few about ida. i'm just hoping to convey how individuals like ida. made decisions faced crossroads that ended up playing a huge part in history and always with the motivation of giving voice to the voiceless. this is the theme that occurs in the story. and of course the other line of the story is this incredible detective thriller where a detective from new york raymond schindler is hired to come in and find the the actual killer of marie smith.
and i've given short trip to that side of the story today, but it really it's very exciting resolution to that case because this is a first time this is first murder case. he's a very young detective. he doesn't have any set ways. so he sets an enormous. psychological trap for his main suspect in new york city and pursues him for months. and uses an infiltrator called the rope. to sort of rope them in and gain his confidence and gain a confession and it's sort of incredible how that case plays out and then in 1911, the two cases are to converge. because the ncaa gets involved with the tom williams case as its third case ever handled so in this short time. i just hope to convey that the rope is about visual courage granular courage how it takes? individual quiet heroism from people at certain moments in life to advance a cause, you
know, ida wells was pushing a big cause but with the other hand she was helping people. she was putting people on trains to avoid lynchings. she was raising 50 bucks to to set up a reward whatever it might be individual heroism quite heroism. conviction perseverance this is what shine through in her story and the story of raymond schindler. and it's sort of what i hope comes through today if you read it and why it's relevant today because i think we all face that choice. we haven't decided yet. what america this is and what america we all want to live in? as a country that's not been decided. i mean certainly now more than ever. it's not decided. it's it's something that has to be confronted every day. who do you want to be as americans? totally want to help what matters to us. what are our values? what is america and i had to answer that question in the heat of battle so did raymond schindler?
and what happened with them and the resolution of the murder case i hope is the kind of a thrilling story that also has historical relevance and resonance. and i appreciate you just let me tell you this one a little story from it, and i'd really hope you enjoy it. so. thank you so much for listening. actually tell you that just another fact i used to be the true crime rider at people magazine people magazine for a long time. and i've always had a fascinated with true crime stories, and i found that a lot of other people do as well. in fact, those were always the most popular stories that people magazine. no matter what, you know, we had human interest stories celebrities. it was the true crime that sort of compelled readers to sink in and i think we all sort of have that or at least a lot of us do where we are going to the dark side of nature and want to see. from a distance what it's like to you know to live in that
world and these are people in in the rope that do live in world certainly the detective. and that's one of the reasons i was drawn to the book because it just seemed to me to be, you know, a thrilling thrilling story. and that was that's always what i'm looking for. yes was the murder ever solved? it was solved. i don't want to give away too much of the book, but it is solved by the end of the book. by raymond schindler in an unusual way and it's fully adjudicated and we take you through the the full resolution of that. and today marie smith is buried in a little. well a big cemetery in brooklyn, which i visited and found her plot, which was bear. and i went back and put a little plaque there. to honor her and sort of remember her. so that she had a little place in the world still and that's another reason why i wanted to do this story to sort of give
marie smith at the moment. so today in asbury park. this crime is not really commemorated in any way. i've went there. it's a ghost of its own self as we park some of the houses that people lived in like we have to still there the path she walked walked to school is still there. but the place where she was killed is not and most of the cities is different from what it was and there's really no. commemoration of it other than in a historical societies and newspaper accounts, certainly no black anything like that. like i said, that's why i felt like i felt like i wanted to put a physical thing at her grave site to sort of commemorate her. it's kind of a forgotten case. hopefully until now.
there are some surviving relatives i in terms of getting proper headstone from murray. i will tell you it's a bureaucratic nightmare if you're not related to her, it's almost impossible the family fell out of paying for the plot. so there's some back. money is owed in terms of keeping up the maintenance of the plot of everything else and i'm trying to get in touch with some surviving family members to see if that's something we could do. i think it would be a beautiful thing and market with the ceremony and certainly i'll update readers on my website alex trez comm. if that ever happens, but it's quite not as easy as it looks it's certainly if you're not a family member, but i it's a great idea. i didn't want to thank everybody for that to talk about the story. i think it's a great story and meaningful. so. and i don't want to thank the organization for hosting this in this virtual time.
let's all kick in the americans and pretty soon. we'll be out there again. having fun enjoying each other, so thanks again. i really appreciate it. american history tv on c-span 3 exploring the people and events that tell the american story every weekend. on sunday at 2pm eastern on oral histories us army veteran david vassar taylor reflects on his time serving as a clerk during the vietnam war and sunday at 8pm eastern on the presidency a look at newly elected presidents first address to a joint session of congress with president george w bush in 2001 and president barack obama in 2009 exploring the american story watch american history tv this weekend on c-span 3 this week we're looking back to this date in history.
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philanthropist can strengthen the economy and expand the middle class, which looks at the history of philanthrop in the us and argues that americans would benefit more if there was less government regulation of private foundations the institute for american values in new york city held this event in september 2010. okay. hello everybody. my name is david blankenhorn. i'm the president of the institute for american values and i want to welcome you to this conversation with claire. gaudiani. dr. claire gaudiani is a professor at the wagner school at new york university. she is a senior fellow here at the institute for american values. she is also a fellow at dimas a excellent think tank also based here in new york. she serves on many numerous corporate and not