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Postcards from an ugly place in time

Beneath our thin veneer of civility, an unspeakable barbarism bubbles, waiting to burst like lava through the surface of our sensibilities.

Such are the thoughts that crossed my mind as I gazed, tight-lipped and solemnly, at a most unusual photo exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

It is an exhibition of American lynchings.

More than 3,000 such lynchings occurred, mostly in an epidemic that ran from 1890 to 1930. Most of the lynchings took place in the South, although other states _ Ohio, Indiana, California, Pennsylvania _ also stand out.

Most of the victims were black. Some actually were guilty of crimes, as if that mattered. Mobs do not wait for evidence to get in the way of a good lynching.

Bernie Simmons, for example, is seen from below, hanging from the limb of a cottonwood tree in Anadarko, Okla., hands tied behind his back and soaked in oil before he was set afire. He is not quite dead, according to local newspaper accounts.

"The Negro prayed and shrieked in agony as the flames reached his flesh," the newspaper said, "but his cries were drowned out by yells and jeers of the mob."

"The mob" is what is most striking about these pictures. The mobs look like remarkably solid citizens. One can see faces quite plainly. No Ku Klux Klan masks here. Women and children were included, even encouraged, to attend. Lynchings were big community events, as thrilling for participants as a carnival, a street fair or a church picnic.

And the celebration was followed by commemoration. Most of these pictures are preserved on postcards, which often were sold door-to-door and sent to friends and relatives. "This is the barbecue we had last night," reads one message on the back of a photo of a burned body.

Times and attitudes changed. In 1908, the postmaster general forbade sending such cards through the mail. Most of them were destroyed or tucked away.

Then, 15 years ago, James Allen, a self-described "picker" ("I search out items that some people don't want and sell them to others who do") came across a picture postcard of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman in Marietta, Ga.

Frank was falsely accused, evidence would later show, of killing Mary Phagan. His highly publicized tragedy led to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League.

"Emotionally, that first card was really stunning," Allen, 45, told me in a telephone interview. "What stuck with me the most was the absolute indifference of the white men who were sort of ambling around the corpse, as if he was less than human. I couldn't get it off my mind."

One postcard led to dozens more. Allen decided to make it more difficult for Americans to forget this shameful side of American history. His collection, on loan to Emory University, is scheduled to remain on display at the New York Historical Society until at least July 9. There is talk of a national tour, perhaps with additional photos gathered by Emory. Some of the photos also have been collected in a book with the same title as the exhibition, "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," by Twin Palms Publishers.

Although hundreds of visitors have filed through the gallery each week, not everyone is delighted with the exhibit. At least one African-American gallery in New York turned it down, a historical society spokesman said. As an African-American whose parents remembered, but were reluctant to talk about, the period of the lynching epidemic, I am not surprised. The memory is painful for many on both sides of the color line.

Yet, it must not be forgotten. "These pictures have woken me up to the power of thoughts and belief systems," Allen said. "As the 20th century went on, the lynchings became fewer in number, but more brutal and savage in their nature. There was more torture, more of an effort to keep the body alive longer."

"Spend time with these photos and you can see how slavery evolved into lynchings and a penal system stacked against blacks," says Allen, who is white. "I can't help but believe that we're doing some of the same things today, that the lynching has not entirely gone away."

It is a painful message that offers a warning to us humans of the horrors we can commit, even in a seemingly civilized society, when our worst nature gets the best of us. Our capacity to lynch never goes away, no matter what color we are.

+ Clarence Page is a Chicago Tribune columnist. +

Chicago Tribune