August 7, 1930 Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in Marion, Indiana. Shipp and Smith had been arrested and charged with robbing and murdering a white factory worker and raping his girlfriend. A mob of townspeople broke into the jail, beat the two men and hanged them. Police officers cooperated in the lynching. A picture of the lynching was widely circulated and included in the exhibition “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” which was on exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan in 2004. The picture also inspired the poem “Strange Fruit” (1936) by Abel Meeropol. The poem later became the lyrics for the song of the same name popularized by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. A third African American man, James Cameron, had also been arrested and narrowly escaped being lynched. Cameron went on to found America’s Black Holocaust Museum which is dedicated to the history of lynching in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1988. Cameron died June 11, 2006.
The picture of the lynching mentioned above is on the cover of the book “A Time of Terror.” Its writer is James Cameron, who is convinced he was miraculously spared from being lynched along with Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp.
My dad has a copy of Cameron’s book, and I’m now strong enough to study the lynching photo on the cover instead of simply glancing at it.
I would best describe it as a carnival scene. But of course, it’s no picnic for the two black men, with rope-bruised necks, hanging lifelessly from a tree as dozens of Caucasians young and old look on, pointing to the newest dead Negros.
What else can be said after hearing the Legendary Billie Holiday sing this song?
“Strange Fruit” began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, as a protest against lynchings. The poem was later turned into a song.
Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit” in 1939 at Café Society, New York’s first integrated Nightclub. Holiday said that singing the song made her fearful of retaliation, but she continued to make it a regular part of her live performances.
Barney Josephen, the nightclub’s owner, had a few rules when Holiday sang the song: 1) Holiday would close her set with it. 2) All waiters would stop service in advance 3)The room would be in total darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face and 4) There would be no encore.
The first time I heard Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” was in college. I took a course called “Women in Film, Literature and Music.” Holiday’s voice growled as she sang of the horrific tragedy of lynching, and compared lynching victims to fruit swaying in the breeze.
I used to think that I would one day come to grips with lynching and be ok with the fact that it’s a horrid part of American history (Not just African American History) and simply move on. But, I can’t.
I’ll never be able to accept that it happened or agree that it was ok to happen. And I shouldn’t. Besides, those black bodies or “Strange Fruit” are no longer swinging from trees with bulging eyes and twisted mouths; instead we each contend with a different form of lynching today, and could be responsible for placing the noose around our own necks.
Leah Johnson is a University of Michigan- Dearborn graduate and she has a B.A. degree in Communication. In college, she minored in Psychology and African American Studies after developing a love her history, culture and African American literature. She currently works in the Communication and Marketing Department at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Two of Leah's "She-ros" are Ida B. Wells Barnett, the fearless journalist who exposed the truth about lynching, and Madame CJ Walker, the first self-made African American female millionaire. "I love these women because they were determined and did what was necessary to succeed and defend the truth. That lets me know that I can be a successful African American woman as well," said Leah.
In her spare time, Leah enjoys traveling, bowling, shoe shopping, and spending time with friends and family.