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March 19, 2001

Lynching exhibit set
for 2002

By Michael Terrazas

After an extensive opinion-gathering effort not only within the University but in the Atlanta community, President Bill Chace has decided that Emory will in fact sponsor an exhibition of graphic lynching photographs and postcards sometime in 2002.

The exhibit, comprising images from the Atlanta collections of James Allen and John Littlefield, posed a difficult problem for the University. To help find a solution, Chace appointed a committee of faculty, students and staff to hold public forums so people could air their opinions. The committee made is recommendation in December, and Chace announced his decision just before Spring Break.

“I thought [the recommendation] was so reasonably argued that it wasn’t a difficult decision,” said Chace, who admitted he’d hoped all along that Emory could take part in this exhibit.

But while the president’s final decision was easy, chair Thee Smith said the committee’s deliberations were anything but. “It was agonizing,” said Smith, associate professor of religion. “We were conflicted. There were some sobering concerns that this would deteriorate into voyeurism of some sort, or that it would provoke increased antagonism as opposed to purging antagonism. And also that Emory as institution—or any American university—would not have the skill or cultural competence to do this right.”

In the end, however, Smith said the opportunity to make a national and very real step forward in race relations by sponsoring the exhibit was simply too great to pass up.

“What we’ve done so well here in the United States, and particularly in Atlanta, is bypass all of that history on the assumption that we’re a new generation and we can just start over again with new civil rights legislation and new attitudes,” Smith said. “We’re discovering that does not work with historically entrenched evil. It will just stay under the surface and continue to fester and disrupt our relationships unless we actually go through it.”

Not many details have been worked out for the exhibit, and it may not even take place on the Emory campus. But the University will be one of if not the major sponsor, and Smith said the committee recommended that Chace form another group—one made up of museum curators, educational specialists, historical experts and others—to begin work on what form the exhibit will take.

Expanding on a previous exhibit of the images that took place last year in New York to great acclaim, the Atlanta effort will provide substantial accompanying materials to allow viewers to place the often horrifying images in their proper context. Included will be information on the history of lynching in the United States, as well as archival materials on anti-lynching movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of the images were printed in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, published last year by Twin Palms Publishing.

“These images make the past present,” The New York Times wrote of the book. “They refute the notion that photographs of charged historical subjects lose their power, softening and becoming increasingly aesthetic with time. These images are not going softly into any artistic realm. Instead they send shock waves through the brain, implicating ever larger chunks of American society and in many ways reaching up to the present.”


Back to Emory Report March 19, 2001