- Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence by Amy Kate Bailey and Stewart E. Tolnay
Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck revolutionized the study of lynching twenty years ago by constructing a definitive list of lynchings to replace the flawed lists compiled by antilynching organizations. This data underlay a series of important articles and the book A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930 (Urbana, 1995). Now Tolnay and one of his Ph.D. graduates, Amy Kate Bailey, have used similar methods to compile a dataset of the victims of lynching. Many historians have done extensive research on a few victims as part of case studies of particular lynchings or more cursory research on a wide range of victims as part of statewide studies, but Bailey and Tolnay’s work here is much more systematic and extensive than anything previously accomplished and should provide the basis for much further research.
An entire chapter is dedicated to a detailed explanation of how the authors compiled the data on the lynching victims. They began with the 2010 Beck-Tolnay Confirmed Inventory of Lynch Victims, which included data on the date, the county and state, the alleged offense, the name or names of the victims, their race, and their sex. Then Bailey and Tolnay connected this inventory to records in the U.S. census by a very precise process. In the end, they were able to link 935 of the more than 2,400 victims in the inventory with records from the last census before the person was lynched. While this number is only about a quarter of the victims of lynching between the 1880s and the 1930s, these findings represent a prodigious accomplishment.
Some of the conclusions Bailey and Tolnay reach reinforce ideas that historians have assumed to be the case, but several conclusions are new and [End Page 701] surprising and paint a more complex portrait of the phenomenon of lynching and its victims. For example, one old debate centered on whether African American men who were marginal to their communities were more vulnerable to mob violence or whether black men who were successful drew the wrath of their white neighbors for that very success. Bailey and Tolnay effectively argue that both were true: as the Japanese proverb says, “the nail that sticks out shall be hammered down,” and that appears to have been the case for poor, transient African Americans in more settled communities and for successful African Americans in poorer areas. Being well-off where more people were well-off, or rootless and new where most of one’s neighbors were also new, offered some protection against being a victim of lynching.
While Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence is a huge step forward for understanding the people most directly affected by lynching, the study does have limitations, which are readily acknowledged by the authors. The most significant of these has to do with the famous fire in 1921 that burned up the 1890 census schedules. Since the peak of lynching happened in the early 1890s, this loss is particularly unfortunate because it means that Bailey and Tolnay must rely on the 1880 census to try to find lynching victims from the mid-1890s. The authors have managed to find only about 35 percent of the victims in the 1890s, while for other decades their success rate is between 40 and 50 percent. The other more puzzling limitation echoes Beck and Tolnay’s earlier work: the study includes only ten southeastern states, omitting Virginia, Texas, and Missouri. While very few lynchings occurred in Virginia, this was certainly not the case in Texas. Perhaps ambitious students will expand Bailey and Tolnay’s work to cover those states. Despite these limitations, it is still no exaggeration to say that Lynched is the single most important piece of scholarship yet produced on the victims of lynching.