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  • Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence by Amy Kate Bailey and Stewart E. Tolnay
  • David B. Parker
Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence. By Amy Kate Bailey and Stewart E. Tolnay. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2015.

Lynching scholarship has proliferated in the last fifteen years or so. In addition to general studies, one can find works on individual lynchings, on the causes of lynchings, on lynchings in photographs, literature, and more. The one thing we have lacked is a study of the victims themselves. In Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence, sociologists Amy Kate Bailey and Stewart E. Tolnay begin to fill that void.

For this study, Bailey and Tolnay looked at the victims of 2,805 lynchings in the southern states between 1882 and 1930. (Their list was one drawn up by Tolnay and E. M. Beck in 2010 that reconciled previous compilations with names and events described in contemporary newspaper accounts.) Using recently digitized census records, they searched for each victim in the U.S. Census that immediately preceded the lynching. The authors supplemented this with archival research of World War I draft registration cards, which are also available online, and digitized newspapers. The result is a much more thorough study than one could expect from earlier studies like Arthur Raper’s Tragedy of Lynching (1933), which examined lynchings in the year 1930.

This is not a perfect approach, of course. Newspaper accounts for roughly ten percent of the lynchings gave no victim name at all. In many cases, there was no obvious match to the name of the lynching victim in the census records. In some cases there were several possible matches. And, of course, almost all of the 1890 census materials were destroyed in a fire—which is particularly unfortunate since the decade of the 1890s saw [End Page 95] more lynchings than any other. Ultimately, the authors were able to find fairly reliable matches in the census and other records for 935 victims of southern lynchings. (Bailey and Tolnay’s lengthy and detailed discussion of their methodology is interesting and worthwhile in its own right.)

Census records vary from decade to decade, but from 1880 to 1920, they generally included, among other things, age, mixed-race status, marital status, relationship to head of household, literacy, occupation, home ownership, and place of birth. Based on this information, the authors found several significant trends in their study of the victims of southern mob violence. Across the South, black male victims tended to be “older adolescents or young adults who resided in rural areas and were engaged in unskilled work, generally within the agricultural sector” (88). There was considerable diversity in literacy and marital status. Victims were more likely than the average adult black male to own their own home.

With the possible exception of that last sentence, none of this is really surprising. Bailey and Tolnay’s most significant finding, “the social marginality perspective of victimization” (116), came when they looked at the statistics on a county level. In counties where there were relatively few African Americans of higher status (by such measures as literacy, occupation, mixed race, and home ownership), those of higher social standing were more likely to be victims of mob violence; in counties with higher than average numbers of higher-status African Americans, those with lower social status were more likely to be victims. Hence marginalization’s relation to lynching rates affected both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

The 935 victims studied by Bailey and Tolnay make up exactly one-third of the total in the Beck-Tolnay inventory. What of the two-thirds that could not be found in the census or other records? It is easy to imagine that many of them were missing from the census because they were less prosperous and more mobile than average. This is not to say the analysis is wrong, but it might call into question the usefulness of some of the coefficients, carried out to three decimal places, in the tables at the back of the book.

For some readers, the most salient part of the book might be the scattered stories of lynching victims...


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pp. 95-96
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