Keith Morris Washington on Lynching
The term “lynching” refers to murder by mob violence, often under the pretext of carrying out vigilante justice. While at the beginning of the 19th century the majority of victims were white, from Reconstruction onwards it became a largely white-on-black crime—presumably because until the end of slavery people of color were not seen as threats. According to the Tuskegee Institute, between the years 1882 and 1951, 4,730 people were lynched in the United States, of whom 3,437 were African American. Often the crimes they were accused of were racial in nature; a man could be killed for allegedly raping a white woman, or merely whistling at one.
While lynchings have taken place all over the country, the majority occurred in the South. There was a marked decline in lynchings in the 1930s and ‘40s as white Southerners and southern newspapers began speaking out against the practice and anti-lynching bills appeared (but failed to pass) in Congress.
Artist Keith Morris Washington was inspired to do a series on lynchings in the mid-1990s. He prepared by researching at the archives of the Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City and the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, as well as by closely reading the book One Hundred Years of Lynchings by Ralph Ginzburg. These resources helped him to locate lynching sites, which he then traveled to and photographed, beginning in the summer of 1998. He then returned to his studio to paint from the photographs, both because he did not feel comfortable setting up his canvas in a strange place where his interest in local crimes was frequently not appreciated, and also because he is intrigued by the way people see the world through photographs.
Many people think of lynchings as crimes that happened long ago in the Deep South; Washington wants to correct what he sees as a common misconception. “The South is where the majority of these events took place, but they are not exclusively a Southern phenomenon, nor are they exclusively a historical phenomenon. These events unfortunately still occur today.” Some of the lynchings his paintings depict happened as recently as five years ago.
Washington’s work is not limited to black-on-white crimes; he is currently working on a painting commemorating the killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard, a white man who was murdered by two white men. “I felt it was really important to include people of other ethnic groups, because lynching is an American phenomenon.”