Images

by Caroline Askew Westerhoff '62


Nan headed straight for the photograph that had haunted her for weeks: a little girl, seven or eight years old, stood in the near background of the picture, only a few feet from the hanging body of Rubin Stacy. There she was, arms down, wrists crossed in front of her in an eerie likeness of his manacled hands. Nan had hoped the girl was gone—that she had remembered wrong. Not so.

And what was Rubin Stacy’s “crime”?  The homeless tenant farmer had come to Mrs. Marion Jones’s door in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to ask for food.  Frightened by his face, she accused him of assault.  A mob of over one hundred masked men overcame the six deputies who were taking him to a Dade County jail for “safekeeping.”  He was hanged from a roadside tree within sight of Mrs. Jones’s home on July 19, 1935, his body riddled with bullets before and after he died. Mrs. Jones’s three young daughters witnessed the entire scene.

The small exhibition room in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site wasn’t crowded on that last day of December, so Nan could move in closely to study the expression on the girl’s face.  There was none: she was neither smiling in approval nor frowning in shock and distaste.  She was just impassively gazing up at the horrific sight before her as if it were a run-of-the-mill occurrence. The photograph, minus the dead man with the bulging eyes and the top hat placed on his head as a final touch of humiliation, could have come from Nan’s old family album. The little girl looked as she did at her age.  Nan could have been the one standing there.
 
Nan had been to visit the King Center previously with three friends. They’d gone together on a cold, rainy Saturday in November to see and experience the James Allen-John Littlefield Collection, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. None would have gone alone.

The late Billie Holiday’s rich blues voice filled the entrance hall as the four of them began their journey:

                                         Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
                                         Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
                                         Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
                                         Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Framed sepia photographs and postcards hung on three walls: they depicted celebratory crowds that could number in the thousands. Glassed-topped cases housing books, newspapers, posters, and the like occupied the fourth wall and the center of the floor.

The room was crowded. Nan and her companions shifted in synchrony from image to image, as if an unseen choreographer were directing their movements. The shuffling of feet and soft sighs and gasps were the only sounds Nan remembered. No one talked out loud. No matter: she had no words to express the shock and deep sadness—and fear—welling up inside her.

 The vast majority of the victims were African-Americans: men, women, and children.  The majority of the people in the room were African-Americans as well. Nan could not help glancing to the right and to the left, hoping her whiteness did not make her as conspicuous and vulnerable as she felt. When she finally came to Ella Watson, “Cattle Kate,” lynched in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, for cattle rustling, pernicious relief rushed through her. Finally an Anglo-Saxon, woman victim! She thought she was exonerated.  She thought she had joined the club.
 
But as Nan neared the end of her stay, she passed an older African-American man sitting on a stool weeping.  His shoulders shook, and tears poured down his lined cheeks.  Nan watched him for a short while, wanting to make contact, wanting to express her solidarity. At last, she touched him lightly on the shoulder and murmured, “Me too.”  He turned away.   Instantly she knew she had made a mistake. She had no idea what these images had stirred up in him, and she should not have imposed herself upon his grief. So much for insensitive quick fixes. So much for shallow common ground. Nan left feeling sick at heart—and embarrassed.

As with a labyrinth, the way out was the way in: others were entering as Nan and her friends exited; there was no back passage providing a private escape. They who had made it around the room, whose countenances displayed the impact of what they had seen, came face to face with those about to view the horrors ahead. The door was narrow. They rubbed shoulders.

Nan still can only ponder the implications of her visit to the King Center. She knows she must keep that little girl’s image before her. She knows that given circumstances other than those she knew as a child, she could have stood next to a hanging body. She acknowledges that she is vulnerable to evil’s seduction, that no part of her is immune. Now she might engage the man at the entrance/exit to the lynching exhibit with authenticity and integrity and solid compassion.  Perhaps now, he could accept her greeting.  Perhaps now, they could grapple together with their common humanity. Nan knows that the next time she sings the familiar spiritual, Were you there when they crucified my Lord? her answer will be yes, I was there—or could have been. Today she is compelled to keep before her the question, whom does she leave swinging in the breeze?

Before she left the King Center on that last day of December, Nan met an incarnation of a new possibility: Sydney, a beautiful dark-skinned toddler in denim overalls and a pink shirt, danced around the reception area, gurgling happy baby noises. She lifted Nan’s spirits, and Nan thanked her mother for bringing her.  She prays the child will find her way to fend off the slithery enticements of the Evil One. She prays the girl will find her own set of disturbing and life-altering images.