Ta-Nehisi Coates posted this week a list of links to books available online of contemporary documentation of slavery in the United States.
The first one that I clicked on and read was an interview called Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon: or Inside Views of Southern Domestic Life. The conversation with Mrs. Picquet is a relatively quick and easy read, about 50 pages or so, and gives a basic, believable record of the life of a mixed-race woman forced to live with each master as a sort of common-law wife and servant, and her long and arduous (and ultimately successful) fight to buy her mother’s freedom.
At page 53, the reader’s relief at the happy news is yanked away with an addendum documenting the practice of burning slaves at the stake, something I admit I had never heard of before this. Whipping, hanging, beating, the workhouse treadmill, these are things one has heard about. I never imagined that people were burned alive as punishment in the United States. Just 150 years ago.
Here an excerpt, cited from the Natchez (Mississippi) Free Trader, 1858:
“The victim was chained to a tree, faggots were placed around him, while he showed the greatest indifference. When the chivalry had arranged the pile, in reply to a question, if he had any thing to say, he is reported to have warned all slaves to take example by him, and asked the prayers of those around. He then asked for a drink of water, and after quaffing it said, “Now set fire, I am ready to go in peace.” When the flames began to burn him, in his agony he showed gigantic strength, and actually forced the staple from the tree, and bounded from the burning mass. But he instantly fell pierced with rifle balls, and then his body was thrown into the flames and consumed, to show that no such being had ever existed. Nearly four thousand slaves from the neighboring plantations were present as at a moral lesson written in characters of hell fire. Numerous speeches were made by the magistrates and ministers of religion (facetiously so called) to the slaves, warning them that the same fate awaited them if they proved rebellious to their owners.”
Ah, so long ago. Must have been better in the 20th century, at least in the north, no? And then I found this post about a man named Zach Walker, who was burned alive by a lynch mob in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. In 1911.
They dragged him from the hospital, still chained to his bedstead, and burned him to death in front of thousands of witnesses in a field south of the city. No one was convicted of the crime. When he staggered from the pyre, a mass of flames, with rakes they shoved him back in. I have seen the picture of what was left of him. It would not fill a grocery bag. Around it are the bare feet and legs of young boys. I found the photos in the back of a cabinet drawer of the West Chester newspaper when I became an editor there. A year after the lynching, John Jay Chapman, poet, dramatist and social critic, came to Coatesville, hired a hall there and held a memorial service. Only two people came.
There have been a few photographs and newspaper articles, floating around the internet, of people in America displaying ropes near their “Romney for President” signs, chairs hanging by ropes from trees (as in, calling for Obama’s lynching). The hatred and racism which has come to the surface in America in the past 5 years is staggering.
But it was always there, if just below the surface. I remember one day in my sophomore year at college, living in a quad with two other girls and needing a fourth (the girl who had planned to room with us dropped out over the summer). One of the first candidates was not white. That didn’t bother me. She was a little surly, or seemed that way, and that did bother me. Two of us would have taken her anyway, we didn’t have much of an opinion one way or the other, but the third roommate, T., was dead set against it. The only detail I can remember is that T. referred to her later as a “spear chucker”, which I had only heard before as the name of the African-American character on M.A.S.H. I suppose her parents talked that way at home. I guess I can be hugely grateful that mine did not.
T. was a perennial beauty pageant contestant from Ohio. I’m fairly certain she’s as Republican as they come these days, even though I haven’t seen her in nearly 30 years.