For the last couple of years I have taught a 3rd year unit on twentieth century cultural history and one of the topics that the students always ‘enjoy’ (if that’s the right word) is lynching.
Lynching is a challenging topic to teach in a subtle way. Trying to get students to understand the complex ways racism worked within US society is a real challenge. However, one of the most important resources to convey this complexity is the lynching postcard.
An excellent website called ‘Without Sanctuary’ is a repository of a large number of lynching photographs and postcards and makes an excellent teaching tool. These images can be used to illustrate lectures but also for analytical exercises during seminars or workshops.
The website (click here) accompanies a book written by James Allen contains nearly one hundred postcards, each of which have a location and approximate date, sometimes the name of the lynching victim, and often images of white onlookers, sometimes even handwritten messages from them.
The most famous of these is the postcard showing the lynching of Jesse Washington in Texas in 1916 with a young attendee’s written message to his mother ‘this is the barbecue we had last night’. Students are often really moved by how ‘normal’ lynching had become for many in the white community during this period and the lynching postcards are an excellent illustration of this point.