A 1946 march near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to protest the lynching of four African-Americans. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

A 1946 march near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to protest the lynching of four African-Americans. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

After the Civil War, thousands of Black Americans were victims of lynchings—a searing form of racial violence that occurred well into the 20th century. Most of these killings took place in Southern states—a reality reinforced in film and in verse.

Notably, Billie Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit”—which brought to light, for many, the horrors of lynching in America—at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Society, New York City’s first integrated night club, in March 1939, as the New York Times recently reported.

Billie Holiday at New York's Downbeat Club, Feb. 1947. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Billie Holiday at New York's Downbeat Club, Feb. 1947. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

But while the song referred specifically to the South (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit”), lynchings had taken place throughout Northern states as well—including in New York State.

“More than 4,000 African Americans were lynched across the United States between 1877 and 1950,” says Rachel Swarns, a professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. “While most of these occurred in Southern states, scores of Black people were lynched in states above the Mason-Dixon line.”

Adding to the tragedy is the fact that the stories of these victims have remained largely unknown.

Swarns is working to correct the record with “Lynchings in the North,” which shines a light on the lives of the victims of racial violence and examines how communities in the North and mid-Atlantic are grappling with this history today.

As part of this effort, undergraduates in her “Investigating Injustice” course and graduate students in her “Reporting on Racial Justice” course write obituaries of the victims of racial killings as a way to rebut the  biased media coverage of the past and give Americans a broader understanding of who the deceased were as people.

Students in Rachel Swarns' "Investigating Injustice" course watch a video of a man recounting how racial terror—lynchings and other mass attacks—affected his grandparents and his mother.  Photo by Tracey Friedman.

Students in Rachel Swarns' "Investigating Injustice" course watch a video of a man recounting how racial terror—lynchings and other mass attacks—affected his grandparents and his mother. Photo by Tracey Friedman.

The students dig into archival records and conduct contemporary interviews to find biographical information on these individuals, map out where the killings took place, and hear from a New York Times obituary editor, Amisha Padnani, the creator of the "Overlooked" series, who visits the class. The work includes a collaboration with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. to identify Northern victims and communities that are wrestling with this history. This semester, students focused on communities in Illinois and Kansas.

“Journalists have long played a crucial role in exploring and exposing issues of racial injustice, but, at the same time, have also perpetuated stereotypes of those they are writing about and, in some cases, incited racial violence,” explains Swarns, a contributing writer for the New York Times.

Rachel Swarns, photo credit: Lise Guillard

NYU Journalism Professor Rachel Swarns. Photo credit: Lise Guillard

She pointed to a Mississippi newspaper that published the date and time of a planned lynching in a June 1919 article that appeared under the headline, “John Hartfield Will Be Lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 O’Clock This Afternoon.” It described the planned killing as a spectacle—akin to a sporting event rather than as the murder of a human being.  

The Evening World (NY) headline, June 22, 1903. Source: Library of Congress

The Evening World (NY) headline, June 22, 1903. Source: Library of Congress

The course supplements lessons of past journalistic shortcomings and archival training with contemporaneous accounts, such as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, published in 1892 by Ida Wells to document these killings, and by modern-day speakers whose ancestors were either victims of lynching or a perpetrator of them.

Armed with this knowledge, students then set out to report on today’s bias crimes in New York City—penning deeply sourced stories that may include going to local courthouses and police precincts.

“The aim of the course is for students to develop a critical eye for blind spots and bias in media coverage, reporting strategies, and even in themselves in pursuing stories,” Swarns says. “In learning how to assess and report on conflicting testimony from court records, authorities, witnesses, victims, and people accused of racial bias or other crimes, they can enhance journalism’s vital role in a democratic society.”