A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America

A jolting photograph taken in Marion, Indiana, in August 1930 shows the beaten bodies of two African-American teenage boys hanging grotesquely from a massive maple tree in the town square. Save for one grim-faced man pointing at the dead boys, the rest of the crowd mills about as if attending a county fair or band concert. Several men and women in the foreground turn and smile toward the photographer as he snaps the picture. It is one of the most notorious lynching photographs in American history. It was published widely in state and national newspapers, including the Chicago Defender and The Crisis, which, respectively, ran captions reading “American Christianity” and “Civilization in the United States, 1930.” James H. Madison’s study of the Marion lynching provides, among other things, fascinating details about the photograph and its impact, including how a local professional photographer painstakingly set up the shot and later sold copies to eager souvenir hunters for fifty cents each. Like the photograph itself, this short book is a vivid portrait of jarring contradictions and hard truths, of the central meaning and complex memories of the color line in a twentieth-century midwestern community.

Madison uses newspaper accounts, oral histories, court records, and a variety of other sources to piece together a brisk, harrowing account of events surrounding the lynching: the arrest of nineteen-year-old Tom Shipp, eighteen-year-old Abe Smith, and sixteen-year-old James Cameron on charges of killing a white man and raping his white girlfriend; the mob that brushed aside law enforcement officials and methodically worked sledge hammers and crow bars for an hour to break into the Grant County Jail; the men and women who brutally pummeled and murdered Shipp and Smith and then, remarkably, gave Cameron a last-second reprieve; the thousands of onlookers who cheered on the horror and congregated beneath the bodies for hours afterward. The lynching, Madison makes clear, was a predictable consequence of the northern version of Jim Crow woven into the fabric of community life across the state, where parks, schools, and theaters were segregated and the specter of black-on-white sexual assault carried a constant, singular potential for social fury.

Yet, at the same time, the lynching also defied simple explanation. It was the only lynching to occur in Indiana after 1903. Racial tensions in Marion did not seem to be running particularly high at the time. The relatively small black population (less than five percent of the city total of more than 23,000) had not grown significantly in the preceding decade, as it had in most of Indiana’s other urban areas. And the city’s color line was fluid enough to allow for African-American civic employees (including two—and only two—in both the fire and police departments), some jobs in the city’s main industrial operations, and a thriving National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter. Flossie Bailey, the leader of the Marion NAACP, played a dynamic role in mobilizing the black community after the lynching and pressuring the state government to bring at least some members of the lynch mob to trial. The Ku Klux Klan, while a massive force in Indiana during the 1920s, had crumbled before 1930 and had actually been less popular in Marion than in other nearby communities. Its existence had been an obvious marker of the depths of white supremacy in Marion, as in countless other midwestern places, and former members certainly laced the lynch mob and attending crowd, but the Klan as an organization played no specific role in orchestrating the crime.

Madison carefully situates the lynching within these and other complex local circumstances, making this a fine community study in the traditional sense. But he also blends his analysis with questions of historical memory and follows the trail of shifting interpretation and diverse meanings from the time of the lynching to the present. Folk wisdom shaped public memory of the event from the beginning. It was widely believed in Marion’s black community, for example, that Mary Ball claimed rape only to cover her own involvement in a robbery ring with Shipp, Smith, and Cameron, a belief supported by Ball’s refusal to implicate Cameron at his trial. In the short term, white citizens clung to the narrative of the lynching night: that three black boys got what they deserved, or at least what they should have expected after attacking a secluded, romantic white couple. The notoriety of the event gave it a place of continued importance in local memory. Over the decades, African Americans continued to see it as a central symbol of Marion’s legacy of racism. White memories evolved in the direction of explaining away the lynching as an aberration. Many came to believe that it must have been the work of the Klan. Remarkably, Cameron went on late in life to play a prominent role in shaping public awareness of past racial horrors and in achieving a measure of reconciliation. By 1998, the county elected as sheriff a former athletic hero who had been the first African-American teacher at Marion High School before going on to a twenty-year career in the FBI. His return to Marion and his election, Madison argues, were strongly connected to public memories of August 1930 and to an awareness of the need to address past injustice.

Accounts of public memory can be as slippery as the memories themselves, and one wonders if Madison places too much importance on one event in shaping the course of race relations in Marion’s history. Still, the author succeeds by making careful distinctions between what can be known with reasonable certainty, and what becomes accepted as truth in a variety of different contexts over time. Through creative and meticulous research, this book reveals the complex roots and lasting significance of what happened in one place on one terrible, unforgettable night.





By James H. Madison