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Lynching and the West: A Racial History

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Given that the government is reopening the investigation into Emmett Till’s lynching, it’s worth thinking about lynching a little bit. Mostly, when we think about lynching, we think about black people getting lynched in the South. There’s a very good reason for this and we should. Of course, plenty of African-Americans were lynched in the North too, including quite possibly Malcolm X’s father. The other time we think about lynching is in its Old West context, which is the story of many westerns and usually consists of law and order types hanging horse thieves. This is a more romanticized and less racialized part of our remembered history. But it’s also quite wrong, for the terror of lynching in the West was just as racialized as anywhere else in the nation, as Adam Sowards explores here.

In his provocatively imagined and deeply researched visual history, “Lynching in the West: 1850-1935,” artist Ken Gonzales-Day compiled known lynchings in California from statehood until the last confirmed incident. He counted 352, with the victims including one woman, eight African-Americans, 29 Chinese immigrants, 41 Native people, 120 whites and 132 Latino/as. (He could not determine the race or ethnicity of 22 victims.) Gonzales-Day’s careful calculations raise an important point about lynching: It was not just about African-American victims and did not happen only in the South. Even so, as his list reveals, Western lynching disproportionately targeted people of color.

One case Gonzales-Day uncovered happened in fall 1861, just as the Civil War spread in the East. A Los Angeles woman was robbed, stabbed and killed. Shortly after, a mob of white men identified a possible suspect, Francisco Cota, and they dragged him down Alameda Street, stabbing him repeatedly along the way. Before he could die from the beating and wounds, Cota was hanged by a rope. A contemporary newspaper commented: “A butchery such as he committed was enough to stir our citizens to call aloud for instant vengeance. This was no ordinary case. A helpless and feeble woman, a mother, with two little children playing around her, is set upon by this devil in human form, and mangled and mutilated until life is extinct, for the purpose of gain. No death is too horrible for such a monster, and the yawning gates of hell opened to receive him none too soon.” Cota was 15 years old. The lynching occurred just blocks from the Los Angeles sheriff’s office. Legal measures were never explored, much less exhausted. As Gonzales-Day concluded, despite the journalist’s claim, this was an ordinary lynching — racialized, gendered, brutal and lawless.

Despite this, Westerners tried hard to portray themselves as different from their Southern counterparts. In 1900, Coloradans lynched three men; two were African-American. According to a recent study by Modupe Labode, a scholar at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the lynchers and a sympathetic public saw their actions as something separate from Southern lynching. Coloradans associated Southern lynching with racial violence and lawlessness. What happened in their state, they claimed, was different. They built their rhetoric around the Western vigilante tradition, arguing, along the same lines as Bancroft, that they simply fulfilled a criminal justice function at a time when the state’s courts failed to execute their duty. Coloradans denied that race was even a factor. This reliance on vigilantism, Labode concluded, masked the ways the Colorado lynchings represented “the national culture of white supremacist lynching.” The story from Colorado had cognates across the West.

If you are surprised that westerners would try to claim their racism wasn’t really racism like those southern people, you probably haven’t spend much time in the West.

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