I was perusing photos in a book called Without Sanctuary recently and came across a harrowing photograph. Without Sanctuary is an extraordinary visual legacy: photographs and postcards taken as souvenirs at lynchings throughout America collected by James Allen. The photograph was of townspeople gathered for the burning of John Lee on August 13, 1911 in Durant, Oklahoma.
What a day it was back in Oklahoma. A beautiful summer day and folks were anxious to be outside –a good day to lynch a black man. If you were looking through a trunk in the attic and came across a cropped version of this photo, one without the body of John Lee in it, you probably wouldn’t know what held the attention of the crowd that day. It could’ve been anything – politician making a speech, circus in town, who knows. The heinous torture and murder of a man would not naturally spring to mind. But that is exactly what these well dressed citizens of Durant were watching that day, and, by their presence, empowering.