New South confronts old lynching images
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Before she could speak to anyone, Stephanie Anthony stood alone for a moment, her eyes welling with tears.
"I thought I had prepared myself, but there are just so many," said Anthony, who had just pored over dozens of images of hangings, burnings and mutilations.
Anthony, a resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was among the first to see "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" after the exhibit's recent opening in Atlanta, Georgia.
"Some I couldn't look at," she said. "I couldn't even look at them."
First displayed in New York two years ago, the haunting, graphic photos have landed back in the South at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, which is sponsoring the exhibit with Emory University.
"This is the first time in the South that this history is up on the wall for everyone to see," said James Allen, a co-owner of the collection.
Although lynchings are believed to have occurred in all but four states since the late 1800s, most were in the South, and many in Georgia. (See map)
"Atlanta has a very pained history in relationship to this kind of historical occurrence," exhibition curator Joseph Jordan said. "It's a place that's quite close to some of the areas in Georgia where some of the most horrific lynchings took place."
But it's also where some of the most spirited and principled resistance to lynching took place, he said, noting Atlanta is the birthplace of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.
While that would seem to make Atlanta an ideal site for the exhibit, Allen said he encountered a mixture of resistance and indifference from some local cultural institutions when he tried to find a suitable place to display the photos. Allen, who first began collecting the images two decades ago, called the site search a "painful and bruising" experience.
"Most of the institutions weren't even willing to look at the images. They didn't want to even crack the book. They didn't want to discuss it," he said.
The Atlanta History Center initially expressed interest in the photos, but Allen was reluctant to display them there, suggesting some in the African-American community weren't comfortable with the center's presentation of the black experience.
Later, though, when it appeared the photos would go there, the History Center backed away, he said. Other institutions also opted not to display the photos.
"I think in part it came down to kind of a timing issue and, unfortunately, that just did not work out to everyone's satisfaction," said Andy Ambrose, deputy director of the Atlanta History Center.
But he says center officials thought the lynching exhibit represented an important part of history that needs to be told, and that the center doesn't shy away from controversial events in the region's past.
"I think our record would tend to stand for itself," he said, noting it will sponsor a symposium later this year about the color line and segregation.
Allen praises Emory University President William Chace for championing the collection early on.
"President Chace was the only man in the city with his prestige who immediately realized the importance of this exhibit," he said. (See related story)
Park Service Superintendent Frank Catroppa, meanwhile, said the exhibition's a good fit for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, where the photos will be on public display through December 31.
"It certainly is our hope that when they leave, when they go home, they'll feel different toward African-Americans and toward other minorities, immigrants, gay, whomever," Catroppa said, "and that they'll see what happened when one group thought they were superior to another group and felt they could do anything they want and get away with it."
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