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Friday, March 18, 2011

How Sam Hose’s lynching became an awakening for W.E.B. Du Bois

Lawrence Goldstone opens his new book, Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903, by retelling the harrowing story of the lynching of Sam Hose. A young black laborer on a farm outside Atlanta, Hose got into a dispute with his employer and killed him in self-defense. During the ensuing ten-day manhunt, the rival Atlanta newspapers excited their readers by competing on lurid details. As days went by, rape, infanticide, and other “unnatural acts” were added to descriptions of the crime.

When Hose was finally apprehended, the surrounding hysteria led to excursion trains being arranged to transport hundreds of Georgians from Atlanta to the site of his execution. On Sunday, April 23, 1899, the day after his capture, Hose was brought before an estimated crowd of two thousand in the town square of Newman, Georgia. There he was stripped; his ears, fingers, and genitals cut off; his face skinned, and his body burned on a pyre. Souvenir hunters fought over his organs and bones.

Goldstone presents the lynching as emblematic of what had happened to the country in the thirty years since the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were passed: “The descent of the United States into enforced segregation, into a nation where human beings could be tortured and horribly murdered without trial, is a story profoundly tragic and profoundly American.”

For W.E.B. Du Bois the lynching was an awakening. Having arrived at Atlanta University two years before, the pleasantries of his studies were shattered, as he recounts in Dusk of Dawn:
At the very time when my studies were most successful, there cut across this plan which I had as a scientist, a red ray which could not be ignored. I remember when it first, as it were, startled me to my feet: a poor Negro in central Georgia, Sam Hose, had killed his landlord’s wife. I wrote out a careful and reasoned statement concerning the evident facts and started down to the Atlanta Constitution office, carrying in my pocket a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris [journalist and author of the Uncle Remus stories]. I did not get there. On the way news met me: Sam Hose had been lynched, and they said that his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store farther down on Mitchell Street, along which I was walking. I turned back to the University. I began to turn aside from my work. I did not meet Joel Chandler Harris nor the editor of the Constitution.

Two considerations thereafter broke in upon my work and eventually disrupted it: first, one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved; and secondly, there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort that I was doing. . . .
Du Bois then began writing and lobbying against legislation that would disenfranchise Georgia blacks. His articles that year in The Atlantic Monthly and The Independent were the first of many to appear in national magazines over the next five decades.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: W.E.B. Du Bois: Writings (includes Dusk of Dawn)

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