Lynching in Texas
Jeffrey L. Littlejohn, Sam Houston State University
Please note that this website includes graphic images of lynching
Maria Juzinskas, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Jeffrey L. Littlejohn
In 2016, Sam Houston State University (SHSU) professor Jeffrey L. Littlejohn began a two-year study into the Cabiness family lynching that occurred in Walker County, Texas. With his writing partner, Charles H. Ford and two graduate students, Briana Weaver and Jami Horne, Littlejohn examined hundreds of pages of newspaper stories, census records, court reports, property deeds, and archival letters to document the targeted killing of George Cabiness, his mother Sarah, and four of their relatives between May 30 and June 1, 1918. During the research process, Littlejohn and his co-authors discovered that reliable online information about lynching in Texas was difficult to find. As a result, the team decided to build a website to present the facts to the public.
The Lynching in Texas project is built on the open-source Omeka Content Management System (CMS) and uses the Curatescape theme developed at Cleveland State University to produce a dynamic, map-based experience. Visitors to our website may find geo-located entries on more than 680 lynchings that occurred in Texas. Each entry contains: the name, race, gender, and age of the victim; the alleged crime the victim committed; and, the date, location, and manner of lynching. In addition, our entries include newspaper stories, historic photographs, and other primary sources to document the lynchings that occurred.
Littlejohn and his team received three grants for construction of the Lynching in Texas project. Humanities Texas, Sam Houston State University, and the EUREKA program at SHSU contributed financially to the effort. Students in the Honors College at SHSU performed the initial round of data entry, History masters students fact-checked and added additional primary sources to each of the victim’s stories, and a team of scholars wrote essays for the website. Essay contributors include Patricia Bernstein William Carrigan, Robert “Ty” Cashion, John Gruesser, and Sonia Hernandez.
The Lynching in Texas project has three principal goals. The first is to document the victims’ stories and relate them to the public so they are not forgotten. Second, we hope to reshape the historical narrative in Texas by showing that lynching was not an aberration in the state. Rather, mobs in Texas carried out lynchings on a regular basis to enforce white supremacy and Jim Crow laws. And, finally, we hope the site will inspire new scholarship on lynching that will deepen our knowledge about the past and its relationship to the present. In fact, Michael Barnes writing in the Austin American-Statesman applauded the site for its effort in this regard. He called the project “required reading” and said that “[e]very single one of the locations” that the site documents “deserves a somber and serious historical marker.”
The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Lynching in Texas is an important digital humanities project because it allows us to remember the names of those who had their lives cut short in such a barbarous, racist way. What began as Jeffrey L. Littlejohn’s study of the Cabiness family lynching became a collaborative digital humanities project that reveals hundreds of other lynchings that occurred in Texas from 1882 to 1945.
The project relies upon the content management platform Omeka to provide a dynamic and map-based experience to the public. The homepage contains an interactive map of Texas with several numbered dots. Clicking on any of those reveals several other dots, and users who keeps clicking will see the geographic location along with other data about a specific lynching. Besides the date and location, the metadata includes the victim’s name, race or ethnicity, age, gender, alleged “crime,” and their manner of death. Corresponding images from newspaper descriptions in The Chicago Tribute record the brutal past. With regard to design, the project’s website is clean and intuitive, with responsive navigation even on a mobile device.
The act of clicking on the map to explore the lynchings is not the only way to access the website's database. By clicking on Entries > All, the user has the option to see each item displayed in a grid. When clicking on Entries > Tag, the user can click on any word to see all the lynchings related to that specific term, with the first and largest tags corresponding to frequency. Omeka’s tagging feature enables users to filter results by date, geographical location, and alleged “crime.” The tag resource is also one of the project’s strengths because it is not only a way of refining the content users want to see but also provides reflections of Texan society through its organization. For instance, the fact that the tag “Black” is the second largest on the list and links to 424 of the records makes clear that these deaths were racially-motivated. Future developments could include use of Omeka’s “exhibit” features to weave some of the stories into a narrative.
Lynching in Texas contains a number of featured stories on the homepage and the option to “View a Random Story.” If a user selects it, a name and story about a death are randomly provided. “View a Random Story” is an interesting and creative asset to the project’s website but also raises an ethical question: how is the project informing viewers that they may be confronted with images of actual lynchings? At present, there is no indication on the homepage that the project will include such images. Without such warning, the project invites users in without providing them with enough information to make a decision about whether they are prepared to engage with images of lynching.
The project would also benefit from a more robust critical apparatus situating the stakes of the project. Currently, the project description is sparse and a brief definition of lynching is provided. A critical apparatus could provide a rationale for selection of the definition and additional contextual information that supports the project. For example, how does the project intersect with or draw inspiration from other attempts to document lynching, as far back as the work of Ida B. Wells? In a critical apparatus, the project team could situate their work in a variety of scholarship on Wells and additional work on lynching, especially by Black scholars. They could also speak to the tension between using images to educate and inform and spectacularizing Black people’s deaths. Lynching in Texas is poised to be an invaluable contribution to both Texas and U.S. history, and addressing these suggestions will ensure that it more fully realizes its promise.