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Life Stories: He Survived a Lynching, Now He Won't Let Us Forget

Milwaukee

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The image is one most Americans would prefer to forget: Two black men, beaten and bloodied, hang from an elm tree in the Grant County Courthouse Square. A white crowd mills around beneath them, and in the foreground a man glares at the camera, pointing back at one of the bodies. A photographer snapped the picture on August 7, 1930, the night 18-year-old Thomas Shipp and 19-year-old Abram Smith were lynched in Marion, Indiana.

James Cameron still remembers that night--he was the third man the crowd wanted dead. He could hear the people chanting outside his second-floor jail cell: "We want Cameron! We want Cameron!" Led by a Klansman carrying a Thompson submachine gun, they beat the 16-year-old and dragged him from his cell, punching and kicking him as they pushed him down the stairs.

Fifteen thousand people were gathered outside. Jacob Campbell, sheriff of Grant County, had threatened to shoot into the crowd if it didn't disperse, but women and children stood in the front ranks, calling his bluff. Hooded Klansmen and Marion police cleared a path through the crowd for Cameron, and when he reached the elm tree a noose was fastened around his neck. Cameron prayed silently, waiting to die. The photographer captured another image of the smiling and festive crowd.

But then they all fell silent. Cameron heard a woman's voice: "Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with the killing and the rape." The noose was removed from his neck, the crowd began to break up, and Cameron staggered back to the jail.

Now 88 and recovering from open-heart surgery, James Cameron lives on the north side of Milwaukee with his wife of 67 years, Virginia. He claims that only he heard the woman's voice clearing him of the crime; asked why the mob let him go, he says it was a miracle. "That's the only way I can explain it," he says, pausing for a sip of water. "Those who aren't religious can't explain it."

Cameron says his friends Thomas and Abram pressed a gun into his hands and talked him into robbing a white couple on a lovers' lane in Marion. He recognized the man, Claude Deeter, and he was struck by the beauty of the woman, Mary Ball. He handed the gun back to one of his friends and ran home. Behind him he heard gunshots. "I wasn't going to turn around and go back," he says. Deeter was murdered, and Ball was raped. Cameron served four years in prison for his part in the crime, but many years later, in 1993, Indiana governor Evan Bayh issued a pardon. No one has ever been arrested for the lynching of Shipp and Smith.

According to Cynthia Wilson, archivist at Tuskegee University, 4,742 people were lynched in the U.S. between 1882 and 1964--3,445 of them black. "Mobs lynch someone whom they accuse of committing a crime," says Wilson. "Or they lynch someone whom they accuse of violating a southern tradition." Rubin Stacy, lynched July 19, 1935, in Fort Lauderdale, had been accused of "frightening and threatening a white woman."

Despite his ordeal, James Cameron got on with his life. During the 1940s he founded three chapters of the NAACP in Indiana and served as the state's director of civil liberties. Threats of violence drove him and his family to Wisconsin, yet he remained active in the civil rights movement, helping to end segregated housing in Milwaukee. In 1999 he earned a PhD in humanities from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he's published widely, including a 1982 book about the lynching of Shipp and Smith, A Time of Terror, that became a source for the BBC documentary Third Man Alive (1998).

In October 1979, James and Virginia Cameron and some other parishioners from Milwaukee's Saint Agnes Catholic Church (now All Saints Catholic Church) made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and visited the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. "It was devastating to see what Hitler had done to those people," says Cameron. "I also felt that blacks needed their own holocaust museum." In 1988, when he decided to found America's Black Holocaust Museum, some Jews in Milwaukee objected to his use of the word holocaust. "I told them that [American] Indians also needed a holocaust museum, and that ended any objections they had."

The museum began humbly, in the basement of Cameron's home, and then moved into a building owned by the Nation of Islam. In 1994 the city of Milwaukee sold Cameron an old boxing gym for $1, and the museum moved to its present location, at 2233 N. Fourth Street. Its exhibits were few: some books, Colored Only and Whites Only signs from the jim crow era, two mannequins hanging by ropes from a replica of a tree, and Lawrence Beitler's photographs of the lynching Cameron barely survived. According to Maxine May, docent at the museum, not a single person walked through its doors for the first six months.

Since then attendance has picked up, and after a nine-month capital campaign funded renovation and expansion of the building, the museum was relaunched in 1999 with its most successful exhibit to date: "A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie," which included artifacts from a slave ship found off the Florida coast. According to Jessie Leonard, executive director of the museum, plans are under way to host James Allen's exhibit "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," an enormous success at the Roth Horowitz Gallery in New York and later at the New York Historical Society. (It's on display through the end of the year at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.)

Based on a book by Hilton Als and James Allen, the exhibit collects 75 photographs of lynchings that took place between 1880 and 1960. Allen, an antiques dealer in Atlanta, has accumulated a large archive of such photos and postcards. "Elected officials denied that lynchings ever took place in their town," says Allen, "but a photograph is hard to argue with." The most chilling aspect of the photos may be their uniformly jolly atmosphere. In one photograph of the Rubin Stacy lynching, onlookers (including four girls) stand with their arms folded, smiling at the bloodied body that hangs from a tree. Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old retarded boy lynched in 1916 in Waco, Texas, was set afire and dragged through the streets. On the back of a photo of his charred body, someone has scrawled, "This is the barbecue we had last night."

While no opening date has been scheduled, Allen says the exhibit will be on long-term loan at America's Black Holocaust Museum, though the selection of photos may be different from the current exhibit. Leonard hopes to caption each photograph with the victim's name, occupation, and hometown, as well as the ostensible reason he was lynched. The exhibit will be accompanied by a redesign of the museum's exhibition space, new lighting, and the hiring of an exhibit director. On April 17 the museum launched a fund-raising campaign with a belated 88th birthday celebration for Cameron.

"This is history that people have tried to hide," says Allen. "This is not something you discuss over a cup of tea. Dr. Cameron deserves a tremendous amount of credit for keeping this issue in the forefront when many people, black and white, didn't want to talk about it."

Cameron says he's never met anyone who participated in the Marion lynching, though last year a granddaughter of one of the Klansmen visited the museum to deliver an apology and participate in Cameron's 87th birthday celebration. The city of Marion has made amends: on February 11, 1993, a week after Cameron was pardoned by the governor, Mayor Ron Mowery presented Cameron with the key to the city, as well as the key to his second-floor jail cell. And five years later voters in Grant County elected Oatess Archey, a Marion native and retired FBI agent, as Indiana's first black sheriff.

To reach the museum, take I-94 north through the Marquette interchange to I-43 north. Exit at North Avenue and turn left (north) onto Fourth Street. The museum is at the end of the block on the left. Hours are noon to 5 PM on Sunday and 9 AM to 5 PM on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.

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