This guide is not intended to be a complete manual on researching lynchings. It is only a brief overview of some of the most frequent problems that occur when using newspapers to learn about cases of lynching. We draw these examples from our experience and provide suggestions on how to evaluate sources, confirm or disconfirm information, and balance contradictory claims. We include a very brief overview of other sources of information (which we hope to extend in the future) and end with an example of working through a particularly confusing case.
This guide looks at issues that arise when doing research on identified cases of lynching, not on how to build an inventory of cases in a geographic area. There are published inventories for many counties and states, some available online, that provide the best starting point for working on a list of cases. All of these inventories have errors and omissions, but recent research is extending them and correcting previous mistakes.
Anyone wanting to do research on lynching would do well to start with a careful reading of Vincent Vinikas’ 1999 article “Specters in the Past: The Saint Charles, Arkansas, Lynching of 1904 and the Limits of Historical Inquiry,” published in the Journal of Southern History, volume 65, number 3. Vinikas’ summary of the result of his exhaustive research describes a situation that researchers on lynching will often confront:
Unfortunately for historians, participants buried this episode in their unrecounted past and thereby guaranteed that it would remain there. Circumstances surrounding this event are untraceable in the public record, and, apart from the facts conveyed in this one article in the Sunday edition of the Arkansas Gazette, the available material provides only a few other clues for historians. The evidence is so flawed and scanty that it is hard to reconstruct a sequence of events: Questions of who, what, when, and how are virtually unanswerable, and any suggestion of why is wild conjecture (p. 536).
Despite the formidable difficulties presented by this type of inquiry, we believe it is well worth the effort to attempt to reconstruct as much as possible of what happened to the victims of mob violence. We cannot provide justice for the victims of lynching, but we can at least recognize who they were and what happened to them through meticulous research.
Retired Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice
University of Memphis
With assistance from Melinda Meador
Assistant District Attorney
27th Judicial District
Union City, Tennessee