Historians are people of the paper, always hoping for the revelation of some remarkable event sitting unremarked upon in an archival page. We are equally sure that such revelations are rare, and usually the products of many dozens of hours of toil. With Gruesome Looking Objects, I discovered the thread of the story in about ten seconds. But it took me thirty years to get to that point of discovery.
My book is about the material culture of racial terror lynching — the objects made, kept, and preserved from the thousands of African American people brutally tortured and killed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It’s not a book I set out to write, but it is one I felt that I had to write. The lynching of Tom Johnson and Joe Kizer is at the center of this book. The two men were killed in 1898, perhaps the year that represented the nadir of American race relations. In North Carolina alone, there were six lynchings, significant violence around the year’s political campaigns and elections, and the Wilmington Massacre in November, where violent white supremacists overthrew a legitimately elected government. I had never heard of Tom Johnson, Joe Kizer, or their lynching. Like so many other instances of racial violence in the period, it got lost amid the other grim statistics of racial violence in the period. Indeed, I first registered it as just another data point when working on the digital project, A Red Record, which I co-direct with Seth Kotch.
But the lynching of Kizer and Johnson caught my attention when I saw where it happened: just outside of Concord, North Carolina, a few short miles away from my hometown and in the county I grew up in. That discovery launched me into a slate of initial research where I kept coming up empty. There were newspaper accounts of the lynching, but not much else. But what I did keep noticing were objects: souvenirs like branches from the lynching tree or scraps of cloth from the bodies of Kizer and Johnson. That, I realized, was another way to tell this story. Not through the written accounts which seemed to conceal as much as they revealed. Instead, I’d look to the material remains of this lynching and the place that they came from.
That germ of an idea (and several years’ research and writing) became Gruesome Looking Objects. More than most works of history, it relied upon both my training as an historian and my memories and comprehension of the place I grew up in. Many times as I was working on this book, it seemed to me that I should have known this history, that all of the time I’d spent just yards away from where this brutal incident occurred should have clued me in. But I came to understand intimately that some stories are not lost or undiscovered but hidden. Historians understand this process of silencing, but perhaps only rarely do we see it unfolding in histories that we have lived amongst.