What Do You Do After Surviving Your Own Lynching?
The most iconic image of racist brutality in America would have looked different had James Cameron not survived a lynching attempt in Indiana in 1930. He devoted the rest of his life not just to civil rights, but to memorializing the moment of his near death.
Lawrence Beitler was sitting on the front porch of his home in Marion, Indiana, when someone asked him to tote his 8x10 view camera to the town square. It was past midnight on August 7, 1930, and Beitler, 44, was a professional photographer who mostly shot portraits of weddings, schoolchildren, and church groups. That night, he would be photographing a lynching. He “didn’t even want to do it,” according to a later interview with his daughter, “but taking pictures was his business.”
By the time Beitler arrived on the square, a jubilant mob of nearly 15,000 white men, women, and children had gathered. Earlier that night, a group of vigilantes had charged the county jail to seize two black teenagers — Thomas Shipp, 18, and Abram Smith, 19 — who’d allegedly raped a young white woman and murdered her boyfriend. Beitler took one photo of Shipp's and Smith’s brutalized bodies hanging from a tree, the crowd of eager onlookers before them, and left.
Lynching, in the American imagination, is considered to be solely the provenance of Confederate racism, one of the most prominent examples being the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. Yet the most notorious lynching imagery prior to Till came from Union towns: Duluth, Minnesota; Cairo, Illinois; Omaha, Nebraska — and Marion, Indiana. It is Beitler’s photograph, in particular, that has served as the most glaring visual reminder of the country’s decades-long spectacle of racism and public murder. The photo of the lynching of two Indiana teenagers would never grace the pages of the local paper. But the image is everywhere.
It was Beitler’s photograph that inspired Abel Meeropol to write his anti-lynching poem “Strange Fruit” in 1936, which Billie Holiday would later record and make famous. Just last month, a decade-old mural adaptation of the photograph in Elgin, Illinois, which features only the faces of the white participants, came under public scrutiny as people discovered the image’s origin.
The photo of the lynching of two Indiana teenagers would never grace the pages of the local paper. But the image is everywhere.
I can’t say exactly when I first encountered the image. It might have been as an undergrad at Columbia, in the library of the black students' lounge as I thumbed through a copy of Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings. But my understanding of its significance came in the late summer of 1996, when a friend and I visited America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in my hometown of Milwaukee.
When we entered the main exhibition room, there was a built-to-scale rendering of Beitler’s photo made out of wax, including the facsimiles of Shipp and Smith hanging from the tree. “Did you know that there was a third boy they tried to lynch that night?” our museum guide, a tall but frail older man, asked us, his voice warm and gravelly. We didn’t. Our guide went on to explain that there were actually three ropes strung up on the maple tree in Marion on August 7, 1930. A third teenager had been dragged from his jail cell to the courthouse square. His name was James Cameron and he was the only known person to have ever survived a lynching in America.
We were standing in front of him.
Cameron, then 82, continued to recount to an audience of two the details of the night he nearly died. A self-taught historian and recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, he founded ABHM in the 1980s. Cameron, who died 10 years after I met him, devoted his life to never letting America forget what happened to him, resolute in his belief that his life was spared to educate black and white Americans of the long, bloody, violent, and — ever ongoing — legacy of racism.
I was astounded. It was one thing to witness the brutal deaths of these young men. It was another thing to survive that nightmare and be staff, curator, historian, executive director, and living testament to it daily.
How do you wake up every day and bear witness to your own nightmare?
James Herbert Cameron was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1914, the second of three children to James Cameron and Vera Carter. His family moved south to Birmingham, Alabama, and lived there until his parents separated in 1928, after which Cameron’s mother moved him and his two sisters to Marion, a modest town of nearly 30,000 where black and white residents attended integrated schools, yet maintained segregated social spaces. (Much of Cameron’s biography and his recollections in this story come from his memoir, A Time of Terror.)
In the summer of 1930, Marion, like much of the country, was experiencing a heat wave that compounded the effects of the Dust Bowl, and scores of people were out of work as the Depression began taking its toll. Cameron, then 16, spent the afternoon of August 6 with his buddies, Tommy Shipp and Abe Smith, pitching horseshoes in a field. It was Smith who convinced Cameron to join him and Shipp later that night to “stick up” unsuspecting couples in a secluded area of town known as “lovers' lane.” The three teens drove there, armed, and attempted to rob Claude Deeter and Mary Ball, a young white couple. But Cameron recognized Deeter — he regularly shined Deeter’s shoes in town and Deeter tipped well.
Cameron, who had been holding the gun, gave it back to Smith and ran. He heard shots in the distance. Shipp and Smith were arrested shortly after the shooting and allegedly named Cameron as the shooter. Officer Harley Burden, the only black officer on the Marion police force, found Cameron at his mother’s home and took him into custody.
Once Cameron arrived at the Grant County Jail in the early morning hours of August 7, there were already groups of men waiting as word spread of the attack. Deeter was dead by early afternoon, and a police officer hung his bloody shirt in the window of city hall as a visible flag. But Deeter’s death wasn’t the principal outrage that wagged on everyone’s tongues: His companion, Mary Ball, accused Shipp, Smith, and Cameron of rape (an allegation she’d later recant). It was this — the story of Ball’s alleged assault told over and over — that incensed the white residents of Marion and surrounding towns. In his account of the day, A Lynching in the Heartland, Indiana historian James Madison noted that local phone lines were clogged with callers discussing the alleged crimes of the three boys.
For black residents of Marion, such as Katherine “Flossie” Bailey and her husband, Dr. Walter Bailey, it became clear that not only were Shipp, Smith, and Cameron in danger, but the town’s entire black community was too. The Baileys were among Marion’s most prominent black families. Walter was the only black physician in town and Flossie was the president of the state branch of the NAACP. In the aftermath of the arrests, they made every effort to rouse authorities to protect Marion — sending a cable to Gov. Harry Leslie, calling for the National Guard. They phoned the county sheriff, Jacob Campbell, several times demanding that he relocate the three teenagers, as well as seek additional support. Campbell rebuffed their calls and offered his assurances that the boys would be protected. Marion Mayor Jack Edwards, elected only a year prior at the tender age of 27, conveniently left town for “business.” Meanwhile, other black Marion residents fled to neighboring Weaver, a mostly black community, to stay with relatives.
By 9 o'clock on the night of August 7, the mob had swelled to an estimated 15,000. The streets around the courthouse were blocked by crowds and cars. Campbell, who occupied the residence attached to the jail, moved his family to another part of town. “The thing I remember most vividly,” his daughter later recalled, “was seeing so many people, women, standing out there in the crowd with little tiny babies in their arms just hollering, ‘Get in there and get ’em, get in there and get ’em.’”
Mary Ball’s father, Hoot, approached the jail entrance and demanded the keys. “Let us get the niggers,” he told Campbell. “If this was your daughter, you would do the same as I am doing.” From his second-floor cell, Cameron heard Campbell proclaim, “These are my prisoners. Go home!” Yet he was not comforted by the sheriff’s declaration. “Perhaps I imagined it,” he’d later write in his memoir, “but I could not detect a note of sincerity in his voice.”
The mob surged forward, some pummeling the jail with sledgehammers while others forced their way through the garage. When they breached the ground-floor walls, they snatched Tommy Shipp first from his cell. Mary Ball’s sister purportedly watched from atop a car, encouraging the mob to wrap a rope around his neck and lynch him. He was already bruised and beaten when they strung him up on the maple tree at the corner of Third and Adams streets outside of the courthouse, diagonal from the jail. Shipp struggled to free the rope from his neck. The mob lowered him, broke both his arms, and pulled.
“I could see the bloodthirsty crowd come to life the moment Tommy’s body was dragged into view.”
Cameron surveyed the gruesome scene from his cell. “I could see the bloodthirsty crowd come to life the moment Tommy’s body was dragged into view,” he recounted in his memoir. “In a matter of seconds, Tommy was a bloody mass and bore no resemblance to any human being. The mob kept beating him just the same. Even after the long, thick rope had been placed around his neck, fists and clubs still mauled him, and sticks and stones continued to pummel his body.”
After the throng returned for Smith, they beat him with crude weapons, and a man impaled him with a pipe. Smith was dead before they tied the noose around his neck. Cameron heard the gleeful cries once the deed was done. Nauseous and drenched in cold sweat, he knew what was next.
“We want Cameron! We want Cameron!” he heard them chant. When a group of white men forced their way onto the second floor, the black men in his cell block made a fruitless attempt to hide and protect him. “Impulsively, I acted like I was going to give myself up when Big John and another Black man grabbed ahold of me and held me back,” he wrote. “They had become too angry to remember their own fear — if they had any. But they were helpless and powerless to offer any kind of resistance to the mob. They stood with me.”
When the mob threatened to lynch another boy, in jail with his father for hitching trains from the South to look for work, the father pointed to Cameron. “The nightmare I had often heard about happening to other victims of a mob now became my reality,” Cameron wrote. “Brutally faced with death, I understood, fully, what it meant to be a black person in the United States of America.”
Cameron was punched and kicked as he was dragged from the jail's second floor to the maple tree. “I didn’t rape anyone!” he howled over the din of the crowd. Half conscious, he felt the noose being wrapped around his neck. “The rope was handled so roughly it caused a rope burn,” he wrote. “For a moment I blacked out. I recovered in a moment though, as they began shoving and knocking me closer to the tree under the limbs weighed down with the stripped bodies of Tommy and Abe.”
Yet, just as Cameron prepared for the end, someone spoke up. In Cameron’s retelling, a voice “rose above the deafening roar of the mob,” speaking “sharp and crisp, like bells ringing out on a clear, cold winter day.” The voice — “feminine” and “sweet” — delivered a simple instruction: “Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any raping or killing.”
A swift silence followed. “No one moved or spoke a word,” Cameron wrote. “I stood there in the midst of thousands of people, and as I looked at the mob round me I thought I was in a room, a large room where a photographer had strips of film negatives hanging from the walls to dry. I couldn’t tell whether the images on the film were white or black, they were simply mobsters captured on film surrounding me everywhere I looked.”
The identity of whoever intervened — or whether anyone intervened at all — remains a mystery to this day. Cameron believed it could only have been the voice of God, though according to later accounts, some never even heard the “angelic” voice he described in his memoir. According to Madison, most of those who did claim to hear it said it was a man’s voice, with some believing it was Mary Ball’s uncle.
"I suddenly found myself standing alone, under the death tree — mystified!”
Regardless, after what Cameron called a “brief eternity,” “the roomful of negatives disappeared.” “I found myself looking into the faces of people who had been flat images only a moment ago,” he wrote. “I could feel the hands that had unmercifully beaten me remove the rope from around my neck. I suddenly found myself standing alone, under the death tree — mystified!”
As the crowd cleared a path between the tree and the jail, Cameron limped back, uttering a prayer with each step. No one laid a hand on him. When Cameron reached the steps of the jail, Sheriff Campbell took him by the arm and led him to a police car with armed officers who immediately escorted him to a jail in Huntington, nearly 30 miles north of Marion. The following day, Cameron was moved 30 miles south of Marion to Anderson, Indiana, and the National Guard arrived in Marion, per Gov. Leslie’s orders.
It would be after midnight that Lawrence Beitler would make his way to the courthouse square with his view camera and flash, in the thick and humid dark. Sheriff Campbell cut Shipp's and Smith’s bodies down the next morning. Some Marion residents reportedly collected trophies from the murders: scraps of Smith's and Shipp’s clothing, pieces of bark from the maple tree, and pieces of the lynching rope itself, an item that was highly coveted. Beitler stayed up for 10 days and nights to meet the demand for prints of his photograph, which he sold for 50 cents each. According to a 1988 Marion Chronicle-Tribune interview with his daughter, Betty, “It wasn’t unusual for one person to order a thousand at a time.”
From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 Americans — 3,446 of whom were black — were lynched, their deaths fueled by fears over miscegenation and perceived threats to white economic dominance. While the majority of lynchings did take place in the South, 128 black Americans were killed by Northern lynch mobs between 1880 and 1930. Between 1889 to 1930, 21 black people were lynched in Indiana alone.
Motivating many of these lynchings — and, in several cases, preventing law enforcement from stopping them — was the influence of the Ku Klux Klan. According to A Lynching in the Heartland, in 1920s Indiana, white, native-born Hoosiers joined the Klan in droves, feeling increasingly threatened by black migrants heading north from southern states. By 1925, membership peaked at 250,000 and encompassed more than 30% of the state’s white male population, allegedly including then-Gov. Edward L. Jackson and other high-ranking officials in the state.
That all changed, however, in 1925, when Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson was convicted for the rape and murder of an Indianapolis student. His highly publicized trial, paired with his implication in widespread state political corruption, quickly depleted membership. By 1930, the Indiana Klan ceased to be a public force, but the vestiges of its influence still pervaded local politics. While the Klan never claimed responsibility for the lynching of Shipp and Smith, it’s highly probable that former members and sympathizers participated.
From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 Americans were lynched.
Indiana state law already required law enforcement to protect prisoners from lynchings, and officers could have faced removal from office upon failure to do so. However, not once did Campbell fire a shot in an attempt to disperse the crowd. “If a shot had been fired, three or four hundred persons, including women and children, undoubtedly would have been killed,” Campbell later told the Indianapolis Times. “One shot would have been the signal for slaughter.”
“The sheriff and police completely laid down,” Flossie Bailey wrote in an August 8 letter to Walter White, then executive secretary of the NAACP, “after assuring the Executive Board [of the NAACP] that every effort would be made to avert the tragedy.” Bailey requested White’s assistance to pressure state officials to investigate and send protection for the black residents of Marion. White arrived in Marion a week later to conduct his own investigation in tandem with the state’s inquest, interviewing witnesses to try to determine the identity of leaders of the lynch mob. Though Beitler’s photograph circulated widely, no one came forward to identify people to authorities.
Billy Connors, the manager of a theater near the courthouse, was one of the few white residents of Marion to rebuke local law enforcement’s actions on the record. “I am going to tell you, that if what I understand is right — and I have heard a lot of talk — they knew something was going to happen,” he told state investigators. “We are supposed to have a police force here ample to protect the city; why they were even allowed to gather I can’t understand.”
Ultimately, two trials were held in attempt to prosecute the ringleaders of the mob. Eight men were charged as inciters, in addition to Sheriff Campbell, who was charged with failure to protect Shipp, Smith, and Cameron. However, by the end of March 1931, juries acquitted two of the alleged inciters and the state dropped its charges against Campbell and the other men for lack of evidence. Hoot Ball was never charged.
Cameron, having just survived his own lynching, faced a different fate. Though Mary Ball recanted her rape accusation, he was still charged as an accessory to Deeter’s murder. Bailey secured Cameron two highly respected black lawyers from Indianapolis, who successfully filed a change of venue for his trial, moving it from Marion to Anderson, where Cameron had remained in jail since the day after the lynching. In July 1931, 11 months after the lynching, an all-white male jury in Anderson found him guilty of accessory before the fact to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to up to 21 years in prison. Though he was eligible for parole after two years, he encountered delays from the parole board. One of the members, a rumored Klan member, was later discovered to have written letters protesting Cameron’s release.
When Cameron was released in 1935, his mother and sisters stood outside the penitentiary to greet him. Now 21, he was a free man, resolved “to pick up the loose threads of [his] life, weave them into something beautiful, worthwhile and God-like.”
Virgil Cameron has the same kind yet intense eyes as his father. We met last August at a coffee shop on Milwaukee’s East Side, a short walk from the Milwaukee River. At 74, he is a veteran of the Marine Corps and proudly sported a USMC snapback honoring his years of service in the 1960s. He was discharged in 1967 to help care for his father, who, decades after the near lynching, faced periodic health problems. As treasurer of the board of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Virgil has been the main family member to continue his father’s work of educating Americans on the original sin of slavery and violence against black bodies.
His passion for history became striking as he told me little-known facts about the black life in Wisconsin — like that Milton, 70 miles southwest of Milwaukee, is home to an underground railroad site called the Milton House. “You go downstairs and there’s a tunnel. You couldn’t stand up, you had to crawl,” he said. “It’s amazing and it’s here in Wisconsin.”
Virgil, Cameron’s third-oldest child, was born in 1942 in Detroit, where Cameron moved following his release from prison in 1935. Two years later, Cameron married Virginia Hamilton, a nurse, with whom he had five children: Virgil, three other sons, and one daughter. Shortly after Virgil was born, Cameron moved his young family back to Anderson, Indiana, the very same town where he was convicted, to be closer to his sisters and ailing mother. Now an adult and a father, Cameron cobbled together jobs, working for a time for the manufacturer Delco Remy and opening a shoe shine and convenience store in downtown Anderson in order to support his family.
While Anderson was socially segregated, Cameron’s family seemed to be exempt from adhering to those norms. Virgil will never forget the time his mother and siblings went to the local movie theater and sat in the orchestra, rather than the segregated balcony where other black people would sit. When a white usher tried to force them to move, his mother refused, until a white manager ultimately intervened. ‘Those are the Camerons,” Virgil recalled him telling the usher. “Leave them alone.” Cameron and his wife would go on to challenge the segregation policies of the theater, which eventually integrated rather than risking lawsuits.
Cameron and Virginia became prominent members of Anderson’s black community in other ways, as well. Cameron served as president of the NAACP chapter in Madison County, where Anderson is located, and eventually founded four other chapters in the state. In 1942, Indiana Gov. Henry F. Stricker appointed Cameron as the state director of civil liberties, a position in which he investigated civil rights abuses and violations of equal accommodations law. Yet, according to Virgil, Cameron’s commitment to civil rights work in Indiana was met with lukewarm support from other black communities in the state, who worried his activism would create “trouble” for them. It also rankled some white people.
“I know he was getting threats, but we weren’t really aware of it until we got older,” Virgil said. “There was one day when a bunch of cars that pulled in front of the house and dad grabbed his rifle, and we went out with him. They were exchanging words and then the men pulled off.”
Eventually, Cameron had faced enough threats, and he decided to move his family. He chose Milwaukee after an NAACP speaking engagement landed him there in 1950. At the time, the city was receiving a great influx of black Americans, who relocated from Southern towns and cities or, as in Cameron’s case, Northern ones that practiced de facto segregation. The city’s economy, teeming with blue-collar work and nice homes, seemed to hold ample opportunity for families like Cameron’s to live the promise of the American dream.
And yet, Milwaukee — like all of America — was still unable to escape the vestiges of white supremacy. “It was a good environment, but if you were black, you were programmed to go to certain areas,” Virgil said. Cameron’s family lived in Bronzeville, the heart of the black community in northeast Milwaukee, which bustled with black-owned businesses, restaurants, and theaters. Virginia became a licensed practical nurse, while Cameron became a facilities manager at one of the city’s large malls. Ever entrepreneurial, he also moonlighted with his own carpet-cleaning business, which Virginia helped manage. Together, they built up savings and provided a modest, middle-class life for their children.“[They] had us all involved in music, sports,” Virgil told me. “He always seemed to want us to expand our horizons.”
Still, Cameron’s activism didn’t wane once he relocated to Milwaukee. An autodidact, he amassed a collection of some 15,000 books over the years, which supplemented his frequent trips to the Library of Congress. Cameron obsessively wrote and read, piecing together black American history, studying the origins of the transatlantic slave trade, the Civil War, and the Klan. He was vocal about racial discrimination wherever it manifested, writing columns for the local black papers, the Milwaukee Courier and the Milwaukee Star, as well as searing letters to the editor of the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel. “Everybody was expecting to see his letter to the editor every week,” Virgil said.
Cameron also dedicated himself to a project he had begun while he was still a teenager serving his sentence at the Indiana State Reformatory: writing a book about the night he was almost lynched. “He was constantly talking about this book, this manuscript,” Virgil told me. Cameron would spend hours in the basement writing, provoking the curiosity of his young son. “I finally asked him one day, ‘Dad, why are you always typing? What are you doing?’” Virgil recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll let you read it, son, when you are older.’”
Virgil was 12 when Cameron first let him read an early draft of the book chronicling his near murder. At the time, Virgil still hadn’t fully grasped that the boy in the book was his own father. He thought it was someone else’s story, possibly a work of fiction. He was in high school when he finally realized that it was Cameron who was spared from one of the most infamous lynchings in American history. “I felt that he was one … lucky person,” Virgil said. “There was an intervention that allowed him to live.”
It would be a 1979 church trip to Israel that would seed Cameron’s idea to create a museum centered on the history of slavery in the United States and its evolution into a racialized caste system accompanied by violence and terror. Upon visiting Yad Vashem, it struck Cameron that the horrors endured by descendants of African slaves in the Americas shared some similarities to the Holocaust.
“It shook me up something awful,” Cameron told journalist Cynthia Carr in 1993. (Carr later wrote a book confronting the possibility that one of the onlookers in Beitler’s photo was her own grandfather.) “I said to my wife, ‘Honey, we need a museum like that in America to show what happened to us black folks and the freedom-loving white people who’ve been trying to help us.’” He left with a vision and renewed purpose for why his own life was spared; he had survived to remember, to educate the nation.
For years, he sent his book manuscript to publishers, but no publisher seemed interested in publishing a first person account of a lynch mob survivor. (Cameron later told Carr that he rewrote the manuscript about “a hundred more times” and collected nearly 300 rejection letters.) In April 1980, Ebony published an excerpt of his memoir and dispatched a photographer who returned to Marion with him, documenting his visit. However, national exposure to his story still did not garner a willing publisher. Undeterred, Cameron took a second mortgage and self-published A Time of Terror in 1982. He printed 4,000 copies and sold them out of his trunk of his car at speaking engagements.
Cameron also self-published pamphlets — over 30 total — in which he drew upon his research and experiences to illuminate various cornerstones of white supremacy. In one from 1986 titled “Police Community Relations Among Blacks in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” Cameron protested many of the same issues being challenged today by the Black Lives Matter movement. “[The police] have been enemies of us black people since in their organization in the early 19th Century,” Cameron wrote. “They can do nothing to alarm or silence me beyond murdering me. Even at that, they may rest assured that I protest it — even in the grave. I have been initiated since my time of terror at the age of 16. I am 72 years old now and destined, like all other nonwhites, to experience a time of terror to the grave.”
Cameron’s resolve to build a museum to commemorate and reconcile America’s dark history intensified and by the late 1980s, he was able to secure — rent-free — a modest storefront on Atkinson Avenue, in a predominantly black neighborhood on Milwaukee's north side. The doors of America’s Black Holocaust Museum opened ceremoniously on a Sunday in 1988: June 19, known as Juneteenth, commemorating the day in 1865 when Southern slaves in Texas were notified of their emancipation by executive order. Filled with books and artifacts Cameron had collected over the years in his basement, it was a monument to the legacy of lynching in the United States.
The location, however, was temporary, and as interest piqued within the community and more people came to visit, Cameron searched for a larger space to accommodate his vision for the museum. In 1992 — the year before Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh formally pardoned Cameron for his 1931 conviction — Cameron moved the museum to the old Braggs Boxing Gym, on Fourth Street and North Avenue in Bronzeville, which he acquired from the city of Milwaukee for $1. With the help of local leaders, Cameron was introduced to local Jewish philanthropist Dan Bader of the Bader Foundation. Though Cameron’s use of the term “holocaust” had drawn criticism from some Milwaukee Jews, Bader was struck by Cameron’s knowledge of the Shoah and the connections he drew between the persecution of Jews and the descendants of African peoples in America. According to Virgil, he wrote a check for $50,000 on the spot. (When asked about objections to the name in 2002, Cameron told the Chicago Reader that “[American] Indians also needed a holocaust museum, and that ended any objections they had.”)
The donation was crucial for beginning renovations to the old boxing building, where Cameron had already relocated the museum after some hasty, self-funded repairs. It also legitimized the project to additional foundation and grant support. Cameron’s vision for the museum wasn’t restricted to elucidating the horrors of lynchings. Rather, as with his pamphlets, he sought to educate Americans on the entire history of black people in America, connecting the legacy of slavery as the antecedent to cruel indignities endured by the children of the African diaspora. By the early 2000s, the museum received around 25,000 visitors a year. Cameron displayed objects he collected over the years, which included paraphernalia from lynchings, postcards, photographs from the Jim Crow era, newspaper clippings that depicted black Americans, caricaturized miniatures, and the wax installation of Beitler’s photograph. In 1999, he also expanded the facility to host the traveling exhibition of the wreckage of the slave ship Henrietta Marie. However, it was always Cameron himself who was the biggest draw.
"We need a museum like that in America to show what happened to us black folks and the freedom-loving white people who’ve been trying to help us."
Fran Kaplan met Cameron on an ordinary day in 1999. The granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, she was born 70 miles away from Marion in Lafayette and had vague memories of hearing about lynching growing up. Cameron guided Kaplan and her son, who was visiting from out of town, through the museum's exhibits and finally to a seated area to screen the 1995 BBC documentary Unforgiven: Legacy of a Lynching, which retold the story of the night of August 7. In one scene, William Deeter, Claude Deeter’s brother, tearfully embraced Cameron at a Marion church; it was the first time the two ever met. Both men exchanged words of forgiveness and faith. When the film ended, Kaplan recalled, Cameron came out to sit with them and talk. “I was just silent,” Kaplan remembered. “[I] couldn’t connect with him because I was so awed.”
Patrick Sims was a graduate student in theater at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, when he first visited the museum in 1997. Now a vice provost for diversity at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he recalled that he saw in Cameron’s story parallels between his own encounters with police officers. “That could have been me. That could have been my grandfather,” he said. His thesis, a one-person play based on Cameron’s life called 10 Perfect: A Lynching Survivor’s Story, intentionally concluded with a reconstruction of Beitler’s photograph. In performances, Sims occupied the spot where 16-year-old Cameron would have been lynched.
The project created space to share stories otherwise hidden. Sims learned that his own grandmother had aided a black man fleeing an angry mob of white men in rural Missouri. “Why are we not sharing these experiences?” he asked, noting how trauma can be unintentionally passed down between generations. “Why aren’t we talking about these things?”
For some, however, there was a reticence to enter ABHM’s doors. Lucas Johnson, 32, a lifelong Milwaukee resident, told me that he “always wanted to go, just never got around to it.” Members of my own family have remarked about making a plan to visit but never did. I too shared some of this reticence. I supported the museum’s existence in spirit, but dreaded the work of confronting America’s ugly history of violence toward black people.
When I finally entered those doors, unaware that my August 1996 visit fell so close to the anniversary of Cameron’s near murder, I had no idea what to expect. I don't remember most of the conversation. I do remember meeting a powerful and reserved spirit who showed me the rope from the lynching tree and other artifacts of racial bigotry. I didn’t want to know any of it, but I understood that I needed to. I also felt psychic pain. I also felt gratitude. In a world that challenges the forward assertion of black life, I thought over and over, Thank god he lived. Thank god. Thank god.
In 2005, more than 105 years after federal anti-lynching legislation was first introduced to Congress, former Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu sponsored a resolution to formally apologize for the Senate’s failure to pass anti-lynching laws that would have brought the men responsible for the deaths of Smith, Shipp, Till, and so many others to justice. While the House of Representatives passed several bills to address the epidemic of lynching from the 1930s and 1940s, these bills died on the Senate floor or faced filibuster from Southern Democrats. “There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility,” Landrieu said before the vote.
Cameron, then 91 and using a wheelchair, was the only living representative who could attend on behalf of the nation’s 5,000 known lynching victims. When he entered the press room, he was greeted by 100 photographers and reporters, and thunderous applause. He recalled how, after he was taken back to the jail in Marion, Sheriff Campbell told him, “I’m going to get you out of here for safekeeping” — only to learn later that Campbell himself was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. “I was saved,” Cameron said, “by a miracle.”
"My father had that strength. That he could forgive the thing that people tried to do to him.”
“It was amazing for him,” Virgil said. “He thought it was the final recognition for what slavery was. It was the apology he was looking for that America should have apologized long ago.” Virgil’s voice broke a bit. “My father had that strength. That he could forgive the thing that people tried to do to him.”
Cameron died a year later at the age of 92 after living with lymphoma for five years. The devout Catholic's funeral was held at Milwaukee’s Cathedral of St. John, with hundreds in attendance, including current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Gwen Moore. His wife, Virginia, died in 2010 at the age of 92; he is survived by three of his children and 18 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
For two years following Cameron’s death, America’s Black Holocaust Museum remained open, with a modest staff of five and as many as ten to fifteen volunteer guides — known as “griots” — who hosted group and school visits. However, it operated on a shoestring budget and was eventually forced to close its doors in 2008, when the recession exacerbated its financial struggles.
I wonder now, with each anniversary of his near murder, how did Cameron stomach it? How, with each group of visitors, was he always willing to relive his trauma? Cameron’s commitment to educate the American public, including black people and "freedom-loving whites," as he would say, of the terror of racial violence required strength and unyielding resolve that I’m not sure any one of us could ever know.
“It’s amazing that over the years that people have written plays about lynching, people have written poetry, people have done visual art … for one thing, you can’t get too much more dramatic than this,” Fran Kaplan told me in her home office in Milwaukee last August, as her finger landed on the folds of a book opened to a photo of a lynching from Texas in 1920. “What is the psychology of committing these kinds of murders?”
Kaplan’s initial meeting with Cameron in 1999 would go on to have a profound impact on her. At 69, she is now virtual museum coordinator for ABHM, which continues to live online, receiving approximately 700,000 visitors annually from 200 countries and hosting public events like talks, screenings, and intergroup dialogues on anti-racism.
An all-volunteer operation, it centers itself around four principles: remembrance, resistance, redemption, and reconciliation.
In 2015, Kaplan was contacted by a white woman whose friend was lynched in her home in Mississippi during the 1960s, a killing that she felt responsible for. She had tried reaching out to the victim’s family, but they wanted nothing to do with her. Kaplan encouraged the woman to look into Coming to the Table, an organization that brings together descendants of lynching perpetrators and victims to begin the work of reconciliation.
For Kaplan, the encounter only underscored the vision behind her work today: to collect and tell the stories of lynching victims. “My perspective, as a white person in this setting, is to help white people understand the tremendous jigsaw puzzle that is racism in America,” Kaplan said. “So they can see the picture, so that they understand the picture, so that they can dismantle that picture.”
The stories ABHM hopes to collect are not only of how lynching victims died but also of the lives they led. So often, the story of lynching is the retelling of what led to somebody’s death and, for the families left behind, the shame and fear of the aftermath. “It goes to the whole sense of Black Lives Matter,” said Reggie Jackson, chair of ABHM’s seven-person board. “[The] lives of the people who were lynched, their lives didn’t matter — so there’s no reason to mention anything about them other than the act they committed that led to their lynching. The newspapers were like, ‘Who really cares who they were?’”
Jackson grew up near Money, Mississippi, the town where Emmett Till was murdered. “For years, I just wanted to go there,” Jackson said. “And my family was like, ‘You don’t want to go asking questions about it.’” Jackson, 50, visited ABHM in the 1990s after moving back to Milwaukee from California when he completed his service in the Navy. Cameron was alone and gave Jackson a tour, and Jackson bought copies of pamphlets and his book. Before Jackson left, Cameron told Jackson his story and why he started the museum. The two men talked for over three hours. “I told myself, I have to come back and help this man,” Jackson said. He returned to volunteer at ABHM in 2001 and eventually grew close to the Camerons, visiting the elderly couple often in their home.
In Kaplan’s eyes, Jackson is the protégé of Cameron. “I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Jackson said. He currently works as a special-education teacher for a charter school, and in his free time, dedicates his energies to ABHM.
Jackson, along with Kaplan, Virgil, and core members of the board, are working with a local real estate developer to reopen ABHM at its former location on North Avenue in Bronzeville, though the neighborhood is also struggling to return to its halcyon days. Like most former urban centers that served the black community, it experienced rapid economic decline, a victim of “urban renewal” efforts that led to the dispersal of black communities and businesses in the area. In May, Maures Development was awarded tax credits to facilitate the construction of a low-income apartment complex in Bronzeville, the ground floor of which is anticipated to provide space for the museum. “I hope it reopens,” my aunt told me recently. “To see an actual piece of history … real things that were used to keep our people captive. And divided. It would be a good thing for Milwaukee to have back.”
Museums educate a class of citizens in the hopes that presenting the narratives of their nation will shape identity and fidelity, pass the story forward, and, perhaps, correct past wrongs. In the act of remembering, they can serve to remind a people to do better, be better. Museums are not always mausoleums to greatness; they can be an instructional look at the fullness of humanity, so we never forget what monsters we can become and endeavor to resist it. If we forget, we repeat.
In 1998, three white men tied 49-year-old James Byrd to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to death. In 2011, a group of Mississippi teens beat and ran over 48-year-old Craig Anderson “for fun.” In 2014, the death of 17-year-old Lennon Lacy led the Justice Department to open an inquiry to determine if his death was a lynching in North Carolina. Nooses proliferate on college campuses; perpetrators feign ignorance of its meaning. Last year, a Florida graphic design company featured a noose dangling from a tree as part of an ad campaign for Photoshop tools. And just a month after that, in Marion, the boss of a firefighter tossed a noose into his black employee’s hands. The employee is married to a distant relative of Abram Smith.
If we forget, we repeat.
Yet perhaps the moment is right for Marion to again properly revisit and memorialize its lowest moment. In Glendora, Mississippi, there’s now a museum honoring Emmett Till’s life and educating the public about his murder. Duluth, Minnesota, where three black circus workers were lynched by a mob of an estimated 10,000 in 1920, dedicated a memorial to the men in 2003. The recent opening of the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and the forthcoming National Black American Heritage Museum at the Smithsonian Institute also seem to point toward a public readiness to confront the sins of the nation's past, even as they persist in our present.
And yet, Marion is a place of selective memory. A few people have contacted Kaplan proposing to place a memorial there or to relocate ABHM in the town, but it has simply remained talk. Occasional visitors to the Marion Public Library and Grant County Museum come asking questions. Last August, I was one of them, when I visited on the 85th anniversary of the murders of Tommy Shipp and Abram Smith. Outside the genealogy room in the library, where some records of the lynching are housed, there was a modest exhibit of the history of the county. A dusty photo and display of James Dean, who was born in Marion, was showcased. Jim Davis, the illustrator who created the Garfield comic strip, also held a place of honor. That week, a small exhibit celebrating the heritage of notable black citizens of Marion, including Flossie Bailey, was also displayed. There was no mention of Cameron anywhere.
Perhaps Marion believes it can forget its greatest tragedy now that the only survivor and witness to the crime died 10 years ago. Marion today has endured a fate not dissimilar from many Rustbelt cities. Its population of approximately 30,000 has remained steady, but it bears the scars of economic depression. Foreclosed homes and empty lots stretch for blocks.
The grounds around the courthouse are still manicured and preserved. They are home to a boulder with a plaque honoring Martin Boots, the first white man to set foot in Marion, who later founded the county. The intersection of Third and Adams streets — where Smith and Shipp were lynched — is now a memorial to Grant County residents who died in the Vietnam War.
When I reached the intersection, I took out my camera. I had taken great care, making sure to charge the battery of my fancy SLR. Mysteriously, it didn’t work. The once-charged battery was dead. Fate or coincidence would not let me mark the occasion.
A week later, when I met with Virgil in Milwaukee, I told him about my camera’s malfunction, to which he responded with a knowing look. “You know the tree died, right?” he said.
Virgil continued to recall a family visit to Marion for an event for his father. “The impression that you get is that Marion … the state that it’s in, it has not progressed,” he said. “It’s got that stigma and I think that lynching has a lot to do with it.” More people filled the café patio where we sat, their chatter bouncing off the canopy while wind rustled the leaves of trees nearby. Milwaukee weather, fickle as ever, brought a chill to the late August heat.
“Marion died because of that incident. It’s just like something is hovering over that city.” ●