Human skin melts at 162 ° F (72 ° C). Fifty more degrees and the blood boils.
Within minutes after the lynch mob threw Will Brown to the stake at the intersection of 17th and Dodge streets in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, his mutilated and bullet-riddled body was destroyed. It was September 28, 1919, and the 41-year-old worker had been pulled from the Douglas County courthouse building four blocks away after a mob estimated at 5,000 to 20,000 white residents besieged him. Over two days, one of the last and most dramatic occurrences of the fateful Red Summer of 1919 unfolded in Omaha as a 19-year-old white woman yelled rape at the hands of a black man.
Returning home at midnight on September 25 from a movie, Millard Hoffman and Agnes Loebeck claimed that a black gunman robbed them, then dragged the young woman into a ravine and raped her. The Omaha Bee published a headline the next day: “The Black Beast’s First Pair of Raiders.” Hours after the alleged attack, Loebeck’s 19-year-old brother combed the South Omaha community with several hundred armed white men searching for the attacker. Someone in the group pointed out that a “black suspect” lived with a white woman in the neighborhood, and the mob went to a house at 2418 South Fifth St, and found Will Brown hiding under a bed in the home of Virginia Jones, a White woman. woman whose lover, a black man, Brown knew. The men dragged Brown to Loebeck and Hoffman, who identified him as the assailant, despite the frightened man suffering from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. Omaha police took custody of Brown and transferred him to the courthouse jail.
For two days the bloodlust of the white Omaha community grew, fueled by incendiary newspaper headlines, rumors and statements by public officials such as those of Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams, in response to the case, that “the protection of a woman transcends all laws of all description, human or divine ”. On the night of September 28, a white crowd attacked the jail where Brown was being held with other inmates: blacks, whites, men and women. During the night, fires were started inside the building to force police, court personnel and jailers to release Brown. The newly elected progressive mayor, Edward P Smith, tried to reason with the crowd and refused to allow them to take Brown away. They seized him and put a rope on him to hang him. Smith was cut off in time to be saved and taken to Ford Hospital for treatment.
Inside the burning courthouse building, pleading with the bailiff not to release him to certain death, Brown would have declared over and over again:I’m innocent, I never did, my God I’m innocent. “Based on historical records, it is unclear whether other prisoners expelled him, guards released him, or attackers took him out, but eventually Brown was stripped, beaten, hanged, and shot before placing him on a stake. Then a frightened 14-year-old boy. years later a 20th century American acting icon, Henry Fonda, observed the hanging of a nearby building with his father. Commenting on the incident in a 1975 BBC interview, he said: “It was the most horrendous sight I’ve ever seen. My hands were wet, there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man hanging from the end of a rope. “
The body was dragged behind a car across the city the next morning. Nearly 2,000 members of the 26th Infantry restored order and upheld martial law to end the chaos and protect the black community in North Omaha. Without a service, graveside mourners, or even a headstone, Brown was buried in the local Potter’s Field cemetery with a mark that simply read “lynched.” It wasn’t until 2012 that a donor from California gave him a proper headstone and headstone. Last month, the City of Omaha unveiled a commemorative plaque outside the Douglas County Courthouse to acknowledge what happened to Brown, Edward P Smith, and the legacy of racial violence in Omaha from September 28-29, 1919. No one was tried for Brown’s death or the attempted lynching of Mayor Smith.
Red Summers is a 360 video project by the artist and filmmaker Bayeté Ross Smith on the untold history of racial terrorism in the United States from 1917 to 1921. The project is funded by Black Public Media, Eyebeam, Sundance Institute, Crux XR, and Open Society Foundations.