At the Hands of Persons Unknown explores how trees have been silent witnesses to the lynching of women in the United States.
Lynching has been one of the most odious aspects of mob violence in the United States since the nineteenth century. Although lynching’s roots can be found in the British Isles, and its use against blacks actually precedes the end of slavery, lynching emerged as one of the brutal tools of racial control to suppress black civil rights and to maintain white supremacy. By far, the majority of lynching victims were black men. However, a sizable minority were non-whites, poor whites, and women. More than four thousand African Americans were lynched across twenty states between 1877 and 1950, and mostly in the American South. For eight decades, from 1882 to 1968, the Tuskegee Institute recorded 3,446 lynchings of blacks, and 1,297 lynchings of whites.
But for a number of women, the majority occurring before the Great Depression, there were about 169 recorded lynching cases from 1837 to 1965. Of the 169 cases, Crystal N. Feimster cites in her 2009 book, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, that eighty-three percent were black, sixteen percent white, and one percent Hispanic. Eighty-three of the lynchings were carried out between 1837-1898, sixty-two of which were black, nineteen white, and two Mexican. In a correlated period between 1899-1965, eighty-seven women (seventy-nine black, eight white) were lynched. However, numerous more would have been raped, tarred, feathered, tortured and mutilated.
These lynchings highlight the violence of white male supremacy against both black, white, and ‘other’ women, as well as black men, and the project exposes an often-overlooked aspect of U.S. history. Given the renewed interest into the many ways women are oppressed by contemporary power structures, exploring the forgotten history of female lynching is both timely and relevant to contemporary debates on notions of race, gender, and sexuality.
Black womanhood was demonized by white Southerners. Portrayed as disorderly, promiscuous, and violent, black women were afforded little respect. Many of the black female lynching victims challenged white supremacy, for example in labor disputes, or motivated by self-defense, such as when they were being sexually assaulted or their children were being attacked. A number of additional reasons included murdering a white person, attempted murder, arson, poisoning white people, stealing a Bible, train wrecking, having knowledge of a theft, singing too loudly or violating racial codes. And while the majority of black women who were lynched were poor, women from economically-successful families were murdered as well. Black women—as were often black men—were tortured and mutilated, and in some cases were raped before they were lynched. However, white women who were lynched were not often mutilated as were black women.
While most newspapers published detailed descriptions of alleged crimes committed by black men against white women, they rarely mentioned white men’s crimes against black or white women. White women were expected to live up to class and gender roles as imposed by white men, and if they threatened these or had relationships with black men, they had to suffer. “Prior to Emancipation, relationships between black men and poor white women were often tolerated, but after 1865, interracial relationships between black men and white women threatened the emergence of a segregated system” (Feimster 176). Ordinary white women had to live up to the standards of Southern womanhood or they would be punished. The number of white, mostly lower-class women who were lynched was much lower compared to black women, but they would often find themselves answering to nightriders, White Caps, regulators, or Klansmen, who disciplined these women: they were tarred and feathered, brutally whipped, violently warned to leave town, and sometimes lynched.
I was motivated to create this series as a German woman married to an African American man living in the South, but from the perspective that if we had been born a generation earlier our relationship would have been illegal, if not cause to be lynched. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Loving vs. Virginia, only ended the prohibition on interracial marriage in 1967.
Through long exposure and movement of the camera, the trees and the branches I captured were rendered abstract, almost ghostlike. And rather than photographing trees which were supposedly known to be used for lynchings (in most cases these trees no longer exist, as well as almost untenable to try to identify “lynching trees” with any certainty), I photographed old Southern trees as “stand-ins”. I made this decision after my mother-in-law first visited us in the South, when she said that she couldn’t look at an old Southern tree without imaging them as lynching trees.
This project has been supported with grants from the Puffin Foundation and the UNC Chapel Hill Department of Art & Art History.
 Guzman, Jessie P., ed., 1952 Negro Yearbook (New York, 1952), pp. 275-279; numbers vary depending on source
 Equal Justice Initiative (2015) Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. Report Summary. Montgomery, Alabama
 Feimster, Crystal N. (2009) Southern Horrors. Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: pp. 235-239.
 Numbers vary depending on source.
 Feimster, Crystal N. (2009) Southern Horrors. Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: pp. 158-185.