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Biography Looking Back
Contemporary illustration of white vigilantes threatening an African American man.


Lynching and Terror in the Jim Crow Era

As African Americans began to test their liberty in the aftermath of the Civil War, some white Americans attempted -- via legal and extra-legal means -- to maintain and enforce white supremacy Organizations and secret societies like the Knights of the White Camellia and the Ku Klux Klan emerged in the Reconstruction South, and their members initiated well-known organized terrorist campaigns to intimidate black citizens. Meanwhile, other white Americans targeted African Americans independently and informally, using violence to disrupt African American political activity and to punish black entrepreneurs -- to thwart the emergence of African Americans as political, social, and economic equals.

While hundreds of thousands of African Americans were subjected to threats, sexual violence, and physical brutality, 4,742 individuals were lynched publicly across the United States -- and not exclusively in the South -- between 1882 and 1968. Lynching, an act of extreme violence that culminates in murder, was typically executed by a vigilante mob in public. For white American racists, the torture, shooting and hanging of victims served as a communal event that was celebrated with the circulation of photographs and souvenirs. For black Americans, these public spectacles sent a chilling message about their place in society. While the members of the mob may have proffered a range of excuses to justify their actions, the practice of lynching operated -- officially -- outside the purview of the law. Vigilantes pursued men, women and children who transgressed supposed racial boundaries and social customs, or those who otherwise threatened white power and privilege.

African American journalist Ida B. Wells published the first statistical accounting of lynching in 1895, three years after three black male friends were killed after opening a grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee. In Red Record, Wells documented lynchings of African Americans across the United States. The numbers are still frightening: 160 in the year 1892; 159 in 1893, and 197 in 1894.

In subsequent writings and lectures, Wells urged readers and audiences to remove themselves and their families from the South because of the violent epidemic. Violence, lynching and other threats of physical intimidation pervaded the daily experiences of African Americans.

Reverend T.D. Jakes' family encountered this pervasive violence firsthand while living in Mississippi. At the age of 23, Reverend Jakes' paternal grandfather and namesake Thomas D. Jake was killed during his lunch break, leaving behind his expectant wife Lorena, and his young son Homer. His death certificate, filed by his employer, claimed that his death had been "accidental while bathing in swift current in creek"; the Jakes family refutes this, countering with a strikingly different account. Thomas Jakes habitually swam across the lake from the turpentine camp where he worked to his home each day at noon to enjoy a meal with his family before returning for the rest of his shift. In early June, 1928, according to Lorena Jake, her husband had quarreled with some of his white coworkers. As Jakes' uncle Hoover explains, "TheyÉthrew some barbed wire in the lakeÉHe dived in there and the barbed wire tangled and caught him. That's why they found him dead."

In 1928, the year Thomas Jake "accidentally" died, 11 people -- 10 black and 1 white -- died at the hands of lynch mobs. In part because of fear of this level of terrorism, generations of African Americans fled the South during the Great Migration, many with the hope that new homes in the North and West would offer renewed safety.

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