I am submitting the following piece as a demonstration of my writing, as well as an example of how my storytelling brain works. When I recently pitched a travel article for Xtra about LA, I returned with two additional pieces (one on walkable West Hollywood, and one about Tom of Finland House). I am always looking for new stories, which is crucial for a daily journalism portal. When I went to Atlanta to do a travel article for Fab, I came back with three stories. One was on The Sanctuary of a Dark Angel, a BDSM warehouse play space in the city. The second is the piece below, which I submit to you as a writing sample, as well as an example of how I quickly adapted while on a busy trip to make this unexpected article happen:
James Allen collects lynching photos
Appeared in Fab, July 17, 2003
“I am a picker. It is my living and my avocation. I search out items that some people don’t want or need and then sell them to others who do. In America, everything is for sale, even a national shame.”
More than 20 years ago “picker” James Allen began travelling through the back roads of the Southern United States, deep within the heart of Baptist country. “It is a very homophobic environment,” he says. “It’s still very racist, anti-education and very fundamentally Christian in the backwoods.” But to this day, the 48-year-old gay man continues to hunt along the Bible belt for civil rights memorabilia, historical photos and antique American furniture.
He makes a living by selling what he finds, but around the beginning of his career he bought something very special, never to be sold. It would ultimately inspire him and his lover to tax their resources to the limit, place themselves in danger and shine a spotlight on one of the most shameful times in U.S. history. It began with a black and white photo postcard.
“One day another picker called,” Allen begins, seated in the Atlanta home he shares with his partner of 12 years, 42-year-old John Littlefield. Allen’s office is a sprawl of stacked papers, pottery and retro-lamps reminiscent of Lost in Space. “He said he had an oak roll-top desk for sale. Well, I don’t buy oak.”
But for $15 he did wind up buying what was in the desk drawer: a picture of a “murder scene.”
The image is of a white man being hanged from a tree, and other white men are standing around his body.
“I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t have a clue,” Allen explains. “We’d never talked about lynching. It was never taught in our schools…Gradually I learned about lynching, and gradually I started to learn a lot about lynching.”
Through his research, he discovered that the photograph was of an infamous lynching of a Jewish man, Leo Frank, who was hanged August 17, 1915, in Marietta, Georgia (see photo above), about 25 miles from Allen’s home. Frank had been convicted of killing a young Christian girl, Mary Phagan. Allen says the trial was “grotesquely engineered.” Frank was sentenced to death by hanging, but the sentence was commuted. Enraged, 25 men, “a gang of Georgia’s best citizens,” he says, dragged Frank from a hospital bed (he was recovering from a seven-inch knife wound to the throat), and hanged him from a tree just outside of town.
The story bears what would become familiar elements to Allen. “It’s a mob activity, takes place outside of the legal system, the person is accused of a crime, and is killed.”
And many lynchings didn’t end there. “The photographic art played as significant a role in the ritual as torture,” he writes in Without Sanctuary (2000), a book that compiles and provides historical details on the photos he’s collected. The commercial reproduction and distribution of the images replayed the event, he writes. “Even dead, the victims were without sanctuary.
“I believe the photographer was more than a perceptive spectator at lynchings. They compulsively composed silvery tableaux (nature mortes) positioning and lighting corpses.” Many cases involved torture, mutilation, castration, being burned alive, and ears, toes and fingers being cut off and kept as mementos. Justice, political and community leaders often openly participated.
“Unlike hate crimes,” says Allen, “lynching is condoned by the community. It’s a community thing. It takes three or more people to commit a lynching. It can’t be just me out shooting some red necks. That would be a hate crime.”
Immigrants were sometimes targets, but most commonly, it was whites lynching blacks, accusing them of crimes that were fabricated or perpetrated by someone else.
“In a tremendous number of these cases, the person who was killed was exhibiting strength that threatened the white community. For instance, political savvy, showing financial gain, literally for coming into town in a new buggy.”
According to the book Without Sanctuary, spectacle lynchings would attract large crowds, up to 15,000 people in some cases. “Papers reported there would be a lynching tomorrow night, towns would shut down, the train station would add extra cars and offer special fares and it would be flooded with people,” says Allen. “They weren’t secret.”
According to the book, “between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4742 blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs.” Often postcards would be made of the event. In the case of Leo Frank, picture postcards of his lynching were sold outside the undertaker’s where his body was taken, in stores and by mail order.
But although lynchings happened on a huge and public scale and were documented in newspapers in salacious detail, there are few images to be found today. “If you don’t have a photograph of something, everybody can disbelieve it,” Allen explains. He took it upon himself to fill in that missing piece of history.
He began calling around the country to find out who had archives and photos.
He didn’t have much luck. Local historical societies and state archives had few, if any, photographs of lynchings. “I started to get pissed. I decided to find out how many there were. I started to collect them. I said to my partner John, ‘I’ve got to do this, because I’m just overwhelmed. I need your help. If you can buy them and hang on to them, I’ll find them and pay all the expenses.’ And we did.”
They put up on-line ads and sent out thousands of flyers to paper collectors and antique dealers. Allen promised to pay a $1000 for any lynching photograph he didn’t already have. It was emotionally, physically and financially taxing, and when things were at their worst, Allen leaned on his lover. “I’ve got Johnny. Calm. Solid.”
But that doesn’t mean they always see eye to eye. Allen is unapologetically the eccentric, rolling his eyes at mainstream gays and their desire to discuss in earnest the latest in light fixtures. Littlefield, on the other hand, says he sometimes wouldn’t mind a more conventional life and household. Their friends even tease them because Littlefield has started working out, “and you know what that means.” But Allen’s not worried about his partner leaving. He jokes that they’ve both sunk too much money into this project to break up now. “In a sense we’re fighting for our financial lives…We’re not just out of money, we’re out of credit.”
They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the collection of about 150 postcards and photographs. And this has been more than just a financial risk. Often he’s been forced to deal with racists and homophobes, placing him in potentially dangerous situations.
“My clients know I’m gay, I don’t pretend,” he says. “If it comes up I tell them to mind their own fucking business.”
He says the most physically intimidating incident happened late one night, in an isolated chunk of Alabama. He got a call from a man saying he had pictures in his father’s photo album, from 1930s Rosewood, Florida, where all the blacks were literally run out of town by whites. “They were shooting people, killing them, hanging them,” says Allen.
But, he adds, there was no known footage. The caller said to come right away, “so Johnny pulled money from all the banks and we drove up there…We didn’t get there until midnight, way up in the mountains in Alabama.”
They were greeted by a huge German sheperd (“that sucker was as big as horse”) and “the most handsome man. Peppered brown hair, 35 years old, couldn’t be more attractive.” They went into the man’s trailer and spoke for a few hours. The man never did come up with the images he’d promised.
“He told me he had a noose that had been used in a lynching. So he went to the closet, opened up the door and pulled out a garment bag, and inside was his Klan robe, spotless, and he reached into a pocket and pulled out his noose. It was brand new, and he threw it in my face like a baseball. I remember it hit my face and fell onto the table and I looked down and said, ‘well that’s not old.’ I turned to John and said, ‘well I guess we’re done here’, and we got up and left.'”
The man said “he’d keep in touch, in case he found the image he told us about.” The parting was civil, but still the couple was glad they had a pair of pit bulls in their van.
Allen shakes his head at such encounters.
“Our country still suffers tremendously from this legacy,” he explains. Many white Southerners, unsuspecting descendants who find the keepsakes in their family estates or family photo albums, are ashamed of what their ancestors did. “There are thousands of these,” says Allen, and he and Littlefield have saved many images that might otherwise have been destroyed.
“There was one woman who called me for three months, just in tears she was so ashamed. I’ve heard a million times that we found this in grandpa’s Klan robe and just put it right out back and burned it, immediately,” he says. “It’s just a crime because there’s a lot of murders documented that we just don’t know about, and what unresolved issues for African-Americans who just don’t know what happened to uncle so and so. Just turned up missing.”
He pauses, staring off into space through his round glasses. His voice, which can range from soft with grief to a sudden boom of anger and disgust, is momentarily silent. He explains slowly how he first came onto this strange road, about the deep-seated void in his own life that helped turn him into the fastidious and obsessive collector of today.
“Since I was a kid I used objects as an escape, giving my self-esteem over to things, because I was gay and Catholic and struggling, and I just was depressed my whole adolescence. And so I’d look at a beautiful thing, and if I could just obtain it I’d be a better person, it would enhance my self-worth and self-esteem. It’s a cycle and an addiction.”
When he moved to Atlanta at age 21, from Winter Park, Florida, he had to sell his things because he had no money and needed some quick cash. He says parting with his possessions was “devastating emotionally.” Now he’s careful not to get too attached to objects he knows he’ll have to resell. The photographs, however, he’s holding onto.
“There are black people who don’t want a white guy owning this stuff,” he says. “They think it’s theirs. But it’s really about white life because it’s framed by white people, it’s white people you’re looking at. But certainly it’s important to black people because they have no place to grieve.”