Tucked in the collection of artifacts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is a simple, non-descript shadow box containing a handwritten note and a piece of dark rope. It would be easy to pass such a small piece of history in a place that contains an entire Jim Crow-era railcar. The inscription on the note reads:
“Rope ‘souvenir’ which was used by Salisbury, Md. mob to hang Matthew Williams, 23-year-old citizen. It is soaked with oil which was poured on his body before the blood thirsty shoremen burned the body beyond recognition. Thousands of white women and children carried these souvenirs home to keep.”
I was directed to the rope after asking Deborah Tulani Salahu-Din, an NMAAHC exhibition researcher, which artifact in the museum resonated with her most. The story she told me about how she came across this piece of history still sits with me. Here is an excerpt from the interview, featured in last week’s Workhuman® Radio episode, where she recounts the story.
Workhuman: Is there a particular object here that speaks to you most?
Deborah: Yes. There's this object, and sometimes I hesitate because it's tied to a very tragic event in history. But the way I came about collecting this particular object was quite unusual. In the Segregation Era gallery, there's an 8-inch piece of a lynch rope. It was used in the killing of a 23-year-old African American man in Salisbury, Md. in 1931. His name was Matthew Williams. I had heard this story before because I'm also from Salisbury.
One day, I was on a site visit looking for artifacts associated with Paul Henderson, who was a photojournalist with the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. I wanted to feature him in one of the galleries and was looking for objects associated with him.
I was in the home of the woman who was the executor of his estate. After she showed me things associated with his photojournalism career, she brought this shoebox to the dining room table. She didn't even lift the lid. She said, ‘Here's something else you might want to look at.’ So I lifted the lid and there was this 8-inch piece of a lynch rope, still oil-stained in a plastic bag. And there was a handwritten note tied to this rope. And it was written by Paul Henderson, who had gone to Salisbury to cover the story.
He had acquired this piece of lynch rope because these pieces were being handed out as souvenirs. I came to learn this was a common practice. This is just how vile people were. After they had lynched and burned his body, they took the rope, cut it into pieces, and handed them out to the crowd.
Paul was on the periphery of the crowd. Being a very light-skinned African American man who could pass for white, he secured a piece of the rope and kept it with the handwritten note.
It was almost as if he was speaking from the grave – telling this story of racial violence against Matthew Williams and the broader story of lynching and the spectator sport it had become. It just baffled me how people could be so vile and see the suffering of another human being as something to be joyful about.
So it's a very tragic story, but because it is a hometown story for me and because of the interesting way I came about it, it's one of the objects that compelled me to want to study more about history.
Workhuman: And it’s incredible that’s you’re able to now display it in the museum for everybody to see and learn about.
Deborah: That's what I was thinking when I saw it. Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote a book called "On the Courthouse Lawn," which documents the story of Matthew Williams and several other lynchings that occurred on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the early 20th century.
She interviewed me and my father for the book. When I found that lynch rope I called her and said, ‘You're not going to believe this. You wrote the book about Matthew Williams and I ran across a piece of the actual rope that was used in that lynching.’ It was eerie the way things happened.
In this museum, it’s easy to get discouraged while learning about the history of suffering in African Americans’ culture. Yet it is only by looking into our past that we can move into a better future – one where we are all seen, heard, and recognized as human beings.
If you would like to learn more about Matthew Williams, you can read Deborah’s full article.
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