Great-Grandson Reflects On The Loss Of An Ancestor To Lynching

Apr 27, 2018

The country's first national memorial to the victims of lynching opens April 27 in Alabama. One of the thousands of victims was Lent Shaw, a successful black farmer in Colbert, Georgia, accused -- many believe falsely -- of assaulting a white woman. 

Editor's note: This story contains content some may find upsetting.

Shaw was hanged and shot by a lynch mob in 1936. His tattered body, surrounded by white men, is the subject of a gruesome photo from that time. The photo often shows up in museums and history books.

Shaw's great-grandson -- Northampton, Massachusetts, resident Evan Lewis -- has spent years researching the photo and Shaw's killing, with the help of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University.

Lewis said he grew up in the shadow of that disturbing family history but wasn't personally scared by it. 

Evan Lewis: I was raised in a really progressive community of black folks in Chicago. The idea that there was potentially danger associated with being black was not new to me.

Even when I encountered this photo, right? This was just kind of part of the reality of being black, and being raised on the South Side of Chicago.

In fact, as I've learned and researched and studied, many, if not most, of the black folks who were raised on the South Side of Chicago landed there, because they were fleeing, in some form or another, racial terror of the American South. 

Karen Brown, NEPR: How did your family talk about the lynching when you were a kid?

We had a lot of really open, honest, and forthright politically-based conversations in my household. This hasn't been something that was shied away from in my home.

Now, in other homes within my family, I get the impression that there was very little to no talk about this. As I've done more and more research, I've heard from a lot of cousins, I've heard from a lot of aunts and uncles, kind of thanking me for digging deeper into the story, and for uncovering it -- unearthing pieces of the story that they'd never been aware of.

I've read a little bit of coverage about your journey to learn more about your great- grandfather, and this photograph. You were the first member of your family to go down to Georgia, to the region where it happened. What made you want to do that, and did it end up doing for you what you were hoping it would?

I have never liked the idea that no member of my family had been back to Georgia since the lynching.

And so the back story there is that after the lynching -- so the lynching occurs maybe 100, 200 yards from the family home. So Lent's wife, all of his children, can hear the lynching happening.

After the execution takes place, all of the sons are gathered up. They're marched out to the body. They're shown the body -- you know clearly an attempt to instill fear.

They're told 1.) They've got to get out of town immediately. If they aren't out of town immediately, then they would be lynched. And 2.) They were told that they are never to have sons -- that Lent Shaw would be the last of the Shaw men, and that their family lineage is to end with them.

And it was important for me in that moment to kind of break that spell, and to go back and to see the land where my great-grandfather was lynched. But more importantly, to kind of open up the pathway so that more folks in the family would feel comfortable going.

Was part of it also to defy the lynch mob? I mean, they ran your family out of town after murdering a member of your family. I can imagine feeling like, "That's not OK. I'm coming back."

There is certainly, as I said, an element of defiance related to this, and there's an element of sort of me wanting to demonstrate that my family can't be, and won't be, run off of any plot of land, anywhere.

But one of the things that struck me most on my visits is that I thought that I was going to see the land where my great-grandfather was lynched, and what really resonates for me, more so than anything else, is that I got to see the place where he lived.

Lent Shaw, who was killed by a lynch mob in 1936. Portrait courtesy of the family.
Credit Joyce Skowyra / NEPR

And that's part of the tragedy of these sorts of eruptions of racial violence -- is that for all of my life, the picture that I had of my great-grandfather was his lynching photo, and it wasn't until I was in the actual creek where he was lynched that it became clear to me: no, this is -- something horrific happened here. But a lot of really special life moments happened here, too, right?

This is the place where he met his wife. It's the place where he raised his children. It's the place -- a place where all of the great things that happened to all of us over the course of a lifetime, they happened to him in this place.

So this week is the opening of the first national memorial for lynching victims. How far does that go, in your opinion, to do right by your family, to do right by the some 4,000 victims of lynching over the course of many decades?

It's absolutely necessary that lynching be acknowledged for the horrors that it visited upon individual families, but also upon the nation as a whole.

Symbolically, it means a lot, but it's only symbolism.

If we had ever, as a nation, been honest about the factors that led to Lent being killed, then we wouldn't be shocked when we see young black men being murdered today by the powers that be.
Evan Lewis

What would true restorative justice mean to you?

I, personally, am interested in getting a full and complete story regarding why Lent was lynched. I, personally, am interested in getting a full and complete story about what happened to his land. Nothing short of that is going to leave me feeling really fulfilled.

How likely is any of that?

Oh, I think it's incredibly unlikely, because I don't think that this is a topic that most Americans are comfortable dealing with, and that most folks want to deal with. And I don't think that many of the victims of lynching are in a powerful enough position, currently, to force difficult and uncomfortable conversations on folks who would rather not see.

But if you'd asked me five years ago, I also would've told you that it was incredibly unlikely that we would have a national memorial being unveiled to lynching victims. So: unlikely does not equal impossible.

What's next for you on this topic?

I expect that I'll be back in Colbert, Georgia, asking difficult questions again at some point soon, and trying to get better answers. And that as many folks as are interested get to hear the story about the man, his life and his legacy, so that we can ensure that 1.) these sorts of things are truly accounted for. But 2.) so that we can all sort of more fully and more honestly embrace our history.

There's no way that we, as Americans, can really, truly grapple with our present moment if we haven't fully accounted for what happened in the very recent past.

You don't look at this as ancient history. You look at this as a reflection on America today, and possibly an explanation for how we got to the moment we're at? 

It's a reflection on America today, absolutely. Listen: there's a lot of outrage when folks see Mike Brown's body laying lifeless in the streets, when folks see Trayvon Martin's body laying lifeless in the streets. When folks see video footage of Philando Castile being murdered by the police.

And that outrage is justified. But no one should be shocked.

If we had ever adequately dealt with Lent's lynching, if we had ever, as a nation, been honest about the factors that led to Lent being killed, then we wouldn't be shocked when we see young black men being murdered today by the powers that be.

And hopefully, we would be -- we would find ourselves in a position to be able to better deal with it. To be able to better make the societal adjustments that need to be made in order to ensure that these things don't happen. But when we continuously sweep these things under the rug, generation after generation, then these evils will continue to revisit us.

USA Today has a story on Lent Shaw's death, including a historical photo of the lynching.