Strange Fruit

30. On March 9, 2016, Tyrone Williams and Chauntyll Allen went out for a special birthday dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack, in Roseville, Minnesota, a Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb. But even before their food arrived, the meal went sour. As they looked at their table, they realized that it was decorated with an old-time photo of a hanging in Texas that looked like a lynching. A modern-day caption had been added, with the victim saying, “All I said was, ‘I don’t like the gumbo!'”

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Williams and Allen took some photos, complained, and left. They did some research, and found that the man being hanged was Richard Burleson. In 1894, he was convicted of killing a white man, and was hanged the following April. The restaurant manager tried to justify the photo to Allen on this basis, saying that it was an execution rather than a lynching. But others quickly pointed out that for a black man in 1890s Texas, there was no such a thing as a “fair trial,” and so it’s hard to distinguish a legal execution from an outright lynching. After all, many of the more grotesque lynchings in the south were done with the full knowledge, and sometimes even the participation, of the local police.

In any case,Williams and Allen didn’t think it was funny. It was inappropriate for a family restaurant to find humor in what certainly appeared to be a lynching, legal or improvised, and the NAACP has complained on their behalf. The restaurant chain’s national office issued a prompt apology, but at this writing, it’s unclear how many more of its restaurants, if any, have the same item in their decor.

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Chauntyll Allen and Tyrone Williams, outside the Roseville Joe’s Crab Shack

The incident prompts us to spend a little more time on the subject:

Statistically, nine-tenths of the recorded lynchings in America happened in the southern states, and the vast majority of those involved black victims. But lynchings also happened in the north and west. We’ve discussed lynchings in Omaha in 1919 and Duluth in 1920. But another northern lynching made perhaps a greater impact on our culture.

In the 1930s, a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, wrote a song called “Strange Fruit.” He said that the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching, and it is generally believed that he meant the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana.

On August 6, 1930, Shipp, Smith, and 16-year old James Cameron (1914-2006) had been arrested for a murder and a rape. The next night, a mob of 12,000-15,000 broke into the jail, and all three men were beaten. Shipp was then hanged. Smith was already dead from the beating, but they hanged him too. Then they put a noose around Cameron’s neck.

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But then at the last moment, under circumstances that he believed were miraculous, his life was spared. Nonetheless, he was convicted of being an accessory to murder before the fact, and served four years in prison. As usual, no one was ever charged in the beatings or lynchings.

After his parole, Cameron went to Detroit, and earned a degree in boiler engineering from Wayne State. He also became a civil rights activist. He founded three NAACP chapters, and served as the Indiana State Director of Civil Liberties (1942-1950), helping investigate violations of Indiana’s equal accommodations law…and earning frequent death threats for his efforts.

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Cameron lived to be 92. In 2005, he spoke at a Senate press conference. In June 2005, the Senate passed a resolution, with 80 co-sponsors, apologizing for never passing an anti-lynching legislation when it was most needed.

For more than forty years, Southern Democrats filibustered the proposals, often appealing to arguments that have a frighteningly contemporary ring.

For instance, in 1949, Rep. Charles Bennett (D-FL) argued that (1) lynching wasn’t actually a problem, and (2) it was an insult to the south to bring it up. In any case, (3) the Tenth Amendment made it the business of the states, not the federal government, and (4) the southern states could take care of it: “We think we can control our affairs pretty well.” In the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, when President Johnson confronted Mississippi Sen. James Eastland about the three voting rights workers that had been lynched in his state, Eastland denied that it even happened, arguing that it was all “a publicity stunt.”

That’s the background to Meeropol’s song. In the late 1930s, he brought it to the attention of Barney Josephson, owner of the Café Society nightclub, the first fully-integrated nightclub in Manhattan.

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Josephson then encouraged Billie Holiday (1915-1959) to sing it. At the time (1939), Billie was just 24. It was thought so radical that her label, Columbia Records, wouldn’t record it, fearing a southern backlash.

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In 1999, Time magazine named it the Song of the Century. The words remain as powerful as ever:

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That “blood on the leaves” line captivated Kanye West. In “Blood on the Leaves,” (2013) he incorporated Nina Simone’s recording of the song. The phrase comes up up even more dramatically in “New Slaves”: “I know that we the new slaves / I see the blood on the leaves…”

You might be thinking, “Nice story, bro. But what does any of this have to do with food?” Answer: Everything. I’m an advocate for “soul food” as an ethnic cuisine that should be an equal partner on the American Menu with Mexican, Chinese, Italian, and so on. As the “soul food scholar” Adrian Miller has written, anyone is welcome to cook soul food, as long as we get the taste right.

But I would add that white folks like me can’t accept only half the equation; namely the taste, the “food” part. We must also embrace the “soul” part. For us, that means learning the history behind these foods, including the incalculable human price paid for them: a “strange and bitter crop” of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and violent bigotry that carries into the present moment.

On the same Wednesday night that Tyrone Williams and Chauntyll Allen were welcomed to Joe’s Crab Shack with a “funny” lynching scene, down in Fayetteville, North Carolina, there was yet another violent incident at a Donald Trump rally. John McGraw, a 78-year old white guy, sucker-punched Rakeem Jones in the face. Jones was a protester who was being led out of the auditorium by the police.

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1: Jones being led out. 2: Jones is punched. 3: Police throw Jones, not McGraw, to the floor

Such attacks have become commonplace at Trump rallies, as supporters are incited from the stage by the violent rhetoric of the candidate himself. These three examples only scratch the surface:

*At a Cedar Rapids, Iowa rally in February, Trump told the crowd to “knock the crap” out of protesters. “Seriously. Okay?” he said, “Just knock the hell—  I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise.”

*In Burlington, Vermont in January, Trump told his security people to throw out a protester, and confiscate his coat: “Get him outta there! Don’t give him his coat. Keep his coat. Confiscate his coat. You know it’s about ten degrees below zero outside. No, you can keep his coat. Tell him we’ll send it to him in a couple of weeks.”

*Last fall, in Birmingham, Alabama, half a dozen Trump supporters beat and kicked a “Black Lives Matter” protester. The campaign officially said that it doesn’t condone such violence, but the next morning, Trump was on Fox News, saying, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”

Perhaps this climate of mob violence in 2016 helps explain why a couple of folks outside Minneapolis didn’t think a hanging scene from 1895 was appropriate restaurant decor. At about that same time, John McGraw was feeling proud of himself for attacking Jones. He said, “Yes, he deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”

Learning about the history of lynchings isn’t a matter of wallowing in guilt over a grisly past. We need to understand that these are cautionary tales; reminders of how quickly and easily mob violence can erupt.

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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