Slice of Life

Syracuse University alumnus uncovers foggy history of lynching in South

Courtesy of Lance Warren

Hannah Ayers (left) and Lance Warren (right) directed the documentary on the history of lynching in the American South called "An Outrage." Warren graduated from Syracuse University in 2004 with a bachelor of arts in history and political science.

From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 black persons were lynched in the United States, and almost all occurred in the South, according to data collected by the NAACP.

Statistics like these are not difficult to find, but Lance Warren, a Syracuse University alumnus, and his wife, Hannah Ayers, found that the human elements behind these numbers are almost nonexistent. The stories of the people who tragically lost their lives by lynching surface in Warren and Ayers’ latest film, “An Outrage.”

A screening of the film will be held on Tuesday at 5 p.m. in 220 Eggers Hall. A discussion and Q&A with Warren and Ayers will take place after the screening of the 33-minute film, which follows the horrors of lynching in the American South. Uncovering this foggy chapter of U.S. history, Warren and Ayers dig deep into the perspectives of victims’ families and friends, activists and scholars.

Lynching became prominent as white radicals strived to maintain social dominance after the Civil War. The most known proponent of lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, is estimated to have carried out more than 400 of the 4,743 lynchings that took place between 1882 and 1968, per the NAACP. Frequency in lynching dropped in the 1930s, and even more so when the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s. But the effects of these acts stretch far beyond voter turnout oppression and social status disparity.

“We didn’t know much more about the history of lynching beyond the broad parameters that is general knowledge,” Warren said. “There is a deep and ugly history.”

Before Ayers and Warren ventured into the history of lynching, the media-making couple worked with history teachers to develop and improve their content. They found a gap in academia.

“We started on the path by just reading the available and relevant literature on the topic,” Warren said about the early days of their film. “What we thought we would do for the film was find a single story about lynching and we would find historians to discuss that story.”

But after their first stage of research and interviews, the couple realized the depth of that missing information. Historians could no longer fill in the blanks, so they packed up and headed South to six different lynching sites.

In preparation for the film, the filmmakers studied other media depictions on the history of lynching. Warren described what they found as “disappointing.” Too much of the already limited visual media on this part of history was uncomfortably graphic.

“Photos of lynching and corpses without any context of who these people were,” Warren said. “The idea that your own best friend, mother, son or uncle could be depicted in that way in some film with a historian talking in the back on b-roll was what we didn’t try to do.”

The filmmakers traveled 3,700 miles to find friends and families of victims. They spoke to as many people as possible to find what locals had learned about lynching growing up. These “unofficial historians” gave them a perspective that the history books or professionals could not. Stories about victims of lynching have been largely undocumented, so Warren and Ayer found their narratives.

“I think that a lot of Americans, especially white Americans, view lynching as something that happened a long time ago and has no direct relevance for American politics today,” said Steven White, a political science professor at Syracuse University.

Academics everywhere are learning more about this gap in U.S. history, White said that is because of increasing attention to racial violence and research, attributing to the increasing awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The film premiered at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in March. Since its debut to the public, Warren and Ayers have been screening the film at different academic institutions.

Given the current political climate and the rise of hate crimes across the country, the filmmakers were unsure of how students would react in the post-screening discussions.

“We found the tenor of those discussions very heartening,” Warren said. “However people feel in the room, the fact that they’re there shows that they do care about black lives and American history.”

The couple’s pioneering work in the media is not ending with “An Outrage.” They have several plans in the works, including a film on a U.S. National Council on the Humanities and a project on a black restaurateur.

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