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How Black activists used lynching souvenirs to expose American violence

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

They're some of the most troubling records we have of America's history of racist violence - 19th and early 20th century black-and-white photos of the lynchings of African Americans. For her new documentary, filmmaker Christine Turner examined hundreds of these pictures, focused particularly on the ones that people who attended these lynchings sent as postcards to family and friends. Her documentary short is called "Lynching Postcards: Token Of A Great Day."

Christine Turner, welcome.

CHRISTINE TURNER: Thank you so much for having me, Adrian.

FLORIDO: "Token Of A Great Day" - why that title?

TURNER: "Token Of A Great Day" actually comes from a handwritten message on the back of one of these lynching postcards. And it speaks to the attitude and the viewpoint of many of the participants at these public spectacle lynchings. You know, these postcards were mementos. They were souvenirs from these this event. And so for some, they were a token of a great day.

FLORIDO: You open your film with a shot of one of these postcards. It's an image of a Black man hung from a tree. But you've zoomed in so that what we see of him are his dangling feet. And what we're really focused on are the white men standing beneath him, looking right at the camera, several of them smiling. Why did you focus in on them? What did you see in their gaze?

TURNER: Well, you know, I think that for me, this story is so much about the participants of the lynching, more so than of the people who had been victimized. And I wanted to train the audience's eyes on those participants. And what we see in them is a sense of pride.

I think oftentimes we think that lynchings are these spontaneous events - right? - that a group of men in the woods, you know, decide to suddenly lynch someone. But these were planned events. And it wasn't just the KKK, for example. These were ordinary people from all different social classes - men, women and children who attended the events.

FLORIDO: Something that surprised me watching your film was to learn that at the places where an upcoming lynching had been announced, photographers would strike deals with town officials to get a prime spot at the front of the crowd. These photographs and these postcards became a whole industry.

TURNER: Exactly. And in the film, there's one particular lynching that we focus in on. It's the story of Jesse Washington, who was lynched in 1916 in Waco, Texas. And his lynching took place at city hall.

And the town photographer - his name was Fred Gildersleeve - actually, you know, worked with the local government to find a place to photograph the lynching that would take place. And these photographs that Gildersleeve took were later turned into postcards that were sold in the community.

FLORIDO: Why did these pictures get turned into postcards? I mean, why were people clamoring for these souvenirs from these events?

TURNER: Really, it was a way, I think, to sort of relive that experience of attending the lynching - right? - and that sense of power and control, as historian Leigh Raiford talks about in the film. And it was also a way to disseminate that experience and to share that experience with friends and family.

And in one postcard that is featured in the film, in the message on the back, the young man is writing to his parents, and he says, this is the barbecue that we had last night. And I think, in a way, these messages on the back are just as chilling as the images on the front.

FLORIDO: These postcards were clearly a celebration of white supremacy, right? But at some point, they did become a tool for people who decided to do something about lynching, to launch anti-lynching campaigns. How did these postcards become the tool that these activists used?

TURNER: What anti-lynching activists such as the NAACP did is they really turned these postcards on their head, and they used them as evidence in their fight against lynching. So they laid them out there to really shame the country and the world and to make people aware of what was happening all over.

So in making this film, it was really important to me to make a film that wasn't just going to be another story of victimization. But really, this is a story of Black resistance. And at its core, it's about how these postcards were ultimately turned on their head and were subverted by these Black activists.

FLORIDO: It reminded me of the way that images and films have become such an important part of today's fights for racial justice. The global uprising over George Floyd's killing under Derek Chauvin's knee was sparked by a cellphone video. The white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia - they filmed it themselves.

Both of those cases have been called modern-day lynchings caught on tape. Were those parallels on your mind at all as you made your film?

TURNER: Absolutely. I mean, I was thinking a lot about Ahmaud Arbery's murder and the way in which it was captured on video by the murderers and then how that video was later used against them. And I think, for me, I was hoping that this film could help sort of lay out this lineage and this history and give us a better understanding of what might be occurring today.

FLORIDO: Christine Turner. Her short film "Lynching Postcards: Token Of A Great Day" is streaming on Paramount Plus. Christine Turner, thanks for joining us.

TURNER: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORRES SONG, "THREE FUTURES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.