Lynching the inspiration for 'Parade'
By Sandra C. Dillard
Denver Post Staff Writer
September 3, 2000 - The photos turn your stomach, and hurt
your heart. Yanked from America's shameful legacy, they go on
and on, page after hideous page of hangings, burnings,
castrations, and other maimings and mutilations in the book
"Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" (Twin
Palms Publishers, $60).
The photos - most of them drawn from the collection of antique
collector and book co-author James Allen, and recently on exhibit
at the New York Historical Society, where they attracted huge
crowds - are from a bleak, dark chapter in American history:
Between 1882 and 1968, there were nearly 5,000 recorded
lynchings in the United States. Most of the victims were black,
including my own maternal greatgrandfather, who was lynched in
the late 1800s Deep South, not because he was accused of a
crime, but because a crowd of drunk, white Mississippians found
themselves in need of an evening's entertainment.
I didn't find Grandfather Jones' picture in the book that identified
victims by name, date and place, but there are plenty of others,
mostly black men, but some white men, one black woman, and
one white woman.
One of the white men was Leo Frank, a Jewish factory
superintendent convicted in 1913 of murdering 13-year-old Mary
Phagan, who had returned to the pencil factory (on her way to a
Confederate Memorial Day Parade) to get her pay.
Frank was convicted amid boiling anti-Semitic feeling, and when
Georgia's governor commuted his sentence to life without parole,
instead of death, an enraged mob dragged Frank from the prison,
and hanged him in front of a jubilant gathering of more than
6,000 men, women and children. The hanging inflamed yet more
anti-Semitic sentiment, and triggered a resurgence of the Ku Klux
The incident inspired playwright Alfred Uhry, himself an Atlanta
Jew who knew Frank's widow as a child, because she was a
friend of his grandmother. Uhry's works include "Driving Miss
Daisy" and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," and he is the only person
ever to win a Pulitzer, an Oscar and a Tony. He searched his
community's past to write the acclaimed musical "Parade," which
will be presented at the Buell Theatre Sept. 12-24 on national
The tragedy also inspired the drama "The Lynching of Leo Frank."
The season opener for the Theater in the Square in Marietta,
Ga., the play covers the murder, trial, conviction, death
sentence, the governor's commuting of the sentence (the
evidence against Frank was thin to nonexistent) and the resulting
"Parade" director Hal Prince focuses less on the lynching and
more on the love story, as the accused man and his new bride
begin to know and love each other during his imprisonment.
But the Georgia production, staged in a former cotton warehouse
near Mary Phagan's grave, has stirred up lots of angry feeling in
Marietta (a suburb of Atlanta.) More fuel was added to the fire
by the recent posting on the Internet (leofranklynchers.com.) by
a Jewish research librarian of the names of the men involved in
the lynching - most of whose descendants still live in the area.
"Minstrel Show," yet another theatrical piece about a lynching,
will be presented by the award-winning TheatreWorks, in the
Dwire Theatre on the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
campus, Sept. 22-Oct. 8. (719-262-3232)
"Minstrel Show" is the account - often in song and dance - of
two black minstrel players who were witnesses to a 1919 lynching
in Oma ha, Neb. A mob of 15,000 people charged the county
courthouse to get their hands on an African-American named
William Brown, who was accused of molesting a young white
woman. When the mayor tried to stop them, the crowd strung
him up, too, but he was cut down before he was killed.
Brown, however, was hanged; then his body was mutilated, shot,
burned, and finally dragged through the streets.
The Sept. 28 performance will take place on the 81st anniversary
of Brown's death, and will be a benefit for the Colorado Springs
chapter of the Urban League.
Murray Ross, the artistic director of TheatreWorks, said they
chose "Minstrel Show," by playwright Max Sparber, "because it
opens the door to a dark chapter in American history that only
recently have we begun to pay attention to.
"I also think it's more than just a race play, it's about mob
violence and hate-crime, both of which are still with us today.
"I also think is a brilliant play, that the playwright would apply
this comic form to this kind of tragic subject is completely unique,
and the result is a completely original history play." Roas said the
production "is essentially the same production that played in New
York; our cast features one of the original New York cast
members, and the original first alternate. We also have the
show's original director, Rob Urbinati." There are those who
believe it's best to let wounds heal and those who agree with
Marietta rabbi Steven L. Lebow, who was quoted in a Aug. 26
New York Times story about the Georgia controversy, as saying
such silence is "selfdefeating behavior, because silence always
encourages ignorance and bigotry." I agree with the rabbi. And
what better way than theater to illuminate the past, invigorate
thought and discussion in the present, and point a wiser path
toward the future?
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