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Parents Brought Their Children to John Hartfield's Lynching

One night we talked with our kids about the Roman Colosseum and the Christians who were ripped to shreds by wild animals in front of thousands of blood-thirsty fans.

"People still are entertained by violence," we said. "Like with video games or Extreme Fighting."

Thankfully, I thought, we've moved past that brutal time in ancient history when people were entertained by actual killing.

And then I read about John Hartfield.

On June 26, 1919, John Hartfield was lynched in Ellisville, Mississippi.

I'd known about lynchings, and was duly horrified by them, but I always just assumed that lynchings were done by small groups of wicked, racist white men.

And they were. But what I didn't know was that lynchings often were public spectacles. John Hartfield was one of them.

John Hartfield had the unfortunate crime of falling in love with a white woman. It didn't matter that it was mutual. And for that, the people of Ellisville, Mississippi decided he should die.

But this was no spontaneous outburst of violent anger. No, this lynching was planned in advance. This article from New York Times says, "The front page of The Jackson Daily News announced that Mr. Hartfield would be lynched at 5 p.m. 'Governor Bilbo Says He Is Powerless to Prevent It,' the headline read. 'Thousands of People Are Flocking Into Ellisville to Attend the Event.'"

Only 1700 people lived in the town of Ellisville. However, there were at least ten thousand people who swarmed to Ellisville for the lynching. Men, women, and children. It was a party atmosphere. There were food vendors and photo postcards. 

John was strung up and then shot until his body fell apart. Some people took body parts as souvenirs.

In horrified fascination, I did a little searching to see if this was an isolated event. But no, actually, it wasn't. One source says, "Lynchings were popular and public events, attracting thousands of celebratory, grinning onlookers. White children even “played” lynching in a game called “Salisbury.”

“Parents brought their children like they were coming to a picnic,” said Korea Strowder, now 94. “It was a big to-do, all right." “It was very much like a spectator sport,” Angela Sims said. “Children were even dismissed from school.”

And lynchings didn't just happen in Mississippi and Alabama, but even as far north as Missouri and Kansas.

This is our country, Americans. This is our history, from only one hundred years ago. This was sanctioned behavior in our Christian nation, founded on Christian principles. The land of the free and the home of the brave. The nation founded on the premise that all men are created equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

I'm still very grateful to be an American, as I've seen and experienced first-hand the privilege that it is to be a part of my nation. But maybe this story will help you understand why I'm apprehensive about the possibility of relocating my dark-skinned children to the land of my birth. Maybe it will help all of us to listen a little more carefully to our black friends and acquaintances. And maybe it will help us all to consider a little more deeply the depravity that dwells in all of our hearts.

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