Lynching is the killing (by hanging, burning, or torturing) of an individual or individuals, by a group of three or more persons operating outside the legal system in the belief that they have the right to serve justice or to reinforce a tradition or social custom. Motivated by anger, hatred, or outrage, mob members act spontaneously on the basis of presumed guilt, without the due process of law. Because law enforcement officials tacitly approved or could not prevent it, lynching could exist.
Lynching or mob violence is usually, but not exclusively, associated with racism. However, much regional variation existed across the United States. In the South the system of slavery maintained a strong tradition of summary justice, with white owners exercising total control over black "property" and dispensing any kind of "justice" any time, for any "offense." After the Civil War, when slaves became free men and women, whites perpetuated a caste system by creating an atmosphere of fear. In the South, the lynch mob institutionalized social control with enforcement by hanging and burning. In the same period, in the western states, where there was a shortage of courts and law enforcement officials, lynching was acceptable punishment for livestock rustlers, stagecoach robbers, gamblers, and other miscreants.
Nationally, lynching grew each year from 1866 through the 1880s, peaked in 1892, and gradually declined, except for an upsurge during the Red Scare of 1919–20. By 1900 the punishment was reserved almost exclusively for blacks. From 1889 through 1918 mobs lynched 129 persons in the Midwest, nine in New England, and 2,915 in the South and Border South. By 1930 the nation reached a total of 3,587.
In Oklahoma lynching generally followed the national trend. Surveys by the Tuskegee Institute, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and various scholars identify approximately 147 recorded lynching deaths from 1885 to 1930 (dozens more probably went unrecorded). These numbered 77 white, 50 black, 14 American Indian, 1 Chinese, and 5 of unknown race. In Oklahoma, hanging was the most common form; with a few exceptions, burning was not used.
In the first phase of lynching in Oklahoma, 1885 through 1907, most victims were whites, punished primarily as rustlers, "highwaymen," or robbers. In those years, 106 individuals were lynched for suspected criminal activities. Although 1892 was the peak year nationally, 1893–95 were the peak in the Twin Territories, with cattle/horse theft and robbery the main offenses. The 106 victims included 71 whites, 17 blacks, 14 Indians, one Chinese, and three of unknown race.
After 1907 statehood, however, lynching entered a more racist phase. The numbers actually declined, but the victims were almost exclusively black. In this period lynching reinforced an existing social order that deprived blacks of political and economic rights and segregated them. The state constitution enshrined Jim Crow, and forty-one persons were lynched by 1930. Most of these incidents occurred from 1908 to 1916. Murder, complicity in murder, rape, and attempted rape became the main offenses, attributed primarily to black males accused of assaulting whites. During World War I two blacks were lynched for rape and attempted rape. A resurgence came during the Red Scare of 1919–20 when seven victims (one white) expired. In 1930 Oklahoma's last recorded lynching occurred in Chickasha. At the end of the lynching era, Oklahoma ranked number thirteen in total number of dead, surpassed only by Deep South and Border South states and Texas.
Mapping lynching's geographical distribution in Oklahoma from 1889 through 1930 draws out general patterns. Through the 1890s most episodes punished rustlers and robbers, predominantly whites, and occurred northwest of a line drawn from present Miami to present Altus. In this part of Oklahoma, ranch and farmland of the Panhandle (No Man's Land) had been settled in the 1880s, and land runs had opened the Cherokee Strip and the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in 1892 and 1893. Here livestock raising was an important economic pattern, and rustling brought death by rope. Kingfisher County, partly in the Unassigned Lands and partly in the Cheyenne-Arapaho lands, was "the Lynching Capital of Oklahoma," with fifteen (two Indians and thirteen whites) cattle/horse thieves summarily dispatched between 1893 and 1895. Beaver, Woodward, Woods, Ellis, Grant, and Washita also recorded incidents. As the region became more populated and law enforcement more sophisticated, rustling decreased, and so did lynching.
The 1900 census revealed that about 46 percent of settlers north and west of the Miami-Altus line hailed from midwestern states or had European parentage. They brought with them no firm tradition of racially motivated lynching. Thus, despite the fact that in the 1890s a large migration of African Americans established dozens of All-Black towns in Blaine, Kingfisher, and Logan counties, racial violence remained minimal there in the 1885–1930 period. Southwestern Oklahoma, a sparsely populated ranching region with relatively few black residents, saw the fewest lynchings. Between 1885 and 1930 two blacks (one each in Comanche and Caddo) paid with their lives for alleged crimes.
In central Oklahoma, including the counties created from the Unassigned Lands opened in 1889, lynching was also less common. In this region thousands of people—black, native-born white, European immigrants, and even a few Asians—hustled for economic, political, and social opportunities. There people of midwestern, southern, and foreign backgrounds came into contact, each bringing his or her beliefs, prejudices, and experiences to bear on everyday life. Oklahoma County recorded six lynchings (five blacks) in the 1892–1907 period and two (both black) in the 1919–30 period. Logan, Lincoln, Pottawatomie, and Cleveland counties each recorded incidents. Oklahoma's most notorious lynching, the burning of two Seminole Indian men by a mob of white tenant farmers, occurred in 1898 in present Seminole County.
If, as many scholars suggest, lynchings more often occurred where slave culture had prevailed, then portions of the state settled by southerners should exhibit a higher proportion. Plotted on a map, almost all of the lynchings from 1908 through 1916 occurred south and east of the Miami-Altus line, an area where southerners predominated. There the southern Indians' traditional attitudes toward black slaves was reinforced by white migration from southern states into the Indian Nations before and after the Civil War. By 1900 whites, more than two-thirds southern in origin, outnumbered Indians. Complicating the situation, after allotment freedmen and African American immigrants from other states congregated in the region, creating numerous All-Black towns. The high visibility and relative prosperity of the freedmen's towns in Indian Territory, blacks' demands for political rights, a mass migration of blacks to Oklahoma Territory, and the suggestion that Oklahoma might become an All-Black state, apparently posed a social, economic, and political threat, stimulating a time-honored method of social control—mob violence.
The Creek Nation and counties created from it exhibited the highest number of lynchings. There many All-Black towns existed, especially along the mutual borders of the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. Not surprisingly, the 1885–1930 period recorded twenty-four episodes, despite a low black-to-white ratio and a declining black population. From 1892 to 1907 eleven (six whites, one black, two Indians, and two of unknown race) were hanged. After 1907 statehood and before World War I came a frightening spate of overtly racist lynchings. Of nine victims reportedly dispatched by mobs in 1908–16, only one was white. During and after the war, two whites and two blacks met their death at the hands of mobs.
The southeastern counties of Little Dixie, formerly the Choctaw Nation and settled by southern whites after allotment, also endured mob violence. In the allotment of lands the Choctaw had attempted to exclude freedmen, and many fled the region. Overall, fifteen lynchings (two whites, seven blacks, five Indians, and one of unknown race) occurred there between 1885 and 1930. Of the fifteen, nine (two blacks, two whites, and five Indians) died in the 1892–1907 period, and five (four blacks and one of unknown race) in 1908–16. These incidents occurred despite the low ratio of black to white and despite a decline in black population.
A similar situation existed in the Chickasaw Nation region, in which eighteen lynchings were recorded from 1885 through 1930. Of these, three (one black, one Indian, one Chinese) occurred in the 1892–1907 era and fifteen (eight black, four white, three Indian) in the 1908–30 period. Here, too, the black-white ratio and the black population declined after statehood.
The social dynamics that led to lynching in Oklahoma no doubt sprang from the stresses of rapidly changing social composition and growing population. Between 1885 and 1930 Oklahoma changed from a land where Indian peoples prevailed, to a land dominated by whites from midwestern and southern states and also inhabited by freed blacks, black immigrants from other states, and immigrants of various other ethnicities. In the interracial, intercultural competition for social status and economic resources, it is not surprising that violence occurred.
Lynching cannot be understood outside of the general climate of racial violence that existed in early-twentieth-century Oklahoma. In addition to lynching, racial violence had other manifestations. One was the "whipping party," in which a large group of whites whipped or beat a black person who was suspected of an offense of some kind. In 1922 alone, according to Oklahoma Gov. Jack Walton, 2,500 whippings took place. Another manifestation was the "race riot." Occurring in nearly a dozen Oklahoma communities around the turn of the century, a riot's usual purpose was to run the blacks out of town. Interracial violence occurred in Berwyn in 1895, Lawton in 1902, and Boynton in 1904. In Henryetta in 1907 whites burned the black residential district and established a "sundowner" law, and in Dewey in 1917 a similar incident occurred. This activity reached its lowest point in the Tulsa Race Massacre in June 1921. During the violence a foiled lynch mob, enraged when confronted by angry, armed black Tulsans, marched to the Greenwood District and destroyed most of it and many of its residents.
Why did the violence end after 1930, or at least go underground, so far as no longer to be recorded? Historians have offered a number of explanations. First, black newspaper editors of the 1900–1930 era continually encouraged their readers to confront and stop lynch mobs. Some, like Tulsa's A. J. Smitherman, even suggested armed resistance. Returning black veterans of World War I were inclined to follow his advice. Second, the NAACP began to publicly report lynching statistics in order to embarrass state officials. Third, a national movement created a Commission on Interracial Cooperation, in Oklahoma called the Oklahoma Interracial Committee, with prominent black and white citizens as members. Fourth, the Oklahoma branch of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching worked diligently to publicize the accomplishments of blacks and to discourage men from participating in violence. In combination, black and white men and women worked successfully together to stop the madness.
See also: AFRICAN AMERICANS, ANTI–HORSE THIEF ASSOCIATION, ROSCOE DUNJEE, IMMIGRATION, KU KLUX KLAN, NAACP, NEWSPAPERS–AFRICAN AMERICAN, SEGREGATION, ANDREW J. SMITHERMAN, TULSA RACE MASSACRE, WILLIAM HENRY TWINE
Lowell L. Blaisdell, "Anatomy of an Oklahoma Lynching: Bryan County, August 12–13, 1911," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 79 (Fall 2001).
Charles N. Clark, Lynchings in Oklahoma: A Story of Vigilantism, 1830–1930 (Oklahoma City: N.p., 2000).
Mary Elizabeth Estes, "An Historical Survey of Lynchings in Oklahoma and Texas" (M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1942).
Michael F. Doran, "Population Statistics of Nineteenth Century Indian Territory," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 53 (Winter 1975–76).
Ralph Ginzburg, 100 Years of Lynchings (Baltimore, Md.: Black Classic Press, 1988).
Daniel Littlefield, Seminole Burning: A Story of Racial Vengeance (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996).
Philip Mellinger, "Discrimination and Statehood in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 49 (Autumn 1971).
Michael Roark, "Searching for the Hearth: Culture Areas of Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 70 (Winter 1992–93).
Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
Murray R. Wickett, Contested Territory: Native Americans and African Americans in Oklahoma, 1865–1907 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).
Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909–1950 (Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1980).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dianna Everett, “Lynching,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=LY001.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.