The Burnham-Nobles Archive contributes to the constellation of recent scholarly collections on lethal racial violence. The Beck-Tolnay inventory, released in 1995, is to date the most widely used database in scholarly investigations of lynchings. 1 In constructing their inventory of ten southern states, E.M. Beck and Stewart Tolnay first compiled one “unconfirmed master list,” drawn from the NAACP, Chicago Tribune and the Tuskegee Institute lists, and then confirmed each lynching with a contemporary newspaper article. 2 In later work, this inventory has been further refined and supplemented with more specific information about individual lynching victims, using census and other documents. In the case of the Beck-Tolnay inventory, as in others, a scholarly consensus has emerged around the use of a definition of lynching framed by the NAACP in 1940, its important ambiguity about law enforcement notwithstanding. The NAACP definition included four conditions: 1. Evidence that the person was dead; 2. Evidence that the person was killed illegally; 3. Evidence that three or more persons participated in the killing; and 4. Evidence that the person was killed illegally by a “group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition.” 3

In addition to Beck-Tolnay, several other databases have been constructed in the past twenty years, ranging in time period, geographical area, and unit of analysis. Lisa D. Cook identifies fifteen databases published after Beck and Tolnay’s Festival of Violence (1995), including newer works of Beck and Tolnay. 4 Of these fifteen, eight include years past 1930, and seven cover years up to and including 1930. As Cook notes, the Beck-Tolnay database remains the “most extensive collection of confirmed lynching victims,” and observes that the most well-documented or reliable scholarship on lynchings largely extends or bolsters the Beck-Tolnay database through the addition of new sources. 5 For example, the new dataset of lynchings developed by Charles Seguin and David Rigby extends beyond the ten states of the Beck-Tolnay inventory to include the 48 states of the contiguous United States, and extends to the year 1941. 6 Like Beck-Tolnay, the lynchings are confirmed by local contemporaneous newspapers.

The main objective of the Burnham-Nobles Archive is to document racial killings in the Jim Crow American South. The current version of the Archive documents incidents between the years 1930-1954. 7 By American South, we mean eleven states of the Confederacy: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. By racial killings, we mean killings where racial animus or perceived infraction of Jim Crow norms and customs can be documented or reasonably inferred from newspaper reports and supporting documents.

In most incidents, but not all, the killings also conform to the prevailing NAACP definition of lynchings earlier discussed. In some cases, the perpetrator(s) are unknown; and in others, fewer than three known perpetrators are involved. The database-archive begins in 1930, the last year of Beck-Tolnay inventory, and ends in 1954. With the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing public school segregation in 1954, the year is conventionally considered to signal the inception of the modern civil rights movement. We reason that after this point, racially motivated violence is also understood largely as white southern reaction to organized mass mobilization by Black southerners and the ensuing increased national attention, and not only maintenance of racial segregation. Moreover, as a practical matter, federal records pertaining to cases after 1954 are more difficult to access because the incidents may involve persons who are still living.

An important ambiguity in the NAACP’s definition of lynching concerns how to categorize deaths at the hands of law enforcement. The NAACP definition does not explicitly include police and law enforcement. Nor does it exclude them. Rather the definition refers to an “illegal death.” At an organizational meeting held at Tuskegee Institute in 1940, the Tuskegee Institute proposed a definition that explicitly excluded the police; the adopted definition – the NAACP definition – did not. 8 Bailey and Tolnay note that the NAACP definition “excludes fatal encounters . . . although a substantial body of evidence suggests that law enforcement was often complicit. . .” 9 They maintain that the definition’s limitations, such as this one, are rightly considered by scholars as “sources of measurement error” and not “insurmountable” in studies of lynching.

The Burnham-Nobles Archive based its decision to include cases involving police officers, sheriffs, and/or “posses” on four related grounds. First of all, many deaths were “custodial” deaths in that the incident took place while the victim was in the custody of a law enforcement officer. The documents collected here suggest that many law enforcement officers were either themselves perpetrators of violence or failed to protect victims from violence enacted by private individuals. Secondly, law enforcement officers often justified their homicidal acts as “self-defense.” More often than not, the cumulative effect of the documentary evidence contests and complicates those claims. Thirdly, county sheriffs often deputized civilian groups as “posses,” thereby allowing vigilante groups to operate under color of law. And finally, law enforcement played a well-understood role in upholding “race” and “tradition” in the segregated South.

Moreover, Jim Crow norms and social customs in effect carried the force of law, thereby emboldening white citizens to enforce them when it appeared they had been violated. Indictments were not forthcoming in cases where white citizens enforced alleged violations of these norms and customs, and in those unusual circumstances where there was a trial, juries more often than not acquitted. Without fear of legal punishment, white citizens were emboldened to exercise policing powers in their treatment of Black citizens.

  • 1 Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).

  • 2 Tolnay and Beck, 260. The ten states they describe as “Deep South”: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina and “Border South: Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee.”

  • 3 W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South, Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 17; Tolnay and Beck, Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 260-100.

  • 4 Lisa Cook, “Converging to a National Lynching Database: Recent Developments and the Way Forward,” Historical Methods, 45 (April-June 2012).

  • 5 Cook, 59.

  • 6 Charles Seguin and David Rigby, “National Crimes: A New National Data Set of Lynchings in the United States, 1883-1941,” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 5 (2019), 1-9.

  • 7 For a description of the document collection process, see interview with historical consultant and researcher for the project, Dr. Jay Driskell: “Documenting Lynching and its Influence: The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic at Northeastern University is Doing Just That,” The Metropole: The Official Blog of the Urban History Association June, 26, 2017 .

  • 8 It is important to point out that the NAACP’s Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill (passed out of the House of Representatives in 1922) explicitly called for the punishment of State or municipal officers who participated in mob activity or who failed to protect the person(s) in their charge. NAACP History: Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill .

  • 9 Amy Kate Bailey and Stewart E. Tolnay, Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 3.