A tale of terrorism-by-skin-color has earned Christopher Lehman a cover story in the current issue of “Minnesota History.”
The ethnic studies professor’s “The Contemplation of our Righteousness: Vigilante Acts Against African Americans in Southwest Minnesota, 1903,” chronicles the community response to a robbery-assault in Watson, Minnesota.
Joseph H. Scott, an African American recently released from a South Dakota prison, robbed and attacked an unmarried European American woman named Helen Olson. When news of the crime broke, posses were organized and mobs formed. The mood in southwestern Minnesota was mirrored in the Montevideo Leader headline: “Assaulted in Her Own Home in the Dead of Night by a Negro Fiend, who Brains Her With An Axe.”
The article’s title is drawn from the Milan Standard’s boast that its citizens weren’t involved in mob actions: “We feel happy in the contemplation of our righteousness.”
Lehman argues Minnesotans’ “celebrations of self-restraint left out incidents of terrorism-by-skin-color.”
“A mob chased all of Montevideo’s African Americans out of the city on July 19 and, three days later, residents of nearby Olivia held a mock lynching of the criminal in lieu of actually killing him,” Lehman writes.
But for government officials’ evasive actions to avoid mobs, and a foiled assassination attempt at the Milan train station, Scott could have been killed.
The hysteria that gripped the region between July 18 and July 23 was part of a national race-terrorism problem. A 2015 study by the Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery, Alabama, suggests 4,000 black men, women and children were lynched in the Southern states alone between 1877 and 1950. “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” concludes that lynching and other racial terrorism tactics were used to enforce racial subordination and segregation.
Lehman’s five books, including 2014’s “Power, Politics, and the Decline of the Civil Rights Movement: A Fragile Coalition, 1967–1973,” have enriched the African-American historical canon. A 2011 visiting fellow at Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute, Lehman chairs the Department of Ethnic & Women’s Studies. He has has taught at St. Cloud State since 2002.