How a Lynching in New York 130 Years Ago Reverberates Today

OA plaque will be unveiled at a Port Jervis, New York, event on June 2. It is a memorial to the murder 130 years ago of Robert Lewis (a Black resident). The horrific incident, which was not much remembered in the twentieth century, was considered a sign that the Mason-Dixon Line’s lynching was poised to expand northward.

This was the first time that Black people were reported to have been killed by this method: there had been an increase in deaths of Black men in these circumstances, with 74 being recorded in 1885 and 94 reporting in 1889. There also appeared to be an increase in Blacks dying in similar ways in 1891. In 1892, the highest number of Black people killed in this manner was 161, nearly one per day. The nation’s newspapers were rarely without news of a lynching somewhere, a barbaric crime that Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and T. Thomas Fortune attributed to white resentment of African Americans’ social and economic advance toward equality and full citizenship, by the presumption that Black people were inherently criminal, and by white men’s reflexive anxiety about Black male sexuality and white women.

But what perplexed white Port Jervians and other New Yorkers was why a lynching had occurred in a village near to New York City and with so modest an African American population—roughly two hundred men, women, and children, or 2 percent of its approximately nine thousand residents. Port Jervis suffered from common economic and social inequalities of the time and was subject to normalized racism. However, there were no incidents of anti-Black violence.

You can find it at the confluence the Delaware and Neversink Rivers. It’s where New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet.

Lewis, well-known in Port Jervis as the “bus driver” for a local hotel, was alleged to have beaten and sexually assaulted Lena McMahon, a young white woman, as she sat at the riverside reading a book. Lewis, who was then dragged from Suffolk to East Main by white mobs and hanged from trees, allegedly confessed that he had attacked McMahon but named his white boyfriend as an accomplice.

Readers might not have forgotten about sensational news stories about violent crime in big cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston. The troubling news of the lynching in Port Jervis is a different story. These incidents are rare in the South so the fact that the lynching occurred in a small community sixty-five miles from Manhattan and attracted two thousand people brought about national condemnation.

In recent years, due to the efforts of a small group of current and former residents, and the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been new interest in the lynching, arguably the most troubling incident in the town’s past. Many residents of the town, both Black and White, have been unable to recall what happened. This collective lack of remembering (or remembrance) cannot but seem determined, a result of the town’s shame over the lynching itself, as well as the ensuing humiliation when, after vowing to punish and hold to account those responsible, the local courts and community failed to do so. Lingering bitterness at having been singled out for national censure, and the lack of overt efforts by whites to mend relations with fellow Black citizens, have been exacerbated by a far more slow-motion calamity—the loss of Port Jervis’s prominence as a Northeast rail and industrial hub.

Port Jervis’s commercial district retains its Victorian-era appearance. It has low-rise storefronts and cornices. A twenty-minute walk will take one by many of the places involved in the Robert Lewis lynching, from the home of Lena McMahon to the banks of the nearby Neversink, where she was allegedly attacked; to the now-abandoned Delaware & Hudson Canal, along which Lewis was pursued and captured; and to the lynching site on East Main Street, where white merchants, railway workers, lawyers, doctors, hoteliers, and factory workers, most of whom knew one another, and many of whom knew Robert Lewis, beat him repeatedly and then hoisted by a rope until he was dead.

It can feel like a doorway to the past may open on a summer morning when there are no cars around.

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Research and writing about civil rights history since 1980s have been heavily influenced by my belief in the progress of racial equality. Although not universal among Americans but widely assumed for years, this faith has guided me throughout the 80’s. While no one seriously believed Barack Obama’s presidency would usher in a post-racial nation, there was a sense that the successes of the modern civil rights movement and the laws and policies it inspired, though not comprehensive and not attained without suffering and immense struggle, had at least moved the country to a place of enlarged racial understanding and opportunity.

Instead of guarded optimism today, there’s a weary pessimism, which, as the Port Jervis execution signaled, is much more prevalent. It The assault on Black Americans and their devaluation of their lives is not a local or temporary phenomenon. It’s a national problem and will continue to be so for the near future. Much like at the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, when post–Civil War idealism was supplanted by Southern whites’ bare-knuckle tactics of exclusion and intimidation, so now do we find ourselves confronting the abandonment of hard-won gains from the New Deal, the civil rights and environmental movements, and other progressive causes. Voting rights, gained courthouse to courthouse by Black Southerners and civil rights workers, have been gutted by the Supreme Court, and conservative forces continue to seek creative new ways to curtail and impede them, targeting Black people and other minorities, as one North Carolina judicial opinion noted, “with surgical precision.”

Every fortnight, a report is released about the police killing of a Black man. “Jim Crow,” a term once seemingly relegated to the nation’s past, has found new purpose in expressing the harsh structural conditions of post-prison life for persons formerly incarcerated, as well as large-scale efforts by states to make voting inaccessible to Blacks and other minority citizens, while seizing ever-greater control of whose votes get counted. To preserve America’s democracy, these elements must be challenged.

Nor can we look away from the connection between the nation’s lynching legacy and the recent resurgence of armed vigilantism in America. The white militiamen of the Oath Keepers/Three Percenters/Proud Boys are the 21st century counterparts to the crowds of blacks that once gathered outside Southern jails to demand the release Black prisoners. This “mobocratic spirit,” a phrase Abraham Lincoln used as early as 1838 to describe vigilantism’s corrosive effect on America, frightfully insinuates that mob violence is a legitimate means of effecting political change.

These problems are just as important today as when America first turned its attention to Port Jervis 130 years ago.

The opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama in 2018, is a great example of how important it is to review the tragic history of Port Jervis’ lynching. It honors more than 4000 African Americans who were killed in lynch mob attacks between 1877 and 1950. Lynching was long associated only with the South. Montgomery is its historic capital. There are images of Ku Klux Klan Night Riders and angry white crowds outside rural courthouses. Although the Southern lynching crisis did not spread to the North as many feared, Port Jervis was a sign of white-on Black terroristic violence at the beginning of the 20th century in many places, including New York City and Chicago. And it is impossible not to see lynching’s vestiges in the biases of our own times: racial profiling and police brutality, the readiness to subject Black citizens to summary justice, as well as prejudice in the courts and in the nation’s penal system, including the use of the death penalty.

Parts of America are currently engaged in a redefining of policing. The goal is to stop the use of deadly force against African Americans, by both law officers and vigilantes. The names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Tamir rice, Tamir, Tamir, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Abery, Trayvon Mart, Michael Brown, Philando Clayile, and others are repeated. It is important to acknowledge the traumatizing and terroristic effects of such killings, especially on children.

A peaceful and organized Black Lives Matter marche was held in Port Jervis in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. It attracted hundreds of Black and White residents, and was accompanied with local police. As part of an educational and commemorative effort, Friends of Robert Lewis members spoke to marchers at the same time. They discussed the efforts to place in Port Jervis a marker and signage that details the 1892 Robert Lewis lynching.

“There is no hero in this story,” Ralph Drake, the group’s white founder, who grew up in Port Jervis, observed of the long-ago tragedy. “The town must become the hero, in confronting its legacy.”

The Black Lives Matter march through the streets of Port Jervis, the work of the Friends of Robert Lewis group, and the Montgomery memorial, remind us that it is a national reckoning that is due, and that the historic confidence of any section of the United States in some immunity to racial injustice remains, as it was in Robert Lewis’s time, a false faith indeed.

Adapted by Philip Dray from A LYNCHING at PORT JERVIS – RACE and RECKONING in the GILDED AGE

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