Group highlights the parallels between lynching and the modern death penalty

By: - February 17, 2022 3:40 am

Markers display the names and locations of individuals killed by lynching at the National Memorial For Peace And Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial is dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people and those terrorized by lynching and Jim Crow segregation in America. Conceived by the Equal Justice Initiative, the physical environment is intended to foster reflection on America’s history of racial inequality. (Photo by Bob Miller/Getty Images)

An anti-death penalty group in Ohio is arguing that lynchings in the 19th and early 20th centuries had a lot in common with the way the modern death penalty is applied. On Thursday it will highlight Ohio lynchings to make that case. 

The argument delves deeply into a complex and often painful past that some would prefer to erase.

In the Buckeye State we rightly celebrate Ohio’s outsized role in ending slavery. Untold numbers of enslaved people crossed the state’s southern border, the Ohio River, and into the promise of free soil. From there, many were conducted along the Underground Railroad to Canada and other places where they could be more secure.

The Ohio Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Zanesville in 1835, largely among people connected to Oberlin College. Among their associates was Cincinnati resident Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” galvanized millions to end the expansion of slavery and helped set the stage for the Civil War.

Sometime Ohioan and ardent abolitionist  John Brown helped to precipitate the war with his battles in Bleeding Kansas and his 1859 attack on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in what was then Virginia.

When the war came, Ohioans exceeded the federal government’s call for soldiers. And its generals — Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan among them — played pivotal roles in a victory that was far from assured, despite ahistorical “Lost Cause” revisionism that sprang up in the century after the war.

But along with that proud history, Ohio’s relationship with slavery, Black Americans and the war had a more cancerous side.

The same state that gave the union Grant and Salmon P. Chase also gave it Clement Vallandingham, a Dayton-area congressman who was among Abraham Lincoln’s harshest critics as he advocated to let southern states break up the nation and leave with their Black captives.

And even though Ohio was carved out of the 1797 Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery, only a year after it became a state in 1803 its legislature started passing a series of Black Laws. Intended to discourage Black newcomers, the laws required African Americans to post bonds to assure their good behavior and limited their rights to marry white people or own guns, among other acts of official discrimination. 

The ugliness of the atmosphere was illustrated in August 1829. With Cincinnati’s Black population quadrupling over the previous decade to more than 4,000, fearful white people took matters into their own hands. A week’s worth of attacks on the city’s Black community succeed in displacing an estimated 1,500 of them.

So despite marble-statue remembrances, the reality for many Black Ohioans before the Civil War was likely more akin to Toni Morrison’s portrait in her masterpiece “Beloved.” High-minded abolitionists were fighting nobly to end slavery, but Black people often found themselves besieged in the same state.

Their desperation continued well into the 20th century. And, the group Ohioans to Stop Executions contends, continues in at least one respect to the present day.

After slavery was officially ended, a number of stratagems were employed to maintain white supremacy. 

One was the Convict Leasing System under which thousands of Black men were imprisoned — many on dubious charges — and then leased out to private companies that paid a pittance for their labor.

Another was the erection of Confederate monuments during the Jim Crow era. It was an unsubtle message that slavery might not be the law anymore, but the forces that had practiced it weren’t sorry and they were still in charge.

And then there was lynching.

Vigilante justice had been practiced against members of every race, but its use against Black people was overwhelming in its disproportionality. Never making up more than 15% of the overall population, Black people made up 73% of the 4,743 Americans who were lynched between 1882 and 1968, according to a database maintained by Tuskegee University.

Advertisement for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill headlined ‘The Shame Of America’ sponsored by The National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People And Paid For In Part By The Anti-Lynching Crusaders. Published In The New York Times, Thursday, November 23, 1922. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

And while lynching was most common on the states of the old Confederacy, it happened at least 15 times in Ohio, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a group dedicated to ending mass incarceration in the United States. 

Two of those occurred in Oxford, the leafy university town in Butler County. As was frequently the case, both were killed on claims that they harmed a white woman.

In the case of Henry Corbin, he was reportedly hauled into an Oxford park in 1892, strung up and shot repeatedly after the daughter of a white woman he worked for accused him of killing his employer, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported in 2018. The story went on to explain how, 126 years earlier, the Enquirer reported approvingly of the extrajudicial vengeance carried out against a member of an oppressed minority.

It was at least the second lynching of a Black man to occur in Oxford. In 1877, a mob stormed the jail and shot Simeon Garnet to death after he was accused of assaulting white woman, WVXU reported last year as part of a story about the dedication of a memorial of Corbin and Garnet in downtown Oxford.

On Thursday, Ohioans to Stop Executions is using the memorial as a backdrop for a virtual event that’s part of its campaign to end the death penalty. Participating will be Ohio Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, Demetrius Minor, National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, Rev. Dr. Crystal Walker, a family member of a murder victim, and Furonda Brasfield, director of the “From Noose to Needle” project.

From Noose to Needle, part of the anti-death penalty 8th Amendment Project, argues that a clear line can be drawn from last century’s lynchings to modern executions.

“Lawmakers justified their support of capital punishment by claiming that without it, White residents would continue to implement mob justice on their Black neighbors,” it says on its website. “The death penalty is the modern incarnation of hundreds of years of racial control that began with slavery and became the underpinning of our entire legal system.”

It’s indisputable that in the modern era, the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to Black people. 

In Ohio Black people make up only 13% of the population, but they make up 34% of the 56 to die in the state’s death chamber since 1977, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Even more starkly, Black people made up 57% percent of the 137 people on Ohio’s death row in 2018, according to a report last year by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Other data hint at how powerful a role racial perceptions might play in the application of the death penalty. Since 1976, 299 Black defendants in the United States have been executed in cases with white victims. Meanwhile, just 21 white defendants have been executed in cases where the victim was Black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

To Allison Cohen, spokeswoman for Ohioans to Stop Executions, the echoes the racist lynchings of the past can easily be heard in the application of the modern death penalty.

“The patterns of racial discrimination that led to racial terror lynchings are still evident in the application of the modern death penalty,” she said in an email. “The line between lynching and capital punishment has always been hazy historically and it’s clear that as lynchings dropped off in the 20th century, the modern death penalty replaced the practice as a way to disproportinately punish Black men with white victims.”

Thursday’s virtual event will be held at 6:30. Click here to join. 



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.