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Title Graphic:  Great Places,  Great Debates Photo of Panelists Viewing Photo of Public Lynching
  Shaped by Site: Three Communities' Dialogues on the Legacies of Lynching
Photo of Kathleen Hulser
Kathleen Hulser
is the public historian at The New-York Historical Society. Her work there includes curating exhibitions ("Petropolis: A Social History of Urban Animal Companions," "The Rosenbergs Reconsidered: The Death Penalty in the Cold War Era" "Reading Uncle Tom's Image," and "New York on the Brink: The Fiscal Crisis of 1974."), and working with collections (Recent Acquisition: The Last Liquor Store Sign on the Bowery), public speaking (Mapping Women's History on Lower Manhattan at Historic Districts Council, 2004; Teaching in a Time of Terror at The New-York Historical Society"), film curating ("Watching the Unwatchable: September 11th Films and Their Makers," 2002; "Moving Images on the Deuce: A Short History of Times Square Film" at Gotham Center, Dec. 2004), and public program series ("Enterprising Women: Notable Women in Business Today and Yesterday" panel discussion series, spring 2002; ongoing work with "History Responds to Sept. 11th"). She works to make history more widely accessible to the public and to foster public engagement with the practice of history and memory. She has also taught American history, women's studies and urban affairs in the Metropolitan Studies Program and History Department.

  Different Methods Adopted for Difficult Material
Kathleen Hulser of the New York Historial Society described planning techniques used for the lynching exhibit that the institution had not used before. For instance, the Society included security staff in planning the exhibit because they have the most contact with visitors. Kathleen believes that if the opportunity to mount the exhibit had been offered two years before, it never would have happened. However, under the current director, the decision to move forward was made even before funding came through.

Lots of Work Required from Lots of People
The exhibit was launched within two months of acceptance. Its success, Kathleen attributes to some institutional strengths, including:
  • The President's great relationship with the Board of Trustees
  • A core group of 5 or 6 staff willing to put in long hours
  • Security guards very invested in this exhibit
  • Museum owned objects they did not know they had or never used before in this context. These included an Abolition collection that ended with Emancipation and Ida B. Wells' Red Record, a record of race lynchings in America that she published in 1895.

The venue however, came with its own set of obstacles. The museum had to overcome the big, grand, Beaux Arts scale of the building that made it difficult to jar people from their "reverence for the institution." The majesty of the physical surroundings dampened the natural instinct to react vocally to the images.

Because there were only two months to prepare, the museum was unable to secure images of New York lynchings for the exhibit. These Civil War era incidents in New York were related to opposition to the draft. Some saw African Americans as the reason for the war and the draft and subsequently engaged in lynchings.

Dialogue with Visitors
The photos were displayed in austere manner, in a dark room with pinpoint lighting. The images were not blown up for viewing. The exhibit was very real with the materials rendered more powerful because of their ordinariness.

The museum realized that "we can't put these photos out without recording how people react" and created comment books and online journaling opportunities for visitors.

The experience of mounting the exhibit was incredibly empowering for the institution. Now that they have dealt with this difficult history once, they have been encouraged (and funded) to do so again.

Learn More
Kathleen Hulser's session presentation is available below:

The Lynching Dialogues

The musarium no longer has their powerful Without Sanctuary materials on line. However, if you visit the website, you can view the Society's treatment of other difficult stories. Their web site includes: The World Trade Center 1993 bombing, the September 11, 2001 attack, and a revisiting of the Vietnam War.


Photo of Lynching of a WomanThe photo to the left and the description below were part of the musarium Without Sanctuary website. Most of the powerful photographs were accompanied by descriptions that both personalized the event and made the fundamental dehumanization of it more shattering.

Photo Description: Grief and a haunting unreality permeate this photo. The corpse of Laura Nelson retains an indissoluble femininity despite the horror inflicted upon it. Specterlike, she seems to float - thistledown light and implausibly still. For many African Americans, Oklahoma was a destination of hope, where they could prosper without the laws in southern states that codified racism and and repression. What was to be a promised land proved to be a great disillusionment.

District Judge Caruthers convened a grand jury in June 1911 to investigate the lynching of the Negro woman and her son. In his instructions to the jury, he said, "The people of the state have said by recently adopted constitutional provision that the race to which the unfortunate victims belonged should in large measure be divorced from participation in our political contests, because of their known racial inferiority and their dependent credulity, which very characteristic made them the mere tool of the designing and cunning. It is well known that I heartily concur in this constitutional provision of the people's will. The more then does the duty devolve upon us of a superior race and of greater intelligence to protect this weaker race from unjustifiable and lawless attacks."

Last Updated -01/02/2005

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