NOTE: I would like to apologize for the use of some archaic language and painfully explicit descriptions in what follows. Difficult as it is to read, I believe it helps highlight true horrors in our past that Americans must confront.
Even before the first protesters demanding justice for all took to the streets of cities across the United States, the quote haunted me. After Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by white vigilantes in Glynn County, Georgia and Breonna Taylor slaughtered by police in Louisville, the slaying of George Floyd by officers in Minneapolis followed with breathtaking speed. Inescapably, each of these senseless deaths, like countless more before them, could be attributed to a single consideration. These Americans were killed, as one observer lamented after a previous lynching, “for no offence but that of negritude.”
But that lament didn’t follow the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Texas or the massacre of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. No, that heartbreaking if odd-sounding declaration was uttered after a man was hung in Manhattan. In 1863. And it should haunt us 157 years later, precisely because Americans are still failing to honestly confront their 400-year-old national stain, a stain that is as unmistakable as black and white.
The setting for this particular horror story was the New York City “Draft Riots” of July 13 to 16, 1863. Even as newspapers were publishing the long casualty lists from the bloody Union victory in Gettysburg, conscription orders were circulating for new enlistees around the city. Aggravating matters was the $300 commutation fee allowing wealthy draftees to avoid military service, prompting protests of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” White workers furious over competition from the growing ranks of free blacks responded by unleashing hell on the city for four days. Before exhausted U.S. troops deployed by rail from Gettysburg put an end to the riots, an orphanage for black children was torched and some 120 people killed. On July 14, the famed New York lawyer and Civil War diarist George Templeton Strong recorded the fate of one of them:
“Many details come in of yesterday's brutal, cowardly ruffianism and plunder. Shops were cleared out and black man hanged in Carmine Street, for no offence but that of Negritude.” [Emphasis mine.]
But if that innocent man had in the eyes of the white rioters committed the capital crime of being black, what was the punishment they meted out? As the New York Times reported that same day, their unimaginable savagery defies comprehension: