The Lynching of Will Brown Part 3: A Golden Smile and The Great White Hopes

Note: this piece focuses on some of the national context surrounding the lynching of Will Brown in 1919 Omaha, with a particular focus on race and racism in early 20th century United States.  For an understanding of references made to the ‘Crystal Palace,’ please read The Lynching of Will Brown Part 2

On July 4th, 1910, Tina ‘Tiny’ Johnson was hoisted up over a crowd of ecstatic friends, family, and neighbors, and carried from a car into her house in South Chicago.  Immediately a crowd of thousands gathered on her lawn demanding she show herself once again.  They wanted to revel in glory together with her.

When she finally stepped out onto the porch roof, she held up a life sized poster of her son, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, in one hand, and a bouquet of flowers in the other.  She led the crowd in singing ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’ until her voice gave out, and then streamed tears of joy.  Many in the crowd wept with her.

Their very own golden son, Jack, had just proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was in fact the greatest boxer in the world, and that Black people can be not only equal in strength, talent, genius, and art, but can even surpass white people, something that flew against the prevailing worldview which placed humans into a racialized hierarchy with white people on top and Black people at the bottom.

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Johnson, famous for smiling and dancing masterfully while swinging his fists into his opponents’ faces with force and dexterity unmatched in the annals of boxing, had just won the biggest match the sport had yet seen – the battle between human races fought in front of 20,000 people in the sweltering heat of Reno, Nevada, and broadcast across the world over radio waves.  Immediately after winning, Jack Johnson bought everyone a round at the bar, sipped his cold beer, and refused to talk much about what had just transpired.  He simply said, “I want to be with my mammy.”

When Johnson got back home, the joy and celebration would rise even further.  Nearly every Black South Chicagoan came together for this special occasion, catching a sense of communal freedom and release, if only for a moment, through their hero, the intrepid pugilist who had just proved white society wrong once and for all in its quest to assert itself the superior race.  Black people around the world were sparked to dance and sing and cry in the streets, expressing their shared sense of joy.

But only minutes after Jack Johnson’s victory over the supposedly invincible white titan Jim Jeffries, something more sinister was also brewing.  The crowds of white people had been left stunned into silence.  What was supposed to have been an opportunity for them to finally take back what they thought was rightfully theirs, namely supremacy in all things, including (back then) athletics, had turned into a moment of fear and loathing.

Had the ‘Black beast’ (as they called him) gotten a lucky hit?  He must have.  Scientists had recently been ‘proving’ the superiority of the white race and the imperialist history of the past few hundred years had clearly indicated what the racial pecking order was.  Current Literature had just published an article titled, ‘The Psychology of the Prize Fight,’ in which Jeffries was predicted to win due to his naturally given white intellectual prowess over the savage Johnson.  Max Balthazar of the Omaha Daily News asked if Jeffries could beat Johnson and “restore to the Caucasians the crown of elemental greatness as measured by strength of blow, power of heart and being, and withal, that cunning or keenness that denotes mental as well as physical superiority.”

Johnson answered Balthazar’s question loudly and clearly, leaving crowds of drunken white people feeling deflated and terrified while Black folks paraded through the streets oozing pure joy and confidence.  White fragility was about to have its say on the matter.

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Only minutes after radio broadcasters announced Johnson’s triumph, violence broke out in cities across the nation, leaving thousands injured and dozens killed.  In one incident, a white man slit the throat of a Black man for cheering Johnson on.  In another, a white posse set a Black tenement on fire and then blocked the doors and windows.  These were full blown race riots throughout the nation, and they would not be the last.

Although the vast majority of reports indicate white mobs attacked and injured Black people (in many cases “the first n***er” they saw), the headlines often read in ways that implied Black people were to blame.  A typical story from July 5th, 1910, could read like a horror film with an invisible villain: “Henry Anderson, a negro, was killed and John Anderson, his father, died today from wounds.  An unidentified negro woman also died this morning, her tongue having been shot from her mouth, while shouting for Johnson.”

Who killed the Anderson men? And who shot this woman’s tongue out?  We aren’t told, even as headlines frequently spun the narrative in a way that conveniently flipped blame onto the victims, as was typical then and remains so to this day.

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While all these attacks were occurring, shortly after sipping his beer and speaking warmly of seeing of his mother, Johnson found himself being heckled by a group of white ruffians who challenged him to fight all of them at once.  Some even threatened to kill him, something he was used to, but which also startled a couple of detectives enough to ride along with him as far as back as Omaha on his train ride home from Reno to Chicago.

Upon returning home, he received still more threats, including from a man who was caught standing in his yard, staring at the house with two firearms.  When police asked why he was there with his weapons, he said he thought he “might need them” but did not specify for what.  Letters flowed in to Johnson’s home from fans as well as potential murderers, who provided a steady stream of anxiety for him and everyone in his inner circle.

Yet Johnson maintained his fearless public image through it all declaring:

“If and suppose… two small words, but nobody has ever been able to explain them. One man falls out of bed and is killed, another falls from a fifty foot scaffold and lives. One man gets shot in the leg and is killed, another gets a bullet in the brain and lives. I always take a chance on my pleasures.”

It would appear the corollary is also true, as he took pleasures in chance as well.

At the turn of the century even more than today, any Black person excelling professionally was enough to make a lot of white people uncomfortable at least, and homicidal at most.  Jack Johnson not only proved himself to be the greatest boxer in the world, but he did it without conforming to how white society would prefer him to be.  He stuck his tongue out at the unwritten laws of the day, making him even more of a target for hatred and violence than a Black champion would have already been.



Rather than speak with humility, he spoke supreme confidence, a trait commonly perceived as charm in white men, arrogance in Black men. Rather than live modestly, he bathed himself in absolute luxury, with the finest and flashiest clothes, jewelry, and cars.  He never pretended to care what white people, or anyone else for that matter, thought of him as he fought his way through all the boxers who were supposed to take him down.  Perhaps most shocking, in the simple minds of his detractors, is that through it all… he continued smiling.

He smiled in 1908 as he pummeled then world champion, Candadian Tommy Burns, prompting police to break up the fight early, lest white society be forced to witness the further desecration of their king on his throne atop the boxing empire.  Following this startling upset, white society desperately needed a ‘Great White Hope’ to finally wipe that damn smile off Johnson’s face. In 1910, they dumped all their hope, and cash, into Jeffries, who had been retired from boxing as the undisputed champion of the world and taken up farming in California.

Novelist and boxing enthusiast Jack London wrote, “Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you. The white Man must be rescued.”  The golden smile refers to Johnson’s gold teeth, which he proudly beamed at heckling white crowds as he made quick work of his opponents.  This smile perfectly summed up the image of Johnson as the unrepentant savage who doesn’t know his proper place. A Black man was only supposed to smile in subservience to whiteness as he carried white luggage or shined white shoes, not as he methodically took chunks out of the very fabric of the established racial order of the world.

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Johnson was also phenomenal at adding insult to injury.

Although he knew he had the massive Californian farmer right where he wanted him early in the match, he toyed with him for several rounds, to draw it out.  He was notorious for playing with his opponents the way a cat plays with a mouse, hoisting them back up as they fell, just to continue dancing around them, swinging his knuckles through their chins and into their eye sockets, talking his witty shit to throngs of white people as they called him every dehumanizing name they could muster, grinning his million dollar smile as he slowly robbed white men of their dignity in front their families, their women, the entire world.

In the 15th round of the Reno fight, a smiling, playful Johnson turned serious and decided to finally send his opponent packing.  Gracefully, he proceeded to knock the Great White Hope through the ropes, when Jeffries’ manager illegally pushed the dazed farmer back into the ring.  Jeffries’ people couldn’t help themselves, apparently. Within seconds, Johnson devastated him once again with a flurry of blows.  The crowd screamed for the referee to stop the match before Johnson could deliver the official knockout blows, and so the great battle of the races was ended early, in order to save the fragile white ego from further annihilation.

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But there was another reason the match was called early.  Back in 1910, the early film industry was booming and people were paying to watch boxing matches in silent movie theaters.  Footage of the fight would serve as documented evidence in the case against white supremacy, and that concept was so terrifying that a law was made to ban the transport of boxing films across state lines.  After the 4th of July riots, people were also scared the repeated showing of the fight would continue escalating racial violence and therefore needed to be snuffed out.  The movement to ban these films was so strong that even the industry executives who stood to profit from them publicly advocated a hands off, states rights approach to allow people to decide if they wanted to show them or not.

Many states banned the film, which will appear at a normal looking speed here if you click on the settings icon at the bottom of the video to the right of closed captioning and change the speed to 0.75:

As a whole, the fight itself and the film of it were viewed by white society not as an achievement for Black people, but as a devastating blow to white supremacy which, half a century after the Civil War, was still the assumed premise for the United States in both the North and the South.  In the zero sum game of racial power, any victory for Black people was viewed as a loss for white people.  The Omaha Daily News stated, “in spite of occasional lynchings in the south, the social adjustment between the white and black races was coming to a better status when along came the Jeffries-Johnson prize fight and put the conditions back at least forty years.”

Meanwhile, Johnson continued being himself, pushing the boundaries of accepted racial boundaries with every step he took.  As if beating white men senseless in front of the world with a gold-toothed smile wasn’t enough, he openly flaunted his taste for white women, which shot overall white sentiment about him into another dimension of hatred.


White women have historically represented purity, angelic innocence, the light of God and reason, even liberty itself, that most sacred of all American concepts.  Lady liberty or Columbia brings light to dark, freedom to bondage, knowledge to ignorance, truth to falsehood, righteousness to evil.


The narrative of Manifest Destiny, that European people are God’s chosen few, whose projects of conquest and empire are part of a divine plan to bring Jesus and civilization to the untamed parts of the world, was embodied in the image of a white woman floating over the expansion of white colonial settlers westward towards the California coast.  She is the mother of all that is right in the world, subservient only to God himself, guiding humanity to the very light that shone through the Crystal Palace to display all that Western civilization had achieved.


Black men, on the other hand, represented the worst of savagery, violence, and the darkness of ignorance and sin.  He lurked in the shadows like Satan himself, a beast whose power must be contained and controlled at all cost, lest civilization itself be crushed by the forces of evil.  The idea of a Black man bedding a white woman has long been the most terrifying of all racial fears, and any white woman who has slept with a Black man has been considered damaged goods, a once-clean, now-defiled fallen angel who has brought eternal shame upon her family’s good name.




In the supposedly zero sum game of procreation, even one Black man with a white woman threatened the entire framework upon which civilization had been built.  This sexual color line between races was enforced from both ends, although often for slightly different reasons.  Mixed race babies, or ‘mulatto’  as they were called then, would have widely been viewed as  a step down the racial ladder for a white family, and largely as a step up for a Black family, especially because some mixed race people could live their lives ‘passing’ as white, enjoying the freedoms and privileges their whiteness afforded them.  Both situations would have brought scorn from society as a whole, and for that reason ‘race mixing’ was harshly frowned upon.  The major difference between the power dynamics at play here were that white parents wanted to keep their children from ‘lowering’ the family genetic line, while Black parents wanted to keep their children from being murdered in the streets.

When Johnson brought his first white wife, Etta Duryea, home for Christmas for a family photo just months after his big win in Reno, Tiny looked none too pleased with the situation.  She knew the weight of the situation and what people might do to her son.  Everyone knew, they just worried about it for different reasons, and to different degrees.


But mother’s displeasure was the least of Johnson’s concerns.

When news of Johnson’s romances with numerous white women became public, white supremacists everywhere went into a frenzy.  People crowded into the streets and hung him in effigy, the athletic champion’s Black body having come to symbolize all that is savage and terrifying and corrupting, that was coming to rob the white woman of her virtue, the white man man of his dignity.  The savage beast had escaped its cage and was coming to destroy civilization itself.  Left unchecked, it would have its own barbaric way.  The time had come to fight back, to show the strength of whiteness over the forces of darkness, to put the beast back in chains where it belongs, to confine it to its cage once again.

The contrast between the life size image of Johnson in his mother’s hand as she sang and cried tears of joy communally with the Black people of South Chicago and the effigies of him that white people hung in the streets downtown demonstrate the range of confusion Black people have had to feel existing in a white supremacist society.  Their mothers have nursed them and loved them as humans, yet the larger society around them has elaborate systems in place to destroy their sense of humanity at every turn.


It would have been fine and well for Johnson to think of himself as a real man personally, so long as he didn’t act as such in front of the white gaze.  Behind closed doors, a Black man could think whatever he wanted of himself.  It was Johnson’s open refusal to act as if he were a mere beast, a spectacle designed to maximize its entertainment value for white eyes, that set white people into such a mad frenzy.  He could have even challenged white supremacy and acted as a heel for a time, for dramatic effect, but if he didn’t go down in the end, giving whiteness its hero status back in the narrative, then he must be destroyed.

And so whiteness went to work using its vast tentacles of power in the task of destroying Jack Johnson.

If he couldn’t be destroyed inside the ring, he would have to be dismantled outside of it.  First and foremost, the film footage of the fight had been censored.  That was just an image, like an effigy, and white society could control an image.  But with the living, breathing Johnson riding around in his expensive cars, flashing that smile with white women on his arm, something else had to be done.  There had to be a way to cage the actual beast, not just his image.

In 1910, the same year Johnson knocked out the ‘Great White Hope’ Jim Jeffries, the federal government passed the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for sex work or the decidedly vague “any other immoral purposes”.  While the aim of the bill was partially well intended, aiming at saving underage girls from being trafficked into what was called ‘white slavery,’ there was also a racist angle to it, since a lot of the criminal underworld was associated with night clubs where jazz music was performed and ladies of the night mingled with men of all races ready to gamble, drink, and pay for sex.


Because poverty and crime have always been intimately connected, and centuries of systemic racism has ensured a disproportionate number of Black people will be living in poverty, the criminal underworld was always associated with Blackness.  Jazz music served as the soundtrack to the seedy narratives that played out in red light districts across the nation, where men made and lost fortunes, where addiction and abuse was rampant, and disease spread from the streets into the homes of ‘respectable people.’

White society was terrified that its young women would be lured into this world of sin by the intoxicating music, drugs, and Black men who frequented these nightclubs.  In this setting, evil itself was thought to be festering on any given night, just a short drive away from nice homes where good, God-fearing white parents raised their children – where fathers watched over their angelic daughters and made sure to steer them on the path of righteousness, the path of light, the path of pure Christian whiteness.


In line with the modernist notion of progress at the center of the Crystal Palace, social scientists set out to study the inner workings of this underworld in order to find solutions, in order to take the 2+2=5 of vice and turn it into the 2+2=4 of an orderly society where crime and disease were things people only read about in history books.  In order to put theory to practice, local, state, and federal agencies were established.  The seeds of the FBI were thus planted with the stated aim of protecting women from coerced sex work, but which in practice also policed women’s sexuality, as not all sex work is coerced.  None of the studies or policies of this time placed focus on the johns, whose demand for sexual services paved the way for entire industries to thrive in red light districts.

When it came time to hammer Johnson with something, police attempted to use his own wife against him, although by this time he was with his second wife, Lucille Cameron.  Etta Duryea had shot herself in the apartment they shared above Johnson’s newly established Cafe de Champion, much to the delight of moral crusaders who preached that white women in the arms of Black men led to certain doom.  When Cameron’s mother came to police claiming Johnson had kidnapped her daughter, police pounced.  She told the press,”Jack Johnson has hypnotic powers, and he has exercised them on my little girl. I would rather see my daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of a n****r.”  But when police tried to get Lucille to turn against the man she loved, she refused.

Then an anonymous tip led investigators to Belle Schreiber, a sex worker whom Johnson had favored years earlier.   She and a chauffeur testified that Johnson had transported her across state lines and had sex with her.  Although Schreiber had been (barely) of age and consenting, she had become angry with Johnson, and played ball with authorities as they used the vague language of the Mann Act to hit the world champion athlete with charges.


White Americans shrieked with joy.

Sandy Griswold of the Omaha World Herald wrote, “the wire brought the glad tidings last evening that at last a white hope had succeeded in landing a knockout wallop on Jack Johnson. His name is Uncle Sam and he not only knocked the big black blackguard out, but knocked him in also into the pen, and it is to be hoped for the limit – ten years.”

Johnson skipped out to Europe and later Mexico for several years, before eventually returning to serve a year in prison, his debt to society for being a Black man who slept with white women.  This would be as close as white American society would get to doing to the real man what they did to his effigy.


In the meantime, while many states banned the film of Johnson systematically dismantling the Great White Hope, another film was in the works – one that would revolutionize cinema and become the first feature length Hollywood blockbuster that everyone simply had to see, and the first film to be screened in the White House for the president himself.

In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ reversed the narrative told in the Johnson vs Jeffries film.  This time, instead of being forced to watch the villainous Black beast win the day, white audiences would watch in elaborate detail as the Black beast threatens white womanhood and civilization itself, then be treated to a Great White Hope that comes along and vanquishes the beast at long last, providing the emotional release white folks had felt entitled to, and deprived of, five years prior which resulted in widespread anti-Black violence and murder.

The film depicts an ugly picture of Reconstruction, with newly emancipated Black people in the South acting like savages destroying white civilization, most notably by kidnapping and assaulting white women.  Upon being released from the chains of enslavement, Black men were coming to put white women in chains, in order to defile them.  In one particularly absurd scene, a lily white angel is chased right off a cliff by a Black man.  Of course, the film makers didn’t hire Black actors, opting to put white actors in Blackface instead.  




In the final scene, as the armed Black savages close in on a group of white folks holed up in a cabin, the representatives of Great White Hope are rushing to save the day on horseback.  Will they make it in time?  At the last second, the white saviors finally burst onto the scene, overpower the Black savages, and save the poor white victims.  As if to put a white supremacist cherry on top of this groundbreaking and grotesque film, its protagonists are none other than the Ku Klux Klan.



While the premise might seem ridiculous to us today, it became fairly mainstream in white American society at the time.  And while white Christian terrorist groups like the KKK are often spoken of as isolated pockets of extremists who have more bark than bite and whose impact is often overstated, they had millions of members who signed up to actually be officially linked to the Klan, and that doesn’t count the other millions who might not have signed up, but who supported their ideas.  The millions of official Klan members were the tip of the spear, while the shaft stretched throughout much nation, including through institutions of real power and influence. 

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Edward Douglass White, a former member of the Klan himself, persuaded the entirety of the Supreme Court to see the film.  These were some of the most powerful people in the nation, together in a room watching white Christian supremacist propaganda films, and discussing its merits as real history. 

Thomas Dixon Jr., who wrote the book upon which the movie was based, said, “the real purpose of my film was to revolutionize Northern sentiments” and in a letter to Woodrow Wilson, wrote, “this play is transforming the entire population of the North and the West into sympathetic Southern voters. There will never be an issue of your segregation policy.”  When the film was screened in the White House, President Wilson surely enjoyed seeing himself quoted in one of the intertitles:


The narrative presented in the film was given credibility not only from President Wilson and the Supreme Court, but also from prominent historians such as Claude Bowers, whose work including the 1929 book The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln was favorited by Franklin Roosevelt, who would go on to oversee the repulsive imprisonment of Japanese civilians during World War II.  Bowers was keynote speaker at the 1928 Democratic National Convention and went on to serve as ambassador to Spain and Chile, an influential voice in FDR’s ear and a powerful voice in the telling of American history generally.  By placing the narrative told in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ into actual history books, Dixon’s racist propaganda thus came to be embedded into the official national psyche.


Dixon’s propaganda worked quickly.  During the scene where a Black man chases a white woman off a cliff, one man took out his gun and shot at the screen, feeling the urge to protect her.  This blurring of fiction and reality fanned long burning flames across the nation, providing fertile ground for whiteness to organize itself into a concerted effort to cage the Black beast, as the KKK did in the film, in order to free white women and white civilization itself from the bondage of sinful Black savagery.





Only months after the film was released, failed Methodist Minister William Joseph Simmons and a group of other bitter white men were inspired to walk to the top of Stone Mountain in the middle of Georgia and declare the revival of the long-defunct Ku Klux Klan, which had risen and fallen through the Reconstruction era.  Inspired by fraternal organizations and The Birth of a Nation, they dressed themselves in white robes and dunce caps, opened a bible and set a cross on fire, marking the first official cross burning ceremony and the official rebirth of the KKK, which Simmons hoped to make bigger and better than ever.

The white robes and cross burning ceremony were not a part of the original Ku Klux Klan – Simmons lifted those ideas directly from ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ where they first appeared.  Movie executives had hired men to dress up in the Klan’s white robes and ride on horseback at movie theaters as a promotional tool.   Again, fiction and reality blurred together, from film to real life.



If Jack Johnson represented the Black savage coming to defile white civilization and liberty herself, the Klan represented the Great White Hope that Jim Jeffries was not.  Whiteness would no longer have to see its potency diminished by a virile, dancing Black man flashing his golden teeth.  Now, dashing white Christian terrorists on horseback would save America by putting the Black beast back into the cage where it belonged.

At the same time, the narrative of clean, sparkling human progress in the Crystal Palace had been defiled by the insanity of World War 1.  If the story of humanity is one of progress, then how and why did it feel like everything was in ruins?  If we were supposed to have mapped out the path towards utopia, where human flourishing would be activated as simply as solving 2 + 2 = 4, then why did the calculator of history keep giving us 2 + 2 = 5?

The fear and confusion of war would not end when the bullets stopped flying, and whiteness would not immediately blame its own institutions for causing that confusion.  Upon returning home to a confused nation, white American soldiers joined the frenzied white masses to find their scapegoat in Blackness. White America then unleashed all the power and fury of the Klan, the tip of the spear, with much of the rest of white society as the shaft, to stab the Black beast into submission.  In their minds, the body of the Black man needed to be taught a lesson, and so they would have their way, finally, in carrying out their terrorist educational mission.

The image of the Black body Tiny Johnson held in her hand, which evoked so much pure communal joy to the Black people of South Chicago, which represented the hopes and dreams of a better world for Black people, also represented all that was wrong in the world in the minds of those white people wielding the keys to power.  After 1915, these white people had a film to assure them they were correct about the nature of the problem, and to sell them a solution in the form of white Christian terrorism.

Meanwhile, in Omaha, a cold and calculating mob boss was watching it all, and light bulbs were going off in his head.  He knew how he could silence his many critics once and for all.  The Omaha air was thick with tension, so all he had to do was push a few buttons to make it explode into madness.  Then the people of Omaha would realize they need him once again, to make things make sense once again…





The Lynching of Will Brown Part 2: The Crystal Palace, Eagles, and Organ Stops

Note:  This piece focuses on the international context surrounding the lynching of Will Brown in 1919 Omaha.  Themes explored here will appear in subsequent pieces.  For the introduction to this series, please read The Lynching of Will Brown Part 1

Iolaire (1)On New Years Eve 1918, nine months before a white mob would descend into madness in Omaha, a mass of young men crowded onto HMY Iolaire on the Scottish mainland.  Boisterous yet tired from years of war, they were headed for the northern port of Stornaway, Isle of Lewis, ready to once again embrace their families and friends, their lovers, the soil on which they and their ancestors had formed.

That night almost 300 men, mostly from the Royal Naval Reserve, cozied up on a boat designed for no more than 100, with two life boats and 80 life jackets.  Any fear left over from the Titanic disaster just four years earlier must have been washed away by the storms of World War 1.  These men had just lived through hell, so who would tell them to wait for another boat, another day, when home was so close and the New Year was right now?

Not two months earlier, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the crackling shots and explosions of World War 1 had come to radio silence.  The gears of war had stopped churning at last, and morale was through the roof.  Like other war survivors, the men on Iolaire envisioned hugging their parents and siblings, kissing their nieces and nephews on their cheeks, gorging on their mothers’ home cooking for the first time in years.  They dreamed of sitting around fires, sipping beer and cracking jokes, sharing a story or two from their time serving in the War to End All Wars.  Some had engagement rings.

Soldiers returning home after the war.  This is not the Iolaire
Soldiers returning

Families on the Isle of Lewis also anticipated glowing embraces and hearty reunion feasts, preparing for the occasion days in advance with decorations, warm beds, and clean clothes in the wait.  Like magic, the faces in the pictures they had stared at longingly, with such adoration and worry, would spring to life again before their eyes in an instant.

The boat, like the men it housed, had been displaced by the deadliest, most brutal conflict history had ever seen.  Originally built as a luxury yacht, the Iolaire (Scottish Gaelic for eagle) had served the Allied Powers well on submarine patrol, and now stood to transport hundreds of war-weary souls home at last, their final deployment.  Following years of carnage, boredom, and uncertainty, the men could finally be at ease.  Surely they would have found ways to turn the yacht from a vessel of war into more of a carnival cruise, it being New Years Eve and their ticket home.  Spirits would have been high and spirits would have been consumed, all in great relief over the prospect of starting their real lives, their peacetime lives in the Lewis countryside.


At roughly 2 am, lolaire cut through choppy waves generated from gale force winds in the pitch black night – mother nature was not smiling on these mens’ triumphant return home.  As the yacht made its approach into the port, it failed to slow down as it should have, officers likely miscalculating in the surging storm winds or the fog of whiskey, or both.  With lights from the port in sight, the ship smashed into a jagged rock formation called Biastan Thuilm, or ‘The Beasts of Holm,’ and began taking in water, tilting over just 20 yards from the rocky shore.

Of the roughly 300 men on board, about a quarter of them survived.

Some were rescued when a man swam towards shore with a rope in his hand and was lucky enough to wash up at a spot where he could latch onto firmly, providing an escape line from water to shore.  Another man clung to a mast all through the night, which stood barely perched above water, weathering the surging waves and violent gusts of wind for hour after hour.

Most weren’t so lucky.

As the bodies washed ashore that morning, families grieved.  One mother cleaned sand out of her son’s hair.  His face was blackened from being smashed against rocks as the water rolled him towards shore, then dragged him away again, repeatedly.  His fingernails had also been broken off, indicating he had tried with all his 27 year old might to reach onto a rock that he might use to escape the endlessly forceful waves.  A father reached into his son’s jacket to pull out the letter he had sent to his son just months earlier.

For these families, the only warm reconnection they would have with their loved ones would be through their tears spilling onto the ice cold bodies that had been laughing only hours before.  Young men who had survived the entirety of World War 1 died on their glorious ride home, drowned 20 yards from their beloved land.

The Iolaire disaster is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the horror the world experienced through World War 1.  The ‘war to end all wars,’ which was supposed to wrap up and be ‘over by Christmas,’ as was the popular phrase in August 1915, ended up dragging out for year after year, producing a scale of mass human slaughter previously unimaginable.  What was supposed to have been a quick prick to deliver the medicine of a great victory for humanity ended in years of physical and psychological torture.  What was supposed to have been a short, simple ride home on a nice yacht ended in much the same way in Scotland in the first hours of 1919.

Iolaire Wreckage


The trauma from the war and the maritime disaster wreaked havoc on the people of Isle Lewis for generations, and is still felt to this day, 100 years later.   On a broader scale, it’s difficult to overstate how heavy the psychological toll of the war was on the world at large.

At the outset of war, after two centuries of rapid technological advancement, urbanization, scientific breakthroughs, and life expectancy on the rise, there was a sense that Enlightenment ideals were becoming realistic, that the human story is one of progress.  This modernist concept of human advancement past our medieval, primitive past was put on display through a series of ‘world’s fairs’ or ‘international expositions’ that continue to this day.

The first truly international fair was the 1851 ‘Great Exposition’ held in London, where the newest and greatest in human achievement was put on full display, including the latest art, architecture, science, technology, and industry.  Prince Albert wanted the fair to provide a “living picture of the point of development at which mankind has arrived, and a new starting point from which all nations will be able to direct their future exertions.”

The crowning achievement of the fair was the ‘Crystal Palace’ that housed the event.  Neither a palace nor made of crystal, the massive structure with 900,000 square feet of glass plates served as a metaphor for the enlightenment of humankind – the taming of nature, of savagery, of oppressive ignorance that stifled our evolution.  The gargantuan structure boasted nearly a million square feet of floor and was six times larger than St. Paul’s cathedral on the other side of the Thames.  St. Paul’s took 35 years to construct, while the Crystal Palace was finished in just five months.


News of this architectural feat and of the fair itself traveled far and wide.  In just five months, six million visitors from around the world strolled through it.  Over the next hundred years, almost one hundred world fair exhibitions would be held around the world, all built with the same intentions: to showcase humanity’s triumph over nature, the marvels of capitalism, white Christian Anglo-Saxon demi-divinity and evolutionary superiority, and the final stretch towards perfecting life through rational means.



Inside the doors of the Crystal Palace, sunlight penetrated glass and split into various directions, showering light down upon the signifiers of human progress so vividly embodied in objects like expertly crafted daguerreotypes, the world’s first fax machine, and the largest diamond then known on earth, Koh-i-Noor, stolen from the heart of India by British colonial settlers and displayed as a trophy of the empire.



The Crystal Palace also served as an intellectual prism, sending thinkers scattering into different ideological interpretations of what it meant.

To Prince Albert, the exhibition was an example of economic globalism bringing people from around the world together in harmony.  Quite an interesting take for a man who exercised near complete economic and military dominion over India, which already had a population of 200 million by 1851.  In a quote which accurately foreshadows Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ but doesn’t quite anticipate the coming Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Albert states:

“Nobody who has paid any attention to the peculiar features of the present era will doubt for a moment that we are living at a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end, to which, indeed, all history points—the realization of the unity of mankind… The distances which separate the different nations and parts of the globe are rapidly vanishing before the achievements of modern invention… So man is approaching a more complete fulfillment of that great and sacred mission he has to perform in this world…”

When the Great Exposition ended, the building was re-imagined and re-designed into a museum depicting the history of humanity going back to the earliest agricultural civilizations, and moved to another nearby location.

Russian socialist-utopia writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky marveled at the new Crystal Palace in an essay and later in his famous novel, ‘What Is To Be Done,’ where the protagonist dreams of an idealized future in which everyone lives in glass homes similar to the palace and share things communally, in the loving embrace of the eternal truths revealed by the Enlightenment.  He viewed the Crystal Palace as a great equalizer, a place where the lines between bourgeoisie and proletariat could be blurred, where humans of all stripes live their lives in tranquil peace and equality.


Directly influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution, Chernyshevsky was a true believer that in finding the workings of nature and living in accordance to reason, humans will rationally evolve into a society where work and leisure are intertwined into perfect harmony.  The Crystal Palace represented the culmination of humanity’s final goals, which are to figure out the puzzles of life through scientific and mathematical formulas, such as the ones used to design such an elegant yet massive iron and glass structure in such a short period of time.

The conservative-slavophile Fyodor Dostoevsky, on the other hand, was disgusted with everything the palace represented.  In his novella ‘Notes From Underground,’ the protagonist, the Underground Man, lives beneath and outside of society.  He observes society as a fly on the wall, one who never fits in precisely due to the fact that he understands so much clearer what the masses fail to even begin to grasp.  In his view, humans can’t be reduced to rational creatures, and will go to great lengths in order to continue being irrational.

When we are expected to say 2 + 2 = 4, we still might say 2 + 2 = 5 just to assert our freedom to do so.  When acting rationally is acting in our own self interest, and human behavior is mapped out for all our needs to be met, humans will act against our own self interests (poor white Republicans?) just to make a statement to the universe, that we are free to do so if we choose.  If humanity is reduced to formulas, he sees true free will as being undermined, making everything predictable and humans reduced to mere ants or bees in a hive.  He asks, “for what is man without desires, without free will, and without the power of choice but a stop in an organ pipe?”


The idea of humankind finding their final stage, in which all behavior has been mapped out, fitting into rational scientific and mathematical formulas, is terrifying to the Underground Man.  He points out that the cult of reason in France led to the Napoleanic Wars, which were no less insanely brutal than those of Attila the Hun.  The Crystal Palace is therefore both a triumphant finality to the human experiment, and the death of real life itself, which lies not in goals attained, but the process of attaining:

And who knows … perhaps the whole aim mankind is striving to achieve on earth
merely lies in this incessant process of achievement, or (to put it differently) in life
itself, and not really in the attainment of any goal, which, needless to say, can be
nothing else but twice-two-makes-four, that is to say, a formula; but twice-two-makes four is not life, gentlemen. It is the beginning of death.

While Dostoevsky was writing his novel, death ran rampant in the U.S. as the Union and Confederacy engaged in attrition warfare.  Many technological advances saw their start during this conflict, including those which would make World War 1 so exceptionally devastating.  Early submarines, torpedoes, mines, metal-plated warships, observation balloons, machine guns, and the railroad all saw their debuts in warfare.

Richard Gatling claims he was inspired to invent his early machine gun, patented in 1862, by a desire to make what was then modern warfare less deadly.  He thought if a few men with a few of his weapons could do the job of an entire army, it would reduce the number of casualties drastically at least, and make modern warfare obsolete at most.  Perhaps men would stop their endless cycle of war if they each held a weapon capable of killing so many so efficiently.  He called his patent, “Improvement in revolving battery-guns.”


Here, the idea of modernity is perhaps at its most absurd and profound.  In hindsight, we know the machine gun only served to intensify the scale of carnage in warfare.  Gatling’s vision of more efficient weapons leading to peace could also be seen as a precursor to the nuclear age, which Oppenheimer predicted would result in an era of peace through the concept of mutually assured destruction – no nuclear power will actually hit the red button because they know it would result in the destruction of great swaths of civilization, including their own, when the other side hits their red button in response.  The prediction rang true in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the nuclear age is still young.  There will be many more chances for humanity to stick out its tongue and declare 2 + 2 = 5.

Gatling’s gun and its variants saw very little actual use in the Civil War, instead finding itself on the giving end of imperialist ventures such as the Indian Wars, in which the U.S. government annihilated Native American warriors and civilians alike, and in the Zulu Wars, in which the British project spread itself though Africa.  At the Battle of Gingindlovu, the British were outnumbered 5,670 to over 11,000 but had two Gatling guns.  Suffering only 11 dead, the British mowed 1,000 Zulu warriors down.


It’s hard to think of these moments in history as actual wars, rather than exercises in cultural genocide.  People debate which events meet the definition of genocide, but there is no doubt that what the European settler colonialists did to Indigenous peoples around the world was always, at the very least, a form of cultural genocide explicitly intended to destroy entire ways of life that didn’t fit into the narrative presented at the Crystal Palace.



Imperialism ran through the fabric of the Crystal Palace and every other international exposition that followed it.  Implicit in the narrative was the religious concept of manifest destiny as well as the growing field of scientific racism, in which European pseudoscientists placed humans into a racial hierarchy based on Darwinian principles.

How would the British explain how and why it is their army can mow down 1,000 African warriors as easily as spreading butter over toast?  How would European Americans explain away their genocidal actions spreading west to California, breaking every treaty they signed promising some level of decency?  How would they explain away their mass scale  enslavement of African people, and subsequent racist apartheid state?  The answer was to create the racial hierarchy, placing white people on top, Black people on the bottom, and everyone else somewhere in between.




In this sense, the whitening of humanity could be viewed along the same lines as the industrial and artistic ‘progress’ displayed at the Great Fair.  Having mapped out racial evolution as a straight line towards whiteness, racial ‘hygiene’ could allow for people of color to more closely align themselves with whiteness, and therefore with the progress and evolution of humanity as a whole.

Scientists of the day pushed the racial hierarchy in books and lecture halls, but people could witness dehumanization in real time with ‘human zoo’ exhibits at P.T. Barnum’s circus.  Pygmy people from Africa were advertised as the ‘missing link’ between ape and human, and white people flocked to see them.  One of them, named Ota Benga, lived his life in the Brooklyn Zoo, where he was displayed with primates.





World fairs couldn’t help but dip their hands into this honeypot as well.  Fair organizers put together ‘living exhibits’ of human beings from exotic colonies such as the Philippines, where darker skinned people were supposed to have been grateful for the opportunity to be colonized by whiteness, thus giving them the chance to latch on to the progress of humanity and ride its coat tail to the heights of rational harmony so praised by Chernyshevsky and loathed by Dostoevsky.  With these ‘living exhibits,’ whiteness could pat itself on the back for doing the heavy work of civilizing the untamed savages while simultaneously ogling at them from a civilized perch, close enough to touch, yet safe within the confines of the exhibit.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ summed up the attitude best – it is difficult work, forcing people in these wild parts of the world to give up their resources, convert to Christianity, cut their hair, and ‘get a real job’ like servicing white peoples’ every whim.  It’s a dirty job, cleaning up all the savages of the world, but somebody has to do it.

Judge cartoon


In the case of the United States, it was Alaska, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines that had recently been taken into the fold of American empire.  In keeping with the human zoo or living exhibition tradition, Filipino villages were set up where visitors could take a simulated tour through one of the newly acquired territories, watching Indigenous people prepare food and crafts in their primitive ways.  Through this tour, whiteness was able to position itself apart from and over the cultures and peoples it had taken under its powerful wings, the eagle both shielding them from other, apparently nefarious, white Christian nations such as Spain, and lifting them to the heights of Western civilization through the kindness of its heart.


Overseeing much of the colonial process for the United States, President William McKinley delivered imperialist speeches underneath the eagle, surrounded by nationalist pageantry with flags, parades, and bands, all pumped with military gusto from the newest major player on the world stage, the United States.


McKinley guided the U.S. into the new century under imperialistic dreams.  During a speech at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, he laid out his claims quite clearly:

To the Commissioners of the Dominion of Canada and the British colonies, the French colonies, the republics of Mexico and Central and South America and the commissioners of Cuba and Puerto Rico, who share with us in this undertaking, we give the hand of fellowship and felicitate with them upon the triumphs of art, science, education and manufacture which the old has bequeathed to the new century. Expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They record the world’s advancement. They stimulate the energy, enterprise and intellect of the people and quicken human genius. They go into the home. They broaden and brighten the daily life of the people. They open mighty storehouses of information to the student. Every exposition, great or small, has helped to some onward step. Comparison of ideas is always educational, and as such instruct the brain and hand of man.

The next day, against the advice of his personal secretary, he appeared at the Temple of Music building for a public meet and greet, where visitors would file in one by one and shake hands with the president, who actually enjoyed that aspect of his job.  He reportedly said, “No one would wish to hurt me.”  Extra security was added, including a dozen artillerymen who only ended up blocking the view of the Secret Service.  An American flag was draped behind him.

As the doors opened for the crowd, one of the largest pipe organs ever assembled blasted out ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’  Within that mass was a young man who must have felt like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who felt like an organ stop that needed to express its freedom to the universe, an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz.  In his right hand he concealed a .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver.  As he approached the president, he squeezed the trigger twice aiming into McKinley’s abdomen.  The president fell backwards, caught by his confidants, and immediately ordered the crowd beating on the assassin to go easy on him, then gave instructions on how to break the news to his wife.  McKinley died a week later of gangrene in the lining of his stomach caused by the bullet.


Although the Pan-American Exposition itself was famously lit like Disneyland by incandescent light, the emergency room where the president was taken lacked such technology.  In a mad rush to show off progress, President McKinley and American society had failed to take basic safety precautions into consideration.  Even though a new invention called an x ray machine was being shown off at the exposition, and could have been used to locate the bullet causing the president’s body to swell with toxins, nobody thought to use it.  Doctors told everyone he would make a full recovery, so even then Vice President Roosevelt took off, assuming things would be fine.



The hubris of empire was thus on full display.  All the illumination of human reason could not provide the common sense application that would have saved the president’s life.

It was then, perhaps, fitting that the incident which sent the rational actors of white Anglo-Saxon imperial powers spiraling into the absolute chaos and depravity of World War 1 was sparked by another young anarchist who shot at close range a nationalist leader wearing green peacock feathers, parading around in an open vehicle in an area of his empire where the people despised him.  Archduke Franz Ferdinand represented the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, which Slavic peoples felt was oppressive and keeping them from their own national autonomy.  He wore this goddamned clownish hat in his visit to Sarajevo, a Slavic stronghold.



When World War 1 began, the hubris didn’t stop.  It was declared the ‘war to end all war’ and people cheered in ecstasy as they mobilized for a war they said was sure to be over by Christmas.  A war where young men would once again go to earn glory on the battlefield.  All the rationality and scientific measurement of the European imperialist powers had become so bottled up that it had to burst at the seems, spilling out through streams of blood and guts spread across hellscapes where shivering louse-infested men drank water from where bodies of their friends soaked, mixed with urine and feces of men and rats.  Where men lost their minds and shook uncontrollably enduring blast after blast after blast, day after day, week after week, in order to take a section of land the size of a football field, only to have it then taken back from them the next month by other crazed zombie-like shells of men.




During the war, 125,000 men trained for war within the walls of the Crystal Palace, dubbed HMS Victory VI by the Royal Navy.  Among the men who trained there were the men of the Iolaire.  The massive steel and glass prism of reason took bright eyed young men from Scotland into its walls, broke them down and built them up into nationalistic warriors, fighting for rivalries and alliances between men they would never know, made over colonies they would never see, and sent them off to witness the calamity of war.  Those same men, many of whom had survived the madness of the trenches, torpedo hits from enemy submarines, and the loss of their brothers before their eyes, ended up drowning 20 yards from their homeland, fighting for their lives as the waves bashed them against the same rocks they so eagerly anticipated.

Although Gatling had died in 1903 and his gun had become obsolete by World War 1, the hope that his machine would make modern warfare obsolete came true – although in the opposite form he had hoped for.  The machine gun became the signature weapon of trench warfare, and instead of sending less men into war because of how deadly it was, leaders of nations sent *more* men into the grinder and allowed them to be mowed down for years on end.  Gone were the days of two armies meeting in a battlefield, walking towards each other until they were close enough to stab one another, and then one side retreating after losing more of its men than the other side.  Battle used to be considered glorious because there was more of a sport to it.  Gatling’s vision brought an end to that era.

The technological seeds planted during the age of the Crystal Palace had finally sprouted into full bloom, and their power was inconceivable to those who planned and fought in the war.  Nobody could have predicted how the unleashed killing power of machine guns would end up putting armies into tactical stalemates and placing men into the position of animals, burrowing into the ground, perhaps reading Dostoevsky as the shells crashed around them, wondering along with the Underground Man how any of the madness of the war could be considered sane at any level, let alone rational.


The idea that warfare was somehow romantic and heroic was switched upside down with this new kind of conflict.  There is no way to paint the muddy, barren, shelled-out fields of no man’s land, littered with barbed wire and corpses, in a way that has a positive spin.

German machine gunner and modernist painter Otto Dix took breaks from mowing human beings down like insects to sketch and write in his journal.  After the war, he painted in a way that was simultaneously surreal and hyper-real.  Of the war, he said:

I had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it. I’m therefore not a pacifist at all – or am I? Perhaps I was an inquisitive person. I had to see all that for myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself; it’s for that reason that I went to war, and for that reason I volunteered. 

After World War 1 and artists like Dix, the romanticized version of warfare would no longer monopolize the collective psyche of the world.



Trench Warfare


Following the war, the Crystal Palace became the Imperial War Museum, where it displayed the machines of war behind a flood of nationalistic pomp.  It had gone full circle from the prism of reason and human potential for creating peace and harmony between nations, to a graveyard of machines that served as the meat grinders of millions of young men who willingly threw themselves into them, under the impression they were contributing to a better, more peaceful world – Chernyshevsky’s dream of the future also flipped upside down.

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Also at the end of the war, just a couple weeks after the Iolaire sank in the waters of Scotland, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson attended the Paris Peace Conference where the future of Europe and much of the world would be decided.  At this major crossroads of world powers, he continued the dream envisioned in the original Crystal Palace, trying desperately to solidify his post-war legacy by laying the foundations of the League of Nations.  The Wilsonian worldview advocates for global interventionism, the spread of capitalism, the spread of democracy, and the self-determination of all peoples.

Yet as the Declaration of Independence stated the ideal that all men are created equal but only referred to white men, Wilson’s concept of self-determination did not extend to anyone who was not white.  Young Ho Chi Minh, who had studied American history and admired Wilson, approached the gangly white supremacist in Paris and proposed to him that the French should leave Indochina, and allow the Vietnamese people self-autonomy.  He was promptly ignored.



Although Wilson correctly joined British economist John Maynard Keynes in opposing the harsh reparations imposed onto Germany, for fear of future troubles in Europe, he also signed the Treaty of Versailles -the U.S. Senate did not ratify it.  He then went home to a turbulent domestic picture, where the same white supremacist arrogance that caused him to ignore Ho Chi Minh would cause him to ignore the gunshots of race riots outside his bedroom window.

A few decades after the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for fascist clowns to take power in Germany, Otto Dix’s paintings went on to become part of the largest art gallery showing in history, when the Nazis placed it in with other ‘entartete kunst’ or ‘degenerate art’ for the German people to jeer at, before they hid or destroyed much of it.  Avant garde arts and music, especially jazz, were considered inferior stains on the human record, viruses that must be wiped out if humanity is to reach its peak potential.

Along with the burning of countless books, the Nazi regime destroyed priceless works of art that was bold enough to be free, to stick its tongue out, to say 2 + 2 = 5.





In 1936, the same year the Nazi hordes fooled much of the world by hosting the Olympic Games in Berlin, putting on a massive theater production that signified strength through peace and racial tolerance, the Crystal Palace went down in flames.  A random fire had started in a storage room, and the fire department could not save the beloved structure from the power of the flame, that ancient, jumpy, seemingly aimless and irrational force that can turn anything it wants into dust.

Winston Churchill, viewing the inferno, said it was the “end of an era.”  He was correct in more ways than one.  As the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression set the stage for yet another, even worse world war, the idealism present in the Crystal Palace and other international expositions would no longer be so widely accepted in its naive, child-like form.

If the Crystal Palace represented the final culmination in human achievement, its destruction in flames represented the hubris we had to ever entertain such a notion in the first place.



The luxury yacht Iolaire, like the Crystal Palace that had housed the same men, could not withstand the random, senseless forces of nature.  The sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic should have been enough warning for these boys to avoid boarding a ship without enough life boats and safety jackets, but World War 1 had beaten their rationality out of them.

It was New Years, the war was finally over, and they had families to get home to.  2 + 2 = 5 if we say so, tonight at least.  Sure the Titanic sunk in dark frozen waters, but if we have enough booze on hand to stick our tongues out at the ocean tonight, then that’s what we’ll do. 

As they broke their fingernails grabbing onto the jagged rocks, their faces being smashed into the cold sharp earth and pulled back out into the ocean once more, over and over again, the stars gazed down in absolute indifference.  There is no rationality to that, only calm, ancient indifference from the cosmos.



And so it is that the year 1919 began, at least for an island of people in Northern Scotland.  What does any of this have to do with the lynching of Will Brown, you might ask?  When I say all things are connected, and that is where the beauty lies, I mean all things.  We have spent this piece zoomed out on an international scale, so the next piece will zoom in to the national and local scale context of the horror that occurred in the streets of Omaha in September of 1919.

will brown







The Lynching of Will Brown Part 1: Voices in the Trees

(Warning: Extreme anti-Black violence)

Every time my 9 year old son and I drive to the Missouri river, we pass the grave of Will Brown.

Every day on my commute to and from school, I drive past the grave of Will Brown.

Although he no longer speaks in the physical sense, I hear him every time I drive by.

He speaks softly of his life and of his loves, the music he wishes he could share with my high school students, the stories he could tell them, and underneath it all, he wails in anguish.

His body has been cut to pieces, his entrails spilled onto the cement in front of the courthouse downtown, in front of the cops and in front of the mayor, in front of the city of Omaha.  His arms and legs have been hacked off, pieces of his charred torso scattered across the city, dragged behind a car for hours in a whiskey-soaked orgy of whiteness that took its rage out onto this body of Will Brown, this now burnt vessel of anti-Black rage.


The body lies in a common grave somewhere under the hill at Potter’s Field, buried along with thousands of nameless souls who lacked means to pay for a proper burial.  The pauper’s graveyard sits adjacent to and separated from the granite mausoleums of a sprawling, expertly crafted set of curves and slopes at Forest Lawn Cemetery in North Omaha.

Here, the nameless dead physically sit in the shadows of master crafted architecture bearing names that money, power, and influence have insured will be remembered for centuries to come.



Potter’s Field, adjacent to Forest Lawn, with a few basic stone memorials and graves set up in the 1980s, a century after the first bodies were buried there




Forest Lawn, Nebraska’s Most Beautiful Cemetery, vast and full of marvelous stone work

The name Potter’s Field itself is almost nameless, a generic term historically used for any old proletariat grave site.  It stems from the Bible.  When Judas took 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus, he fell into despair over the guilt he felt after hearing Jesus would be executed.  In the book of Matthew, he returns the money to the high priests, who call it blood money and refuse to use it for the church.  Judas hangs himself and the priests use the silver to buy a field with red clay soil, used by potters for their ceramics.  The priests then use the field to bury unknown bodies, as well as those of criminals and the poor.

(What does it say about a society, when we so breezily associate poor, nameless dead people with Judas and his blood money?  Another topic for another time…)



In Omaha’s Potter’s Field, roughly 4,000 bodies decompose under the soil, half of which are babies and toddlers under the age of 2.  While diseases such as influenza certainly took their toll on these young ones, Omaha’s early reputation as a city full of vice and young sex workers led to many little corpses found abandoned, unable to be cared for.

These thousands of babies share the dirt of Potter’s 5 acres with thousands of adult bodies found washed up in the river, in the endlessly muddy ditches of early Omaha, in our city’s filthy tenements, and with those who gave their lives working the railroads.  Most of these bodies were put into cheap wooden or even cardboard boxes, their bones now certainly scattered as the land shifts through passing centuries.

Like so many other thousands he lies with, Brown’s gravesite was left unmarked.  The county had a policy that made sure families of the dead here didn’t mark their loved ones with headstones, under a policy which stated, “if you can pay for the stone, you can pay for the funeral.”  It was in use from 1887 to 1957, after which it became overgrown and littered with beer cans tossed aside by drunken teenagers who got spooky kicks out of partying over the bones of the dead.  In the 1980s, when the community started seriously discussing clearing the land for development, a former Douglas County sheriff named Richard Collins raised $22,000 to restore the land and erect some small monuments which stand there today.


But it wasn’t until 2009, when Chris Hebert of Riverside, California, saw a documentary about actor Henry Fonda, that Will Brown was finally given a gravestone of his own.  Fonda’s father owned a business across the street from the courthouse.  From the window, young Henry watched Will Brown’s guts spill onto the cement that night.  He claimed it was the trauma from witnessing this event that gave him the well spring from which he acted so brilliantly in his films.  Herbert, having no connection to Omaha of his own, felt a kinship with Will Brown as a Black man living in the U.S., and spent $450 of his own money to purchase the gravestone.


From somewhere under this stone, Will Brown speaks to us.  He wants to tell us the story behind one of the most infamous photos in lynching history, the story behind how and why he ended up so grotesquely dismembered, so creatively violated and publicly humiliated, so purposefully used to terrorize the Black people of Omaha, so thoroughly forgotten for so long.

Others have heard his call, and I don’t claim to be the first to write about him.  I only seek to tell his story the way I hear it, which is to say, the way I think I’m hearing him tell it.  Even though he only speaks occasionally in faint whispers, and we have little autobiographical information to use, the details surrounding his death are a novel in themselves, and I plan on exploring this meandering river of social, political, psychological, and physical violence through as many nooks and crannies as can be found.

Through the narrative, I hope to humanize Will as best as possible, because the goal in telling these stories should always be to focus on the humanity of those oppressed people who have been left voiceless through the pages of history, even as images of their deaths have been spread to the four corners of the earth.

Faint though it is, his voice still carries through the wind and in the rustle of the leaves at Potter’s Field, for those with the right set of ears.  It’s time we stop what we’re doing, set aside a moment of our day, and listen.  We owe him at least that much, after all that was taken from him.