In the most recent catalogue from a book seller is a gruesome, but interesting copy of a photograph taken on August 13, 1930. Nineteen-year-old Thomas Shipp and eighteen-year-old Abram Smith hang from a large tree in the center of Marion, Indiana. Lynched by a mob, the young, black men were accused of killing a white man and raping his girlfriend. Evidence later suggest that they had killed the man, but the girlfriend later admitted that she had not been raped. No matter, they did not deserve the mob, violent deaths they suffered. In the photograph the white mob looks to the photographer, and one man in the crowd points to the dead, young men almost as if he is offering a statement of what he sees as justice. The photographer, by the way, sold copies of the photograph for $.50.
In June 2017, a year ago, we had just purchased our Lake Norman house. We were here to settle on it, and I was meeting a recommended lawn care contractor. As he and I walked the yard and discussed plans and prices, he said, “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t have any ‘Mexicans’ working for me.” I stood in the front yard with him and, as we used to say on the playground, “Chickened-out.” I agreed to let him maintain our lawn and for the next months regretted my lack of courage. There was no “wrong way” to hear his comment, but one-=his comment to me, a stranger and potential pay check, expressed his racism. He, a white man of about forty years of age and his white workers mowed and maintained our lawn . But not well, so I fired him. Not for his racism, but for his job performance. I asked him once why he had no Latinos working for him, and he told me how “two Mexicans” he had hired stole from him and were poor workers. When I asked him how he knew they were from Mexico, he replied, “They all are,” and walked away.
Two days ago we had a contractor repair a sidewalk damaged by pine tree roots. Victor, who was born in Texas, arrived with his three trucks, five men and equipment. Immediately they all began to work as a team. They lifted the section of sidewalk with care, dug in the Iredell County red clay to remove many roots before preparing a bed for the sidewalk section to rest in. Six Latino men in a space about four feet wide and six feet long worked in unison, solved several unforeseen issues, talked and laughed with each other, never complained, and left us with a level sidewalk.
Our new lawn company is owned by Anson, a white man older than our original one. He employees any person who will work honestly for his wage. His men are a joy to watch as they arrive in our neighborhood to mow and maintain several lawns. All his men work hard and well. They do now mow over small branches or sticks but stop to remove them so as not to damage the mowers or the lawn. They are polite and respectful of our property. Most are Latino, but regardless, all take pride in their work.
The mob that hanged Shipp and Smith was composed of cowards who hid in the “courage” of each other. The on-lookers who are in the photograph are not much better, and some could be responsible for the lynching of the two, young, black men who may not have been guilty of a crime. Racism ruled that night in Marion, Indiana.
Clearly the comment made by the white lawn maintenance contractor was a racist one. And just as clearly was my cowardice in the face of his comment. Now, I am not like any of the folks in the photograph, but I believe my silence gave credence to the racist remark that he hoped I didn’t take the wrong way. I should have said to him the obvious, that, yes, I took it as he meant it—a slur against all Latinos. Then, I should have explained to him that his beliefs would only hinder his living a joyful life and building a sound business. Then refused his services. I should have, but I did not.
We must speak directly to racism and not “chicken out”—especially if we are a white person in conversation with another white person. Let’s not wait seventy-eight years to judge the actions of other whites but call them out today.