Strange Fruit and Jim Crow

 I was listening to one of the darkest songs I have ever heard last night: Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit offers the listener a gothic tale of hate and racism that brought black Americans years of fear following the end of military Reconstruction in the South (1865 – 1877); yet, the barbarity of Southern hate only intensified after the 1896 ruling in Plessey v. Ferguson. The Supreme Court ignored the 14th Amendment ruling in favor of racial segregation. Although de facto segregation was clearly present before hand, the Court gave rise to de jure segregation known only as Jim Crow. According C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the reality of black life in white Christian America resembled Thomas Hobbes’ description of society in its natural state: harsh, brutish, and nasty. Black families would often travel in fear through rural  white America hoping to arrive at their destination without being noticed. Imagine being a black family of five traveling through towns without a colored only wash room; many children would have to run into the woods just to use the bathroom during a long journey. The black Holocaust  is often ignored in America.

Holliday’s lyrics: 

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Black Victims of White Lynch Mobs by State, 1882-1930

State/ No. of victims

Deep South

Mississippi/ 462
Georgia/ 423
Louisiana/ 283
Alabama/ 262
South Carolina/ 143

Border South

Florida/ 212
Tennessee/ 174
Arkansas/ 162
Kentucky/ 118
North Carolina/ 75

The Reasons Given for Black Lynchings

  • Acting suspiciously
  • Gambling
  • Quarreling
  • Adultery
  • Grave robbing
  • Race hatred; Race troubles
  • Aiding murderer
  • Improper with white woman
  • Rape
  • Arguing with white man
  • Incest
  • Rape-murders
  • Arson Inciting to riot
  • Resisting mob
  • Assassination
  • Inciting trouble
  • Robbery
  • Attempted murder
  • Indolence
  • Running a bordello
  • Banditry
  • Inflammatory language
  • Sedition
  • Being disreputable
  • Informing
  • Slander
  • Being obnoxious
  • Injuring livestock
  • Spreading disease

19 thoughts on “Strange Fruit and Jim Crow

  1. I could not help but notice the comparison between black killings and Jewish killings from the list. I have often found that black lynchings have never been categorized with the Jewish murders. The numbers are not close either. Native Americans are another group that have been ignored for reasons I am not sure why.

  2. I disagree with the fact that we have ignored this topic. Most textbooks address it. I would not compare it to the Jewish issue of Native American issue. Not that black lynchings were not as bad, it too on a different shape because of the history.

  3. I don’t know that textbooks address something means that it hasn’t been largely ignored. The average American doesn’t know what’s in the average history textbook, and I will say this for my so called elite private high school: we didn’t really cover much about the black holocaust until I had AP English in eleventh grade. That means that the average citizen, who doesn’t even make it to eleventh grade, much less into an AP/honors course, probably doesn’t know anything about the extreme horrors that went on. Most chemistry textbooks discuss how to balance chemical equations, but how many people know how to do that?

  4. I am with you. I need to see how much of this is really discussed in textbooks. Plus, that song above painted a very real picture of American hate as well as that picture. Books cannot always do that. History, as you have stated Carson, can be romanticized a bit.

  5. I have long concluded that Americans only want the pretty story of history. Most cannot handle reality. Let them stick to the History Channel.

  6. New reader here……the textbook coverage on lynching, I think, overall is minimal, but in my teaching experience it is at least mentioned. The cultural connection with Billie Holiday is something I’ll use in the future.

    As for my own way of teaching lynching and its historical context, I incorporate Ed Blum’s _Reforging the White Republic_ (LSU Press, 2005) which essentially puts Christianity and imperialism at the heart of post-Reconstruction “national” reconciliation where lynching is one expression of what Blum calls reforging the white republic. (Blum also has a great new book on Du Bois mentioned on this blog previously.) To capture the visibility of this moment in history, I also use James Allen, et al _Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America_ (Twin Palms, 2000). The book also has a companion website with a slideshow to use with students.

    Also, since I teach at a parochial (Christian) high school in Houston, and since the majority of my students come from white bourgeoise homes, I had them read two of Du Bois’s short stories on religion: “The Son of God” and “The Gospel According to Mary Brown” (both published in Crisis, 1933 and 1919 respectively). Du Bois replaces the cross of Jesus with lynching and the rope, and in the stories Jesus and Mary are of African descent and peasants. And of course, the black folks in these stories are the true Christians. It is some of Du Bois’s best and overlooked work. I found Du Bois helped to capture the historical moment for students, while it also challenged and confronted their own image of Jesus, Mary, etc.

  7. Phil,

    I have read but never used the the sources above in class. I will probably do so in the future. What a wonderful way to teach both DuBois and the barbarity of lynching. I look forward to getting a cup of coffee with you.

  8. I’d never heard that song. Powerful. I completely agree about the total lack of “coverage” at any depth of the Black Holocaust. I’ve posted a number of times about the lack of coverage of the Native American Genocide, and I think the Black Holocaust is equally as grievous. Particularly when you take into account the length of time that blacks were privy to such massive oppression. Beginning with slavery, we’re talking about one enormous block of time.

    What I find the most frightening, is that so much of human history is littered with events like these (Jewish and Black Holocaust’s, Native American Genocide) of varying degrees. It says a lot about our species. I find myself continually coming across accounts of horror from all time periods all over the world. No matter where you go, if you find humans, you’ll find massive violence.

    We’re an animal, alright.

  9. The reason is clear why textbooks do not go into detail about the lynching of Blacks and how America stole everything from the Native Americans, America wants to be portrayed as the perfect country when in reality it is far from it (even though it could be worse). I also believe thats why in school we focus so much on the killing of the Jews, I am sure if America killed Jews like Hitler it would be talked as little as the lynching of Blacks. Sorry for the emotions topics like this get me a little heated. Thankyou

  10. Josh,

    Your point is one that I agree with. The history of America has been one for a while that seemed to draw the conclusion that a democracy is not perfect and we should be allowed to correct our historical faults over time….I have never bought into this silly argument. Black genocide is the reality of our history; it is one that should be taught and told.

  11. I believe that the reason that America tends to shy away from the topic of African American treatment in the past is the way others will react. Most will rather not speak of it or if it does come up to quickly change the subject. This is a subject that is touchy to me personally, in the way of if you are speaking to some people and the problem of racism comes in to the conversation they are so quick to try and plead there case of not racist or how the hate people who do believe in racism. It seems like they make them self fell good by publicly showing of there disagreement with that belief.( Much love, don’t hate )

  12. Witness Fears For His Safety Amid Allegations of Police Intimidation
    “there is no way in hell I’m going to Philadelphia; I know there are innocent people in prison, but I guess it’s just something that I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life.”
    (Wayne Richman) Read the compelling story and update that led up to the witness blurting out the above quote (

  13. It’s a great song I like to use (as an English teacher in France) to tackle racial segregation… I also like Go, Move, Shift! to discuss the gypsy travellers issues (no nice jazz chords here but a simple folk song with powerful lyrics too!). We need more meaningful songs like these! And teachers who use them too…

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