Preparing for The Legacy of Lynching: An Interview with Drew Cunningham ’20

 

On Friday, October 26th, The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America will open at Haverford’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery (CFG). Traveling outside the Brooklyn Museum for the first time, the exhibit presents the Equal Justice Initiative’s research findings into well over 4,000 acts of lynching using documentary and artistic works, and seeks to both illuminate and spark conversation about America’s white supremacist history of racial violence through the lens of personal stories.

The Legacy of Lynching was originally organized at the Brooklyn Museum, combining video presentations with works of art from the museum’s collection. But when it arrives at the CFG, the exhibit will also feature new contributions from artists and curators along with archival materials from Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Special Collections and University Archive.

Some of these new contributions have been arranged by Drew Cunningham ’20, who has helped organize a secondary exhibit to accompany the CFG show under Assistant Professor of English and Visual Culture, Arts, and Media (VCAM) Fellow Lindsay Reckson. I asked Drew about his experience helping bring this exhibition to Haverford.

How and why did you start working as a student assistant for Prof. Reckson?

I was taking Professor Lindsay Reckson’s course “Realism, Race, and Photography” during the Fall 2017 semester. At the end of one of our class meetings, she announced that she was attempting to bring the The Legacy of Lynching exhibit to Haverford and asked if any students would be interested in helping with that work. I was familiar with the exhibit because of a visit to its original location, the Brooklyn Museum, during the summer and also had been following the Equal Justice Initiative’s work since attending a lecture by Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s founder, while still in high school. I thought that bringing the exhibit to Haverford was a great idea, so I registered my interest in helping out.

What does being a student assistant consist of? How are you involved with Prof. Reckson’s research? 

As a student assistant, I’ve been collaborating with Professor Reckson, Courtney Carter, the Hurford Center’s post-baccalaureate fellow, and Matthew Callinan, Associate Director of the CFG and Campus Exhibitions, to produce a satellite exhibit about the lynching of Zachariah Walker in Coatesville, PA, during the summer of 1911. In my role, I’ve selected newspaper and journal articles to accompany the exhibit and produced text for the exhibit’s labels. I’ve also been working closely with the others to envision the layout of the exhibit, which will be on the second floor of VCAM, in the Create Space. To guide my work, I’ve read history specifically concerning Walker’s lynching and also historical/theoretical texts about the practice of lynching in America more generally.

Since you had seen this exhibit before, what was the difference between experiencing it as an observer and approaching it as someone trying to connect with such observers?

When I enter an exhibit, I often feel overwhelmed. There is so much new information to take in, and I feel pressured to absorb and understand all of it. But that probably isn’t the way we should go through exhibits, as I’ve realized through this process. An exhibit is a space to come into contact with new materials and to sit (or stand) with them, to see where they complicate or expand the ideas we had before entering. The intention behind the satellite exhibit was to open up a space to promote this sort of reflection. Exhibit-goers are invited to take the materials into their hands, to interact with them, and to register their responses, whether those are conclusions or more questions.

While I was going through the newspaper and journal articles, deciding which to select for the exhibit, I had to keep in mind how they would exist in the exhibit and what effect they would have within the context of the exhibit. I selected those which I thought would help to produce the space we were trying to create and not overwhelm exhibit goers with facts that, while very important, don’t fit within the exhibit’s form.

What are some things you learned in preparing for The Legacy of Lynching? 

While preparing for the exhibit, I learned a lot more about the role that lynching played in America during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Lynching was intricately entangled with American industrialization, its economics, technologies, and attendant migrations. It had a “cultural logic,” as Jacqueline Goldsby would say. That’s what makes it really not all that surprising or exceptional that a lynching occurred in Coatesville, a prosperous steel town in the North, in fact, just over a half hour from Haverford. Lynching and racial terror, generally, were not confined to the South, but pervaded all of America. It was a national practice, as anti-lynching activists like Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out from early on. And it was not a “return to barbarism,” as we commonly believe. Lynching coincided with modernity. Our challenge now is to confront the legacy of that horrific national practice, which was part and parcel of the historical developments that led to the world we live in today.

Drew Cunningham ’20 is an English major with minors in philosophy and German.

 

Written by Colin Battis ’21, environmental studies major.

Edited by Matthew Ridley ’19. 

Photo by Brian Welesko. (lynchinginamerica.eji.org/explore)