Such depravity required justification. This time, accusations of black criminality would do the trick. In most lynchings, the victim was accused of rape, murder, or both. Hose was accused of killing his employer, Alfred Cranford, and raping Cranford’s wife, Mattie. Neal was alleged to have raped and murdered nineteen-year-old Lola Cannady. (Whether these accusations are true is beside the point—these men were entitled to due process—but there is good reason to believe, in both cases, that the rape charge was fabricated, perhaps in an attempt to incite the community’s anger.) Here, again, because defenders of lynching portrayed their violence as justified, even as we recognize today that lynching is a thing white people did, we can believe that it implies nothing about what it meant to be white.
Accusations of black-on-white rape were particularly effective in justifying lynching outside the South; Frederick Douglass described such accusations as “an appeal that not only stops the ears and darkens the minds of Southern men, but it palliates the crime of lawless violence in the eyes of Northern men.” The motifs of black men’s savage, uncontrollable lust and of white women’s chastity and virtue combined in a perfect storm of white fear to justify the practice of lynching generally, even when a particular lynching was not alleged to be in response to rape. Even opponents of lynching seemed to agree that the supposed epidemic of black-on-white rape demanded a violent solution. In the wake of the Hose lynching, Georgia governor William J. Northern, a supporter of anti-lynching legislation, argued in favor of arming white women, declaring that “an occasional negro lying dead in the back yard, shot by a brave woman in defense of her honor,” was a small price to pay for the safety and purity of Southern wives and daughters.
Attempts to justify racial terror have been accompanied by a national commitment to erasing it from our memory. Consider the little-known history of racial cleansing in America. Across the South and Midwest, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elliot Jaspin has identified hundreds of counties that experienced sharp and abrupt drop-offs of their black populations. Though the historical record, as with lynching, is intentionally spotty, in many cases there is clear evidence that whites systematically and violently drove out entire black populations, dispossessing black families of their property and rendering them refugees. Patrick Phillips recounts one such expulsion in his 2016 book Blood at the Root. In 1912, the white residents of Forsyth County, Georgia, drove out all black residents of the county, who abandoned their land and their belongings as they fled bands of “night riders” carrying torches and shooting into black families’ homes. Some black residents had enough warning that they were able to sell their land, if at a fraction of its value. But many were forced to flee in the middle of the night.