There had been a sharp rise in the reported number of Black people killed in this manner: 74 in 1885; 94 in 1889; 113 in 1891. The year 1892 would see the greatest number, 161, almost one every other day. The nation’s newspapers were rarely without news of a lynching somewhere, a barbaric crime that Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and T. Thomas Fortune attributed to white resentment of African Americans’ social and economic advance toward equality and full citizenship, by the presumption that Black people were inherently criminal, and by white men’s reflexive anxiety about Black male sexuality and white women.
But what perplexed white Port Jervians and other New Yorkers was why a lynching had occurred in a village near to New York City and with so modest an African American population—roughly two hundred men, women, and children, or 2 percent of its approximately nine thousand residents. Although Port Jervis was hardly free from the common social and economic inequities of the era, and its normalized racism, it had no flagrant history of anti-Black violence.
Situated at the confluence of the Delaware and Neversink Rivers, where the states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania meet, it was a largely peaceful, orderly burg, surrounded by water and mountains, attractive to city folk who came in summer to fish for trout, canoe in the scenic Delaware, or enjoy a breeze on the verandas of the local boardinghouses.
Lewis, well-known in Port Jervis as the “bus driver” for a local hotel, was alleged to have beaten and sexually assaulted Lena McMahon, a young white woman, as she sat at the riverside reading a book. Before he was dragged up Suffolk to East Main and hanged from a tree by a white mob, Lewis reputedly confessed to attacking McMahon, but named her white boyfriend as an accomplice.
Sensational news stories of violent crime in large cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago might have been consumed by readers and as quickly forgotten. Not so with the troubling bulletin of a lynching at Port Jervis. Because such incidents occurred almost exclusively in the South, the fact that a lynching had taken place in a community only sixty-five miles and a two-hour train ride from Manhattan, and had attracted a crowd of two thousand people, brought immediate national condemnation.
In recent years, due to the efforts of a small group of current and former residents, and the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been new interest in the lynching, arguably the most troubling incident in the town’s past. But years of silence about the crime have left many residents, Black and white, substantially unfamiliar with it. This collective lack of remembering (or remembrance) cannot but seem determined, a result of the town’s shame over the lynching itself, as well as the ensuing humiliation when, after vowing to punish and hold to account those responsible, the local courts and community failed to do so. Lingering bitterness at having been singled out for national censure, and the lack of overt efforts by whites to mend relations with fellow Black citizens, have been exacerbated by a far more slow-motion calamity—the loss of Port Jervis’s prominence as a Northeast rail and industrial hub.
The commercial district of Port Jervis today retains its low-rise, storefront appearance, with eaves and cornices out of the Victorian era. A twenty-minute walk will take one by many of the places involved in the Robert Lewis lynching, from the home of Lena McMahon to the banks of the nearby Neversink, where she was allegedly attacked; to the now-abandoned Delaware & Hudson Canal, along which Lewis was pursued and captured; and to the lynching site on East Main Street, where white merchants, railway workers, lawyers, doctors, hoteliers, and factory workers, most of whom knew one another, and many of whom knew Robert Lewis, beat him repeatedly and then hoisted by a rope until he was dead.
On a quiet summer morning, when no cars are about, it can seem that a portal to the past might open for a moment and beckon one through.
# # #
My research and writing on civil rights history have, since the 1980s, been guided largely by a confidence in the forward advance of racial progress, a faith never unanimous among citizens of the United States but for many years broadly assumed. While no one seriously believed Barack Obama’s presidency would usher in a post-racial nation, there was a sense that the successes of the modern civil rights movement and the laws and policies it inspired, though not comprehensive and not attained without suffering and immense struggle, had at least moved the country to a place of enlarged racial understanding and opportunity.
Today, instead of guarded optimism, there is a weary pessimism that, as the Port Jervis lynching signaled in its time, the assault on and devaluing of the lives of Black Americans are neither a regional nor a temporary feature but a national crisis and, for the foreseeable future, a permanent one. Much like at the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, when post–Civil War idealism was supplanted by Southern whites’ bare-knuckle tactics of exclusion and intimidation, so now do we find ourselves confronting the abandonment of hard-won gains from the New Deal, the civil rights and environmental movements, and other progressive causes. Voting rights, gained courthouse to courthouse by Black Southerners and civil rights workers, have been gutted by the Supreme Court, and conservative forces continue to seek creative new ways to curtail and impede them, targeting Black people and other minorities, as one North Carolina judicial opinion noted, “with surgical precision.”
Each fortnight brings a new report of the killing of a Black person by police. “Jim Crow,” a term once seemingly relegated to the nation’s past, has found new purpose in expressing the harsh structural conditions of post-prison life for persons formerly incarcerated, as well as large-scale efforts by states to make voting inaccessible to Blacks and other minority citizens, while seizing ever-greater control of whose votes get counted. These elements of racism and white supremacy must be challenged and addressed in the name of moral decency, and to preserve the future of American democracy.
Nor can we look away from the connection between the nation’s lynching legacy and the recent resurgence of armed vigilantism in America. The crowds of whites who once amassed outside Southern jails demanding that sheriffs relinquish Black prisoners, or who forced their way inside to abduct them, have as their 21st-century counterparts the white militiamen, the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and Proud Boys, who invade state-houses and the Capitol in Washington, plot the kidnapping of elected officials, and seek to intimidate voters, legislators, and peaceful protesters. This “mobocratic spirit,” a phrase Abraham Lincoln used as early as 1838 to describe vigilantism’s corrosive effect on America, frightfully insinuates that mob violence is a legitimate means of effecting political change.
These issues remain as deserving of our concern as they did 130 years ago, when America turned its gaze to Port Jervis.
Nothing illustrates the need to revisit the unfortunate history of the Port Jervis lynching more than the opening in 2018 of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which honors the memory of more than four thousand African Americans killed by lynch mobs between 1877 and 1950. Lynching has for too long been associated exclusively with the South, of which Montgomery is a historic capital, and with images of Ku Klux Klan night riders and angry white crowds gathered outside rural courthouses. While the Southern lynching epidemic did not replicate itself fully in the North, as some feared, Port Jervis proved an augury of early twentieth-century white-on-Black terroristic violence in places as diverse as New York City, rural Pennsylvania, Chicago, southern Illinois, and Duluth, Minnesota. And it is impossible not to see lynching’s vestiges in the biases of our own times: racial profiling and police brutality, the readiness to subject Black citizens to summary justice, as well as prejudice in the courts and in the nation’s penal system, including the use of the death penalty.
Today parts of the country are engaged in an effort to redefine the nature of policing, with the particular goal of stopping the far-too-numerous instances of deadly force used against African Americans by officers of the law as well as vigilantes. We say the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and many others. We must also acknowledge the traumatic and terroristic toll such murders and their endless online video repetition have on Black citizens, particularly children.
On June 10, 2020, in the immediate aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, a peaceful, locally organized Black Lives Matter march took place in Port Jervis, attended by hundreds of Black and white residents and accompanied by local police. At the same event, members of a committee called the Friends of Robert Lewis spoke with marchers about the effort to establish in Port Jervis a memorial plaque and signage bearing details about the 1892 Robert Lewis lynching, as one step in a developing commemorative and educational effort.
“There is no hero in this story,” Ralph Drake, the group’s white founder, who grew up in Port Jervis, observed of the long-ago tragedy. “The town must become the hero, in confronting its legacy.”
The Black Lives Matter march through the streets of Port Jervis, the work of the Friends of Robert Lewis group, and the Montgomery memorial, remind us that it is a national reckoning that is due, and that the historic confidence of any section of the United States in some immunity to racial injustice remains, as it was in Robert Lewis’s time, a false faith indeed.
Adapted from A LYNCHING AT PORT JERVIS: RACE AND RECKONING IN THE GILDED AGE by Philip Dray
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