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Breaking the silence about a lynching in the North

Port Jervis, N.Y., opens a new chapter in a story it tried to forget for nearly 130 years.

East Main Street, the site of an 1892 lynching in Port Jervis, N.Y.Collection of the Minisink Valley Historical Society

Today the State of New York will unveil a plaque in Port Jervis to mark the site where 130 years ago, on June 2, 1892, a white mob lynched Robert Lewis, a Black citizen alleged to have assaulted Lena McMahon, the young white proprietor of a sweets shop, as she sat reading a book by a riverside. Lewis, 28, was a native of the area and the stepson of Henry Jackson, a Black Civil War veteran. He had worked until recently for a local hotel, the Delaware House, as a driver of its horse-drawn bus. Two thousand townspeople witnessed his torture and hanging.

A century of near silence followed the lynching. Easy pessimism would suggest that now, when our society is riven by a cultural fracture so deep it seemingly defies attempts at healing, it is too late to rectify matters or learn anything from yet another egregious manifestation of racial violence. Yet in Port Jervis, as elsewhere, this is the work that must be done, and remembrance — educational and inspirational — is proceeding there thanks in part to the influence of a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020. It led to new curiosity about Robert Lewis and the resolve to address this benighted chapter of the community’s past. As Ralph Drake, a founding member of the Friends of Robert Lewis, observes: “There is no hero in this story. The town must become the hero, in confronting its legacy.”

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Located at the confluence of the Delaware and Neversink Rivers, where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania meet, Port Jervis has long been proud of its proximity to the stunning riverine scenery at Hawk’s Nest; of the bravery of a Revolutionary War-era local patriot militia; and of its importance as a 19th-century rail and canal hub. Educators and activists associated with the Robert Lewis remembrance hope the town will take pride, too, in places key to local Black history and culture, such as a former Black settlement situated on a reservoir just out of town, a burial ground known as God’s Acre, and sites of worship.

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A drawing of Robert Lewis commissioned by the New York Evening World newspaper in 1892.Public Domain

At the time of the mob murder of Robert Lewis in 1892, the lynching of Black people was epidemic in the South — 161 such incidents would be recorded there in that year alone. Lynchings were far less common in the North, particularly in the Northeast, and one in a prosperous village only 65 miles from New York City was unexpected. The incident at once made Port Jervis notorious. There was a modest local Black population — about 2 percent of the 9,000 residents — most of whom worked as gardeners, stable helpers or teamsters, or in white homes as cooks and servants, and white people treated them with the everyday racism and paternalistic condescension typical of the period. When not being complimented for their ability as “songsters,” Black people were likely to be caricatured in local papers as inclined to infidelity, moonshine, and petty crime. But there was no history of flagrant racial violence before June 2, 1892, when the report of an alleged sexual assault “by a light-skinned Black man” on Lena McMahon touched a tripwire.

In the days following the lynching, reporters from New York City and other metropolitan papers rushed to the scene. Headlines exclaimed “Southern Methods Outdone,” and editorialists as far away as California suggested the little town had expanded or “unsectionalized” the crime of lynching. A writer from Dixie smugly noted the lynching proved that when it came to defending the virtue of white women, men of the North differed not at all from their “red-blooded” Southern brethren.

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An illustration of the lynching in the New York Evening World newspaper, June 4, 1892.Wikimedia Commons

New York-area jurists and editorials offered assurances that the mob’s ringleaders would be held accountable. In the South, lynchers suffered no consequences; here, in the “civilized” North, however, justice would surely be done.

It was not. After hearing the testimony of a large number of obfuscating witnesses who could not for the life of them recall what they had seen or heard as Robert Lewis was hoisted into a tree on East Main Street, Coroner Joseph Harding had no choice but to conclude his formal inquest with the verdict that the victim had died “at the hands of persons unknown” — the chilling euphemism that closed many a perfunctory inquiry into a lynching and was one more reaffirmation of white supremacy and impunity. The courts’ efforts at prosecution also ultimately failed, and with the legal matter closed, white Port Jervians hastened to put the unwelcome experience of exposure to national scrutiny behind them. No apology and little outreach was made to Black residents, who remained traumatized by the lynching, the site of which many had to pass by each day.

It is often pointed out that the evidence of lynching’s “legacy” — how cheap a Black life has been in this country — can readily be seen in practices of racial profiling, police shootings, racist patterns in convictions and sentencing, and the enduring presumption of Black criminality. But it’s worth noting that the stresses that likely animated the mob at Port Jervis and elsewhere in the 1890s — resentment of Black Americans’ mobility and expanded rights granted in Reconstruction; white economic insecurity; anxiety about rapid technological change; the loosening of restraints on the lives of white women, who were beginning to leave home to work away from farm and family, in cities and textile mills; and the accompanying threat to white male hierarchy and sexual dominance — are not dissimilar to the fears of “replacement,” societal transformation, and diminishing white hegemony that fuel racist violence and anti-progressive overreaction today.

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Angry white crowds no longer surround rural jails, demanding that sheriffs turn over Black prisoners — but one not that long ago stormed the US Capitol, seeking to “hang Mike Pence” and halt the peaceful transfer of elected authority. And though Ku Klux Klansmen are not visiting isolated farmhouses to terrorize would-be Black voters, other forms of poll-watcher intimidation and voter suppression have recently been engineered or codified into law. All the while, operatives of the right gaslight the nation with canards such as “corporate wokeness” and “grooming” or demand to dictate what is taught of American history, stoking anxiety about the future as they use propagandistic means to foment distrust.

Robert Lewis, pushed and dragged along to his death by the mob on that June day 130 years ago, protested his innocence, pleading with a police officer he recognized to grant him the law’s protection, beseeching those who encircled him — neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances — for help and compassion. His words were futile. As one witness, Dr. Halsey Hunt, later recalled: “No one really listened. You may as well have talked to the ocean.” Many witnesses commented on the ungodly din of the rageful mob.

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But this June 2, Robert Lewis’s voice will be clearly heard in Port Jervis, along with many others from the community and surrounding areas. Local youths will join in unveiling the commemorative plaque. If recent remembrance events are any guide, this gathering, planned by a biracial committee and authorized by the town, might offer anyone willing to be hopeful about the American experiment an example of what a multiracial democracy should look and sound like, and the work that waits to be done.

Philip Dray is the author of the new book “A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded Age,” and “At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2003.