There was a dark time in America’s past when postcards of African-Americans strung up in trees crisscrossed the mail system found their way into mailboxes and photo albums. Standing in front of the victims’ bodies in these sepia-toned scenes is the lynch mob – men, women and children, many grinning ear to ear, like hunters posing with a prize.
Local artist Jennifer Scott grew up hearing family stories about her grandfather, who narrowly escaped death at the hands of such a mob in 1930s West Virginia. She recalls her parents’ faces when they re-told the tale.
But when she began studying these gruesome postcards from the Jim Crow era – a time spanning the Civil War and World War II when thousands of African-Americans fell victim to hate crimes – she was most struck by what was omitted from the grisly images: the humanity of the victims and the stories of the family members left behind.
“I wanted to show the time of day. I wanted to show the sibling … I wanted people to see these wonderful family connections and how they were just torn apart,” Scott said. “This is an important part of our history, a sad part of our history. And we sweep it under the rug.”
This was the inspiration for “Stories Behind the Postcards,” an exhibit now on display in Pilsen at the HumanThread Center, 645 W. 18th St. The collection is small – six oil paintings and a series of collages constructed from postcards and newspaper clippings – but the images are powerful.
In “The Impossible,” two boys strain as they try to hoist a dead man, hanging high above their heads, seemingly so the noose he is hanging from can be cut. In “Three Generations,” a mother and grandmother weep over the body of a dead woman lying in a wheat field. In “Up From the River” and “Young Girl by Birch Tree,” a young man and girl stand on a riverbank, their faces stricken as they take in some horrible scene the viewer can only imagine. The paintings’ vibrant colors – rich blue skies and brown skin tones – pose a stark contrast to the black and white images of the era imprinted by history books in our minds.
The paintings are accompanied by several large, black and white collages of lynching scenes, cut into the shapes of bodies and hung from the ceiling. In these images, the victims have been removed, with just a white space left in their place, so the viewer will focus instead on the shocking – often smiling – faces of those in the crowd.
The exhibit is a first for HumanThreads, a new nonprofit that uses the arts to promote a “culture of peace and nonviolence,” especially for young people.
“We focus on empowering and inspiring youth,” said Executive Director Michiko Kobayashi. “They are the agents. They are the future. And we don’t say that as a cliché.”
So far, HumanThread, which opened last month with a reception for 100 guests, has hosted an open mike night in Little Village; this weekend, it will host an educational event about the Mexican Revolution. The organization is now basing its programs in the Pilsen/Little Village neighborhoods, but Kobayashi said they plan to expand throughout the city, including to Austin.
Scott – who works for Chicago’s Commission on Human Relations, an office that aims to promote diversity and end discrimination in city offices – created “Stories Behind the Postcards” in one year – 2009. She has tackled the subject of victimization before; past exhibits have included her paintings and printmaking of homeless people and victims of Hurricane Katrina.
“Stories Behind the Postcards” is open by appointment through Nov. 30 at the HumanThread Center, 645 W. 18th St. Admission is free, and student and group visits are welcome.