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VIRTUAL BOOK TALK: A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded Age
Philip Dray in conversation with Kyera Singleton
On June 2, 1892, in the small, idyllic village of Port Jervis, New York, a young Black man named Robert Lewis was lynched by a violent mob. The twenty-eight-year-old victim had been accused of sexually assaulting Lena McMahon, the daughter of one of the town's well-liked Irish American families. The incident was infamous at once, for it was seen as a portent that lynching, a Southern scourge, surging uncontrollably below the Mason-Dixon Line, was about to extend its tendrils northward. What factors prompted such a spasm of racial violence in a relatively prosperous, industrious upstate New York town, attracting the scrutiny of the Black journalist Ida B. Wells, just then beginning her courageous anti-lynching crusade? What meaning did the country assign to it? And what did the incident portend?
Today, it’s a terrible truth that the assault on the lives of Black Americans is neither a regional nor a temporary feature, but a national crisis. There are regular reports of a Black person killed by police, and Jim Crow has found new purpose in describing the harsh conditions of life for the formerly incarcerated, as well as in large-scale efforts to make voting inaccessible to Black people and other minority citizens. The “mobocratic spirit” that drove the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol―a phrase Abraham Lincoln used as early as 1838 to describe vigilantism’s corrosive effect on America―frightfully insinuates that mob violence is a viable means of effecting political change. These issues remain as deserving of our concern now as they did a hundred and thirty years ago, when America turned its gaze to Port Jervis.
An alleged crime, a lynching, a misbegotten attempt at an official inquiry, and a past unresolved. In A Lynching at Port Jervis, the acclaimed historian Philip Dray revisits this time and place to consider its significance in our communal history and to show how justice cannot be achieved without an honest reckoning.
Philip Dray is the author of several books of American cultural and political history, including At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, and Capitol Men: The Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen. He is an adjunct professor in the Journalism + Design Department at Eugene Lang College. He lives in Brooklyn.
Kyera Singleton is the Executive Director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters. She is also a PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in the Department of American Culture Before joining the Warren Center as an American Democracy Fellow, she held prestigious academic fellowships from the Beinecke Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Emory University’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, and the American Association of University Women (AAUW). As a public history scholar, Kyera recently served as an advisor on the Boston Art Commission’s Recontextualization Subcommittee for the bronze Emancipation Group Statue. She is also a member of the Board of Public Humanities Fellows at Brown University, which brings together a collection of museum leaders from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
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