Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
— Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”

This is Black History Month.

But is that the kind of history we want to remember?

Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center thinks so. Its exhibit, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, on display until May 31, is a brutally graphic display of horrible events from the darkest corner of our national cellar.

“Many victims’ bodies were mutilated or burned,” the Freedom Center literature says. “An untold number were tortured before they were killed.”

The exhibit includes photographs and postcards, often showing happy crowds and picnickers gathered to celebrate the grisly main event.

There’s plenty to learn here. The exhibit points out that there were 5,000 recorded lynchings between 1882 and 1951, not just in the South, but in northern states, as well. And not all of the lynching victims were black. Ignorance and mob anger often played a role as grotesque as hate and bigotry.

But the natural reaction is, “Aw, c’mon. Is that really necessary? Do bus loads of school kids really need to see burned bodies dangling from trees and bridges to understand that these things happened?”

As the Freedom Center’s introduction asks: “What does this unfortunate chapter in our history have to do with modern times?”

It’s a good question. The Freedom Center has been hobbled by public perception that it is a museum of stale guilt. One of the reasons it has failed to meet expectations and requires unpopular public subsidies is that many families don’t want to spend admission fees to come away shocked, disturbed and ashamed of their country.

What is the statute of limitations on guilt? Where is the balance to recognize the amazing sacrifice and progress this nation has made?

Freedom Center CEO Donald Murphy says the exhibit has three goals: “One is to look back at a violent period of American history, a second is to bear witness to the atrocities that occurred, and our third goal is to keep watch over those without sanctuary today.”

It’s true that America, like all nations and cultures, has had its share of ugly violence. But it’s hard to believe that revisiting that ugliness is “healing,” as one of the sponsors says. And the attempt to make lynchings currently relevant is a reach. They are, thankfully, rarer than scalpings and gunfights at high noon.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

So, is that the kind of history we want to remember?

Whether we like it or not, history reveals the past, explains the present, and determines the future we choose. Museums need to challenge the public they serve.

But this harsh and depressing exhibit will do no favors for the Freedom Center or Cincinnati. It reinforces the public stereotype of an institution that seems obsessed with the worst of our history, that seems determined to divide us and open old wounds. We’re left wondering: Where is the balance?

The Freedom Center has a lot of potential. It can do better than to hang up old pictures of lynchings. 

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