Religion and Race in the Story of Public Executions in the South
On June 6, 2023, Virginia-born historian Michael Trotti as he shared stories from his research on the movement from public legal executions in the South. Before 1850, all legal executions in the South were performed before crowds that could number in the thousands; the last legal public execution was in 1936. Intended to shame and intimidate, public executions after the Civil War had quite a different effect on southern Black communities. Crowds typically consisting of as many Black people as white behaved like congregations before a macabre pulpit, led in prayer and song by a Black minister on the scaffold. Black criminals often proclaimed their innocence and almost always their salvation. This turned the proceedings into public, mixed-race, and mixed-gender celebrations of Black religious authority and devotion. In response, southern states rewrote their laws to eliminate these crowds and this Black authority, ultimately turning to electrocutions in the bowels of state penitentiaries. As a wave of (extralegal) lynchings crested around the turn of the twentieth century, states also transformed the ways that the South's white-dominated governments controlled legal capital punishment, making executions into private affairs witnessed only by white people.
Dr. Michael Ayers Trotti is Professor of History at Ithaca College in the Fingerlakes of New York. He was raised on the campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in northside Richmond and attended Richmond’s public schools, graduating from Richmond Community High School and then Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in History before earning his masters and Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has written on sensationalism and murder in the Richmond press in his first book, The Body in the Reservoir, and on the history of lynching in the Journal of American History. His latest book is The End of Public Execution: Race, Religion, and Punishment in the American South.
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