ECHOES FROM THE PAST: “Strange Fruit” (Produced in America)

Southern trees bear a 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…


These lyrics came to mind, on hearing of the recent passing of another one of America’s “super-sistas.” Often referred to as the “Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” Dorothy Height’s passing represents many things for many Americans.  But, my childhood memories mostly recall her heroic stands against racism and cries to “Stop the Lynching!”  These are the left-over childhood impressions from my sifting through the various “Colored” newspapers, sneaked inside the physical and mental– borders of an agitated, segregated south.  Three years before Ms. Height’s Virginia childbirth, and a couple of years prior my mother’s birthing in Tennessee, a ground-swell of anti-lynching activities launched the 1909 “National Negro Committee,” giving later birth to the “National Association of Colored People” (NAACP).  The poisonous climate for political terrorism, of those toxic times, seems to beg for a bigoted curtain-call, today!

The brutally demented era of hanging, burning and tarring living human beings is buried deep within the crevices of our nation’s mountain of horrific human experiences. But, considering the vitriolic bantering and incisive rhetoric of today’s so-called political “representatives of the people,” to revisit some of those nasty experiences might be an exercise in prudence for younger folk.  That’s why this bluesy melody reminder (above), sung by “Lady Day” (jazz singer, Billie Holiday), bears listening to, once more. “Strange Fruit” is a haunting reminder of the many murders-by-mob, from the sunset of Colonial America through the dawning of this nation’s Civil Rights Era. Being raised, on the other side of the Appalachians, in the rugged hills of Kentucky, I remember the lyrics, well.  I often heard them, playing softly in the background, during the occasional kitchen-table gatherings of community elders.  It was usually while searching their vast memory bank of racial animosities, to help us younger folk avoid the “mistakes” of the past, like the “mistake” of being black- in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  But, it was the “mistakes” that led to black lynchings that troubled me the most.

In one storied “mistake,” associated with the history of the NAACP, I recall reading as a child the vivid witness accounting of a lynching, also recounted in those kitchen meetings.  It forever changed my view of the human capacity for savagery and hate, well before my military service.  As if reading it, today, I still hear the mid-night hoots and hollering from the sobering description of an “angry white” mob- mostly men- but, women and children among them- forcing their way into the shabby, clapboard home of a young black sharecropper, falsely accused of raping a white woman. They snatched him from a feather-bed and stripped him naked in front of his family.   Then, they dragged him to his own front yard, where they hung him on a huge oak tree.  Before they could light the bon-fire beneath him, his young pregnant wife was screaming in protest from their creaky, wooden porch.  Their two young children were screaming and crying, clinging desperately to her tattered, cotton night-gown.  Irritated that she would not shut up, the mob assaulted her, as well, hanging her on the same knotty tree limb.  Next, they fed and stoked the hot fire beneath them, as the young couple swung back and forth, on the hanging rope, kicking wildly in the air, before their violent death, to the sounds of a jeering mob.  When the young mother’s fetus fell into the fiery pit, from her detached and decimated womb, old white men and young white boys began kicking at the charred heap of flesh, to keep it from rolling out of the ring of fire.  The festive crowd sung church hymns and folk songs, while clapping and foot-tapping to the so-called music in the back of their sanctimonious minds.  A half-century later, I still remember it well- an ugly reminder of man’s capacity for cruelty. I never knew what happened to the children, left cowering on the porch.  I’ve often wondered how they managed.  I’ve also thought about the witness, that frightful, starry night- an African-American journalist, easily “passing for white”!

According to an earlier Berea College (Berea, KY) study, it is estimated that some 3,446 black people were lynched in the United States, between 1882 and 1968.  Racial tensions were highest in the south, where most lynchings took place. Mississippi, Georgia and Texas, respectively, had the highest number of lynchings.  Following the Civil War, white supremacists blamed their financial problems on newly freed black slaves, many of them their own blood kin. Lynchings became a popular way of addressing the anger of white men, often within a carnival-like atmosphere with their wives, as well as infant sons and daughters, looking on.  The Tuskegee Institute even recorded 1,293 lynchings of white people, during this period- usually for helping blacks or just being against lynching.  Before the Civil War, members of the Abolitionist Movement, and others opposing slavery, were often targets of white mob violence, as well.  In many cases, whites lynched blacks simply because they felt “it necessary to protect white women,” according to Tuskegee research.  But, rarely were the murderers punished or even arrested.  And, secret vigilante groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, used the threat of murder-by-mob to harass potential voters and enforce a system of social dominance over blacks- like South Africa’s apartheid, American style.

Later in life, as I matured a little more within my own fragmented system of beliefs, I was able to somewhat forgive these ignorant, pea-brained scoundrels.  But, I promised never to forget the narrative.  It’s motivational for me, today, whether writing, coaching youth or guiding the activities of our own children and grandchildren.  The imagery, and other stories shared by our elders- coupled with the 23rd Psalm- has helped to sustain and guide me through various racially charged challenges of my own, military and civilian.  It reminds me how quickly feeble-minded group behavior and politicized word games can easily push the envelope of reason and anarchy in America, similar to what’s taking place in, the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave,” the land I’ll still fight for, today.  In my opinion, some stories simply ought to be passed along to others, like my elders did for us, no matter how hideous or vicious.  So, I’m just keeping my promise never to let this and other stories die.

HOW ABOUT YOU?  Do you feel such stories should be resurrected or passed along to others-  or, forever buried with the memory of the evil that spawned them?  Why?  Or, why not?

“Backstreet Djeli”  (w.d.s.)

(Initially posted at on 04/24/2010)





About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.