My First Visit to ABHM

GRIOT: Richard Prestor, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Richard Prestor as he appeared when he first visited the museum in 1988.

An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announced the opening date of a new museum; America’s Black Holocaust Museum. “What is that about?” I wondered, “And what is a Black Holocaust?” There was something written about lynching. Lynching? I was not sure that word had ever been said aloud by any teacher in all my grade school or high school years. Now this Mr. Cameron says that he actually survived being lynched. I had to meet him and see his museum. A few weeks later, in July 1988, I arrived at the museum. The building’s address was on Wright Street, just a few yards west of N. Doctor M.L. King Drive. A sign identified the building as the Sultan Muhammad Islamic Center. I saw no sign for the museum. After knocking on the Wright street door, a young man opened it and slowly looked me up and down as I asked him if the Black Holocaust Museum was there. He simply nodded and pointed me up a set of stairs a few feet away.

The stairway opened into an expansive, open, second-floor room, with large windows facing east. Across the old hardwood floor, an elderly, gentle-looking man was walking toward me. His was not the broadly smiling approach of a public attraction manager, but rather, Mr. Cameron came forward with the easy, amiable walk of someone greeting a recently-made friend. His smile was warm and welcoming.

James Cameron in his new museum at its dedication in 1988. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

I said, “Hi. I came to see your museum.” He introduced himself as we shook hands, and he thanked me for coming. He asked how I had heard about his museum, and I told of the article, explaining that I knew nothing more about it. He nodded and asked if I had a little time to talk. “Sure,” I replied.

I noticed that the large room had no other visitors and there were few exhibits. There were three or four big glass display cases, maybe six or seven feet tall [as I seem to remember them now], plus some poster sized photographs.

James Cameron revisiting the jail cell in Marion, Indiana, from which he was dragged by a mob to the lynching tree on which two friends had already been hanged on August 7, 1930. Johnson Publishing Co.

Mr. Cameron began telling me his story, pretty much from the beginning, as we slowly walked toward one of the display cases. He was not describing events, like a lecturer might; he was retelling personal memories, as if he was recounting old details and emotions with a friend.

Being a complete stranger to him, I felt a little awkward about that at first, but the more we walked and he talked, the more I became aware that he was not saying anything angry or bitter about his painful past. He was quietly happy to just have someone willing to listen and be supportive. He wanted people to learn and understand.

We never stopped at any particular display case to discuss items within. I asked only simple questions relating to his story. We drifted slowly around. He occasionally pointed to a photo or mentioned some item that related, but telling the story was all important.

With his book, A Time of Terror: A Survivor's Story, circa 1994. Courtesy of the Cameron Family.

With his book, A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story, circa 1994. Courtesy of the Cameron Family.

Nearing the end, Mr. Cameron said he had written his story and published a book titled, A Time of Terror. Realizing that I’d already been visiting for over twenty minutes and would need to leave soon, I asked if I could buy his book right there. He smiled a Yes and went to get a copy.

Returning with it, he asked if he could sign it for me.   He was a humble gentleman.

On the title page, he wrote,

I treasure my early visit with him, and I’ve kept his special book in a safe place ever since.

Freedom’s Heroes During Jim Crow: Flossie Bailey and the Deeters

Griot: Fran Kaplan, EdD

This exhibit pays tribute to people who fought hatred and injustice in the Jim Crow period. Some of these heros are well-known; others are unsung, ordinary people. Every quarter we will focus on different freedom fighters of this era.

To inaugurate the exhibit, we present three unsung people who opposed the infamous lynching in Marion, Indiana in 1930 that murdered two black teenagers, Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp, and almost killed a third, James Cameron.

Many people have seen the iconic photo of that lynching in which members of the lynch mob and spectators happily celebrate their brutal deed. Unseen are the people-black and white-who publicly opposed and tried to prevent the lynching. Among the most courageous of these was Mrs. Katherine “Flossie” Bailey. And perhaps the most surprising and admirable response to the atrocity came from the parents of Claude Deeter, the young man whose murder was the justification for it.

Mrs. Katherine Bailey1

At the time of the lynching, “Flossie,” as she was known to her friends, was thirty-five years old, the wife of a doctor with a thriving practice, and mother of a son. She was also the president of the Marion branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the leading civil rights organization in the country at the time.

Under her energetic, committed and expert leadership, the Marion NAACP had grown to almost 100 members by the night of the lynching. The leading black families in town were members; the handful of white members included the town’s mayor and one of its newspaper reporters.

Everyone in town-white and black alike-knew Mrs. Dr. Bailey. Many years after her death, people would still remember her as a “hotrod,” “a born leader,” and “very cultured.” Flossie was warmhearted and kind, a good-looking, stylish woman who always appeared poised. She was an impressive orator, as well as an excellent organizer who daily juggled a myriad of details, phone calls, telegrams, letters, and meetings.

Like many in town, Flossie began to hear about a plan to lynch the jailed suspects early in the afternoon of August 7th, shortly after Claude Deeter died. She began making phone calls and sending telegrams seeking to have the alleged murders moved for their safety to another lock-up away from Grant County. At very least she wanted additional law enforcement protection for the prisoners. She called the county sheriff, who told her not to worry, that he was not aware of any such plan. She called the mayor’s office, but he was away in Indianapolis for the day. She called the governor; he was on a fishing trip in Canada. When she begged his assistant, a Marion native, to send protection, he hung up on her. The lynching would proceed.

But Mrs. Bailey did not give up. Shortly after the lynching, she heard that a white mob was threatening to torch the black section of Marion. While many black residents fled town, Flossie spent the wee hours in her home exchanging telegrams with NAACP leaders, informing them of the situation so they, too, could act. The pressure she brought to bear finally resulted in the arrival of the Indiana National Guard-three days after the atrocity.

Still Flossie did not rest. She demanded that members of the lynch mob be identified and tried. She wrote to the head of the NAACP, Walter White, an expert in lynchings, insisting that he immediately come to Marion to investigate. She provided him with background information and advised the blue-eyed White to pose as a white man, so that he could more easily speak with witnesses of the event.

White found the sheriff to be grossly negligent in his duty and urged the governor and attorney general to prosecute, since the county prosecutor was reluctant to take action, because it might anger and provoke the mob to further violence. White helpfully included with his letter a list of persons that participated in the lynching, according to eyewitnesses he interviewed.

Largely due to Mrs. Bailey’s efforts, two of the lynchers were brought to trial. The all-white, all-male jury found them not guilty. All her life Flossie would feel a sense of failure, because no one was ever punished for the murders of Abe and Tommy. She was, however, instrumental in saving James Cameron from the electric chair, by working with the NAACP to bring two excellent black attorneys from Indianapolis to defend him in court. They were able to convince another white jury that Cameron was only an accessory to Deeter’s murder, resulting in a prison sentence of two to 21 years.

Her work angered segments of the region’s white community. She and her husband received threatening calls and letters. White men drove by her house at night making their cars backfire to sound like gunshots. Nevertheless, following the Marion lynching, Mrs. Bailey organized a grassroots push for an Indiana antilynching statute that would remove from office any sheriff from whose jail a prisoner was lynched; it became law in 1931. This law was instrumental in preventing a subsequent threatened lynching in Marion almost seven years to the day of the 1930 atrocity. Flossie and the NAACP also worked for a proposed federal anti-lynching law-but no such law was ever passed.2

Mrs. Bailey also fought other forms of discrimination, including hospitals that denied treatment to black patients and training to black medical students, and well as school segregation. She and her husband unsuccessfully sued a Marion movie house after they were denied admission due to their skin color.

In addition to coping with the Great Depression and race and gender discrimination, Flossie suffered from bad health. She had a serious heart condition for which she underwent surgery in 1934. Dr. Bailey had a stroke in 1940, closed his practice and died ten years later. In the end, the couple struggled financially and had to accept help from friends. Mrs. Bailey wrote to Walter White that she regretted not being able to do more. This courageous and committed woman passed away at the age of 57 and was buried in Marion.

The Deeters3

Grace and William Deeter farmed 320 acres outside the small town of Fairmont, near Marion. Like many families of their day, they had a phone but no electricity in the house and pumped their water with a windmill. On Saturdays they stopped work early to go to Fairmont or Marion to shop and visit friends; on Sundays the devoutly religious family attended church in Marion.

Claude was the eldest of eight children. He helped his parents farm their land and later also worked for other area farmers. At age 22 he got a Marion factory job. He was good worker, strong and well-liked. In two years he was able to buy a new Chevrolet, which he proudly drove around Grant County.

In August 1930, Claude lost his job to the Great Depression, and his car was to be repossessed. Perhaps seeking solace, on the night of August 6th he drove out to the Lover’s Lane along the river with 19 year-old Mary Ball. It was there that he was shot in the apparent armed robbery attempt that led to the lynching in Marion.

Adhering to their religious beliefs, the Deeters asked their son to forgive his attackers before he died, so that he would not meet his Lord with hatred in his heart. Though initially reluctant, Claude forgave them before he expired.

As he drew his last breath, someone hung Claude’s blood-stained shirt from the window of the police station, presumably to incite the fury of the town’s citizens. Grace Deeter, on the other hand, moved immediately for reconciliation. That day, while in the deepest of grief herself, she called upon the mothers of Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp to convey Claude’s forgiveness and that of her whole family.

According to the Deeters, Grace and her sister tried to get the Marion newspaper to publish Claude’s account of the attack, which refuted Mary Ball’s initial claim of rape, but the newspaper did not print his story. Nor did the paper report Will and Grace’s opposition to the lynching; that was left to a paper in another town. Plans for the lynching were already laid. The facts of the crime were now irrelevant, and the victim’s family would have no say in the swift execution of the illegal sentence.

Mary came to the Deeters during Claude’s wake and announced that she and Claude had planned to be married. The Deeter family was a close one, but their eldest son had never mentioned the relationship, much less marriage plans, to anyone. Nevertheless, the Deeters welcomed this unknown fiancée and gave in to her request to take Claude’s bloody tie as a keepsake.

Footnotes

  1. Sources: James Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America (New York: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2001) and Barbara Stevenson, An African-American Oral History of Grant County (Mt. Pleasant, S.C.:Arcadia Publishing, 1999).
  2. In 2005 eighty Senators finally signed a resolution apologizing for not outlawing lynching.
  3. Sources: Madison (2001); Cynthia Carr, Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006); Hartford City News, Hartford City IN, August 8, 1930; author’s interview with Carl Deeter, Jr., nephew of Claude Deeter, October 2006.

Dr. Kaplan is Coordinator of the America’s Black Holocaust Virtual Museum. An independent scholar, Kaplan has produced more than forty written publications and videos in two languages and an awardwinning feature film in distribution. She has also co-authored an awardwinning screenplay, Fruit of the Tree, based on the life of James Cameron, and is currently working on a scholarly edition of his memoir, A Time of Terror.