Review: At The Hands of Persons Unknown

At The Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America
Phillip Dray

This book took me through a wide range of feelings and emotions. There were times when I had to put the book down because I was on the verge of tears after reading some of the detailed and unflinching accounts.. I was nearly overwhelmed with feelings of shock and revulsion. (I will never forget Mary Turner, Sam Hose, Thomas Moss, or Claude Neal). You will find yourself reading at times, as I did, with open-mouthed horror. Yet the book is not merely a compilation of statistics and graphic accounts of lynching. It is a powerfully written comprehensive examination of the shameful tragedy.

I was amused by the pseudo-scientific theories put forth by the “so-called intellectuals” that reinforced and comforted Whites in their racist beliefs and practices.

I was amazed by the lengths to which Whites sought to undermine Black advances and maintain a strict caste system at all costs. The “solidarity in the name of white supremacy” and the institutionalized racism allowed white mobs to terrorize Blacks.

I was ashamed that I was not aware. I found myself saying thing like “I DID NOT KNOW!”, “How can I just be learning of this?”, “How could I, a college-educated Black man, not know of the anti-lynching crusade of Ida B. Wells?” Before reading this book I didn’t know what lynching was. I viewed lynching as an anomaly, a frenzied group of vigilantes carrying out a clandestine assassination of a Black man. I NOW understand lynching as an American tradition, a systemized, institutionalized reign of terror that was used to maintain the power Whites had over Blacks and to keep Blacks fearful and forestall Black progress. For decades lynching was a constant source of intimidation to all Blacks and a constant reminder of their defenselessness.

I was frightened to learn that this was allowed to happen within in this country under the color of local, state, and federal law! In this “so-called civilized” society humans were routinely being burned at the stake in front of a throng of thousands. The hardest part came for me when I started to reconcile the timeline within my own family history and realized that my grandfather’s parents were alive during the height of the lynching, when, it was estimated, 2 -5 Blacks were lynched per week!

How did we survive? When did it stop? It is clear that the spirit of lynching lives on. (Rodney King, Yusef Hawkins, Amadou Diallo, James Byrd Jr.) If this phenomenon were to resurface today, what would we do to counter it? Can we depend on the collective white consciousness? How about our own political influence? Or perhaps we could look to our leaders, those, who of course, have to yet pass the color line and disappeared into the white majority.

I was motivated to share what I learned. This book was important to me on many different levels. It reinforced my attitudes towards white women. It strengthened my resolve to ensure I exercise my right to vote. I was introduced to heroes. Men and women like Ida B. Wells, William Monroe Trotter, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White.

I imagine Whites recoiling in shame when confronted by the deeds of their ancestors.


kNOw Peace.



One thought on “Review: At The Hands of Persons Unknown

  1. This was an excellent book. I have used this book along with its pictorial companion “Without Sanctuary” as jump off points in various debates with people who have “tried” to compare the struggles of their people (Italian immigrants, and homosexuals just to name two) with the plight of the Afrikan.

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