Cover Story: Emory asks public to help decide fate of controversial exhibit

U.S. Rep. John Lewis says his wife won’t crack the cover.
Lewis wrote an introduction to Without Sanctuary, the book that inspired the exhibit of lynching photographs that Emory University is considering showing in Atlanta. But Lillian Lewis was so horrified by the subject that she couldn’t bring herself even to take a peek at the book.
So John Lewis, a former civil-rights leader, can see why Emory academics are gingerly considering whether they should display the photographs in Atlanta.
“I understand what Emory is trying to do, and I am mindful of their concerns,” Lewis says. “But it is history. It did happen. We shouldn’t be afraid to recognize this part of our history.”
Emory would seem an appropriate, even obvious, host for the exhibit. After all, antiquities collector Jim Allen — the author of Without Sanctuary — loaned his collection of lynching photographs to the university’s Robert W. Woodruff Library. And Atlanta is the hub of the region portrayed in the overwhelming majority of the photographs.
Still, in a city of homogenized accents, superhighways and dotcom millionaires, it’s easy to forget Faulkner’s observation about the South: the past here isn’t even past yet.
Just two years ago, a musical on Atlanta’s most infamous lynching opened, not in Atlanta, but in New York, partly because Atlanta-born playwright Alfred Uhry feared the subject was too hot for the city. Parade did re-open old wounds: Creative Loafing and other publications repor-ted around that time that some of Cobb County’s most prominent citizens descended from those who lynched Frank, a Jewish factory manager. Some of the descendants continue to justify the killing.
From its opening in March through its closing in September, an exhibit in New York of the photographs attracted reverential reviews and about 50,000 people, among the largest audiences ever at the New York Historical Society. The New York exhibit’s success puts pressure on Emory to display its own works here. But the prospect also prompted Emory President William Chace to name an advisory panel to consider if, where, when and how the photographs should be shown. The panel has held three invitation-only forums on the subject and begins this week to hold public forums.
“Overwhelmingly, [participants have] been supportive of exhibiting the material,” says African-American History Professor Leroy Davis, who is on the committee. “But there have been issues about the appropriateness of the exhibit and the appropriateness of the age of viewers, the age for children, for example.”
At a forum at the Atlanta History Center, Davis says, a white woman questioned why anyone would want to dredge up something that might have a negative impact on race relations. She was alone in expressing such a reservation in the almost entirely white crowd, he says, but a black person at an almost entirely black forum raised the very same concern.
“These are horrendous photos,” notes James Roark, who teaches Southern history at Emory. “They hurt. They are appalling. It isn’t easy to look at them. But it is necessary that we — not just as Southerners — but as a nation, come to grips with the tactics that have been employed in racism.”
Whatever Emory decides, Allen’s collection appears bound for exhibitions elsewhere. Michael Lomax, president of Dillard University in New Orleans and former Fulton County Commission chairman, says Dillard — a predominantly black institution — plans to host the exhibit, though the school hasn’t worked out the details. Atlanta, Lomax notes, always has been more sensitive to race issues than other cities, particularly Southern ones. But given the content of the photos, he says he can understand why Emory officials are being so careful about sounding out the community.
“Emory is an establishment, mainstream institution,” Lomax says. “We, here [at Dillard], we were the victims. This is a very explosive issue. I don’t think people can understand or predict what the reaction will be. Obviously, there will be extraordinary anger, pain, guilt and suffering. You can’t predict how people will handle that.”
The committee is expected to recommend what to do with the images by the end of the month. As members consider the question, they might take into account one heartening outcome: Parade, the musical, closed quickly on Broadway but came to Atlanta last spring for a brief run at the Fox. It was met with much praise and little controversy.
Forums on Without Sanctuary will be held 7 p.m.-9 p.m. at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, 101 Auburn Ave. on Wednesday, Dec. 6, and Friday, Dec. 8.