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Emory May Lose Rare Collection of Lynching Photos

Emory May Lose Rare Collection of Lynching Photos


A rare exhibit of lynching photographs may be leaving Atlanta for good. Frustrated with its caretaker, Emory University, the collection’s owner recently drove to the Emory library and loaded boxes of lynching photos and other material not part of the exhibition at the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site Visitor Center.

James Allen plans to sell his collection to another institution.

“I’ve agonized over this,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking to me.”

Allen, an Atlanta-based antiques dealer, and his partner, John Littlefield, spent 10 years gathering the material. The scenes, mostly captured by amateur photographers, were used as souvenirs at lynchings throughout America.

The exhibit’s chilling content — among it, photographs and postcards of disfigured, burned corpses surrounded by crowds of smiling faces — is a reminder of the South’s past.

Allen’s frustration with Emory grew almost since the beginning of the partnership.

The university initially envisioned a showing in 2003. Allen instead chose the King site as a venue. He negotiated the dates and selected the curator. With the National Park Service, Emory co-sponsored the exhibit, “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.” The school also picked up much of the bill and in October held an academic conference on racial violence. But the university still fell short in Allen’s eyes.

The 48-year-old Florida native offered to sell the collection to Emory this fall. He asked the school to match the $1 million he said he was offered by a benefactor who planned to donate the collection to Harvard University — an offer he turned down because he wanted to keep the collection in the South, where about 4,000 of the nearly 5,000 known lynchings took place.

Linda Matthews, director of special collections and archives at the library, said Emory couldn’t meet his price and that he wouldn’t negotiate.

Now Allen is talking to other universities and research institutions. He insists he is not looking for the highest bidder but wants “to find a home for this collection that has the imagination to deal with it.”

Dr. Randall Burkett, Emory’s curator of African American collections, was disappointed with the move.

“It’s a terrific loss,” he says. “Jimmy has done an extraordinary thing with this collection. It’s enormously important.”

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