Lynching survivor’s story retold for Black History Month

Carolyn Schultz

The Office of Multicultural Affairs brought Sandra Adell, a professor of Afro-American Studies at UW-Madison, to campus Monday to give a presentation on “The Life and Legacy of Dr. James Cameron” as part of the Black History Month celebration.
Cameron was the sole survivor of a 1930 lynching in Marion, Ind. and was the founder of America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Cameron was also the author of “A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story,” a memoir that describes his experiences and narrow escape from a mob determined to make him pay for a murder and rape he did not commit.
In her lecture, Adell retold Cameron’s story. Because he admitted he was too scared and traumatized to remember much of his experience, Cameron fabricated much of the narrative from first hand accounts and his feelings as he wrote the memoir 60 years later.
The story began as a 16-year-old Cameron followed two older friends to Lover’s Lane to commit a robbery on the evening of August 6, 1930. His friends forced a white man and his fiancee from their car and threatened to shoot them. In a Wisconsin Public Television interview at age 80, Cameron recalled during the incident that he said, “Holy smokes, I got no business being here,” and left Lover’s Lane. His friends then shot the man and allegedly raped the woman.
Police came for Cameron later that night and arrested him, along with his two friends. He was locked up on the second floor of the jail when a mob of 25-30 men broke into the jail and took his two friends from a first-floor cell. They beat them nearly to death and hung them in a tree on the jailhouse lawn. Then they came back for Cameron. “The nightmare had become my reality,” wrote Cameron in his memoir.
Cameron was badly beaten and had a noose around his neck. He was ready to be hoisted between his two friends in the tree, when the mob of nearly 10,000 people became quiet. Cameron said in his memoir that he heard an angelic female voice telling the mob to let him go. Based on other first hand accounts, a sheriff told the mob to let Cameron go.
After his release, Cameron became very involved in the civil rights movement. After a trip to Israel during which he visited the Jewish Holocaust Museum, Cameron founded the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee in 1988.
The mission of the museum is “to educate the public [about] injustices suffered by the people of African- American heritage, while providing visitors with an opportunity to rethink their assumptions about race and racism.” The museum includes an exhibit that Cameron called “the Chamber of Horrors” which displays authentic KKK uniforms and photographs of lynchings, including the lynching in Indiana.
Adell and other scholars in the field define modern hate crimes as lynchings. She cites the murders of James Bird, an African-American man in Jasper, Texas and Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyo.
Adell explained that there is an absence of focus on lynching in the media because “it’s implicating communities – black communities and white communities.” People are afraid to talk about it because “we’ve got a collective trauma [of the African-American people] and a collective guilt [of white Americans],” said Adell. But, as Cameron preached in his civil rights work, “the only way we can change racism is to confront it.