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A Season for violence

The lynching of Blacks and Labor Demand in the Agricultural Production Cycle in the American South*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 December 2008

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In this paper we explore the hypothesis that monthly variation in white mob violence against blacks in the American South was affected by seasonal variation in the demand for labor in southern agriculture. Using monthly data on black lynchings that occurred between 1882 and 1930 we find that mob violence was more frequent during times of stronger labor demand than during slack periods. While the manifest function of lynchings might well have been to rid the white community of offending blacks who violated the moral order, we suggest that the latent function was to tighten the reins of control over the black population, especially during times when whites most needed black labor to work fields of cotton or tobacco.

Research Article
Copyright © Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 1992


1 For our purposes in this paper the “South” is defined as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Our definition of a lynching closely follows the one adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: (1) there must be evidence that a person was killed; (2) the death must have been illegal; and (3) a group of at least three conspirators must have participated in the killing. See National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Thirty Years of Lynching, 1889–1918 (New York, 1969). Thus we differentiate between a racially-motivated murder which could be committed by a single assassin and a lynching which had to be conducted by a group.Google Scholar

2 See Beck, E.M. and Tolnay, Stewart, “The Killing Fields of the Deep South: The Market for Cotton and the Lynching of Blacks, 1882–1930”, American Sociological Review, 55 (1990), pp.526539;CrossRefGoogle ScholarHubert, M. Blalock, Toward A Theory of Minority.Group Relations (New York, 1967);Google ScholarJay, Corzine et al. , “Black Concentration and Lynchings in the South: Testing Blalock's Power-Threat Hypothesis”, Social Forces, 61 (1983), pp. 774796;Google ScholarJay, Corzine et al. “The Tenant Labor Market and Lynching in the South: A Test of Split Labor Market Theory”, Sociological Inquiry, 58 (1988), pp. 261278;Google ScholarCarl, I. Hovland and Robert, R. Sears, “Minor Studies of Aggression: Correlations of Economic Indices with Lynchings”, Journal of Psychology, 9 (1940), pp. 301310;Google ScholarJames, M. Inverarity, “Populism and Lynching in Louisiana, 1889–1896: A Test of Erikson's Theory of the Relationship Between Boundary Crises and Repressive Justice”, American Sociological Review, 41 (1976), pp. 262280;Google ScholarMintz, Alexaner, “A Re-Examination of Correlations Between Lynchings and Economic Indices”, Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 41 (1946), pp. 154160;CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMedJohn, Shelton Reed, “Percent Black and Lynching: A Test of Blalock's Theory”, Social Forces, 50 (1972), pp. 356360;Google ScholarTolnay, Stewart and Beck, E.M., “Black Right: Lethal Violence and the Great Migration, 1900 to 1930”, Social Science History, 14 (1990), pp. 347370;Google ScholarToLnay, Stewart and Beck, E.M., “Racial Violence and Black Migration in the South, 1910 to 1930”, American Sociological Review, 57 (1992), pp. 103116;CrossRefGoogle ScholarStewart, Tolnay et al. “Black Lynchings: The Power Threat Hypothesis Revisited”, Social Forces, 67 (1989), pp. 605623.Google Scholar

3 Ames, Jesse, The Changing Character of Lynching (Atlanta, 1942), pp. 1314;Google ScholarWilliamson, Joel, The Crucible of Race: Black–White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York, 1984), p. 186.Google Scholar

4 Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching, Lynchings and What They Mean (Atlanta, 1932), p. 12.Google Scholar

5 Southern Commission, Lynchings and What They Mean, p. 12.Google Scholar

6 According to Cheatwood, the history of crime seasonality can be traced back at least to Hippocrates. See Cheatwood, Derral, “Is There A Season for Homicide?”, Criminology, 26 (1988), pp. 287306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 Quetelet, Adolphe, A Treatise on Man and the Development of His Faculties (New York, 1968), p. 90.Google Scholar

8 One problem with this theory is that a large number of homicides occur in December as well as in the summer months. Obviously, we can't employ the same kind of climatic argument to December homicides. Furthermore, it could be argued that during the colder months, people tend to be enclosed in close proximity, thus possibly producing stressful conditions favorable for hostile interactions.

9 Cheatwood, , “Is There A Season for Homicide?”, pp. 287306.Google Scholar

10 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Crime and Seasonality. National Crime Survey Report SD-NCS-N, NCJ-64818 (Washington, 1980).Google Scholar

11 Otto, Kerner et al. , Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder (Washington, 1968), p. 66.Google Scholar

12 Brooks, C.P., Cotton: Its Uses, Varieties, Fibre Structure, Cultivation, and Preparation for the Market (New York, 1898), pp. 150173;Google ScholarDaniel, Pete, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco and Rice Cultures Since 1880 (Urbana, 1985), pp. 322;Google ScholarUlrich, B. Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South (Boston, 1930), pp. 112115;Google ScholarRupert, B. Vance, Human Factors in Cotton Culture: A Study of the Social Geography of the American South (Chapel Hill, 1929), pp. 150173.Google Scholar

13 The Southern Cultivator, or Dixie Fanner, XLIX (1891), 11 112.Google Scholar

14 Vance, , Human Factors in Cotton Culture, p. 306.Google Scholar

15 Tolnay, et al., “Black Lynchings: The Power Threat Hypothesis Revisited”, p. 608; Beck, and Tolnay, , “The Killing Fields of the Deep South”, pp. 530531.Google Scholar

16 Williams, Daniel, Amid the Gathering Multitude: The Story of Lynching in America: A Classified Listing (Unpublished manuscript, Tuskegee University, 1968).Google Scholar

17 It could be argued, however, that there was a shift in this position after World War I as national anti-lynch campaigns became more vocal and some of the southern business community began to view mob violence as a hinderance to commercial growth.

18 Rather than a problem of under-count, we believe that a potentially more serious problem with existing inventories is one of reporting error, including the reporting of events which were non-lynching events. The term “lynching” was used to describe a variety of phenomenon, some of which were simple murders and other non-lynchings. In other instances, there were reports of an expected lynching or supposed lynching without sufficient evidence that a killing actually took place. Based on our experience so far, 1 out of 6 previously reported lynching victims failed to meet our definition of a lynching and were excluded from our inventory. All of this leads us to believe that the problem of over-count is as potentially serious as one of under-counting, perhaps even more so.

19 Ayers, Edward, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South (New York, 1984), p. 243.Google Scholar

20 Preliminary analysis indicated, however, that the seasonal pattern of black lynching victims is very similar to the seasonal pattern of black lynching incidents.

21 For readers who place value on statistical tests for these kinds of data, we computed the X2 comparing the observed number of lynching incidents in each month with the number expected under the assumption of no seasonality (a uniform distribution). The resulting X2 was 72.81 with 11 degrees of freedom.

22 Ames, , The Changing Character of Lynching; Southern Commission, Lynchings and What They Mean, p. 12.Google Scholar

23 It could be argued that lynching was counter-productive because it removed labor from the supply pool by (1) killing able-bodied black workers, and (2) by encouraging black workers to migrate frcm areas of frequent mob violence. We believe that there is some evidence of the latter effect (see Tolnay, and Beck, , “Racial Violence and Black Migration”, p. 113), but as for the former, the absolute number of blacks lynched would have represented a very small fraction of the total black labor force available for work.Google Scholar

24 Winn, Bill, “Lynching on Wynn's Hill”, Southern Exposure, Fall–Winter (1987), pp.1724.Google Scholar

25 Hardy was not the only one to die in this incident. Winn reports that Cornaker fought against the mob, killing one of them – a white planter named William Leonard. Later Cornaker turned himself in to the sheriff and was placed in jail. On 22 June, William Cornaker was taken from the jail by another white mob and lynched.

26 Winn, , “Lynching on Wynn's Hill”, p. 18.Google Scholar

27 Blacks were not the only victims of mob violence against labor, however. In mid- January 1923, E. C. Gregor, a white male, was hanged until dead from a railroad trestle in Harrison, Boone County, Arkansas. Mr. Gregor had been involved in a militant strike against the railroad and when questioned, he refused to identify those who might have been implicated in sabotaging the railroad. A few years later, Mrs. Ella May [Wiggins], a white female, was killed by a mob near Gastonia, North Carolina in early September 1929. She had joined a textile union and had been trying to arrange a mass meeting in Gastonia in support of her union's efforts to organize textile workers. Her efforts were not appreciated by textile employers and some of the local who may have feared for their jobs.

28 The source for these data are: National Office of Vital Statistics, Vital Statistics of the United States 1945–1949, Part IL Natality and Mortality Data for the United States Tabulated by Place of Residence (New York, 1968)Google Scholar and National Office of Vital Statistics, Vital Statistics of the United States. 1950. Volume III. Mortality Data (New York, 1968).Google Scholar

29 During the 1882–1930 period, there was a total of 2238 instances of lynching in the American South. Of these, the vast majority, 2010, were cases of black men, women, and children being killed by groups of whites. There were, however, 228 incidents involving white mobs and white victims.

30 The pattern in Figure 2a is consistent with the general trend in homicides reported by Cheatwood (“Is There A Season for Homicide?”, p. 302), including the spike in homicides in December.

31 It is interesting to note that Figure 2b shows that incidents of white lynchings were markedly above-average in December, which is comparable to the December spike in homicides in Figure 2a. However, as Figure 1 shows, black lynchings were slightly below average in December.

32 As for the homicide data, we are, of course, assuming that the generalized pattern for the 1945–1950 period would approximate any generalized pattern in the 1882–1930 period. There are no means for testing this assumption, but we do know that the 1945–1950 pattern of southern homicides is very similar to the 1970s–1980s pattern reported by Cheatwood (“Is There A Season for Homicides?”, pp. 293–295) for the nation as a whole. Further, it is worth noting that research by H.C. Brearley shows that homicides in South Carolina from 1920 to 1924 display marked seasonality: with peaks occurring during periods of reduced farming work, “[…[ one peak during the winter vacation and the other during the midsummer lay-by and camp meeting time”, as cited by Vance, , Human Factors in Cotton Culture, pp. 165166.Google Scholar Even Quetelet's, (A Treatise on Man, p. 90) analysis of French crime data of 1827–1828 show a rise in crimes against persons increasing in the summer months, declining in the early fall, then increasing again in December before declining in winter.Google Scholar

33 That is, in terms of standardized residuals, the adjusted monthly lynching is: Adjusted Yi = (Yi–Yi*)\Se i = 1,2,…12 Eq. (1) where Yi is the observed number of black lynching incidents occurring in the ith month, Yi* is the predicted number of black incidents occurring in the ith month based on a first-order moving-average regression with homicides and white lynchings as predictors, and se is the square root of the mean square error. Expressed in terms of a percent, the adjusted frequencies are: Adjusted % Yi = 100 X [(Yi – Yi*)\(Yi*)] i = 1, 2,…12 Eq. (2) The only difference between these two forms is that in Eq. (1) the residuals are standardized by the root mean square; in Eq. (2) the residuals are expressed as a percent of the predicted number of lynching incidents. The broad pattern of the adjusted lynchings is the same regardless of which form is adopted, either Eq. (1) or Eq. (2).

34 Another possible explanation is that during the harvest season, there was little need for sanctioning because field workers, farm tenants, and sharecroppers were more strongly motivated to work than in any other time in the production cycle. During the harvest their efforts had rather immediate economic payoff as the cotton was ginned and marketed.

35 The criterion was the percentage of improved acreage dedicated to cotton production in 1899. Improved acreage includes land planted in crops, lying fallow, or in pastures. While the choice of cutting-point is somewhat arbitrary, we designated counties with more than 25% of acreage in cotton as cotton-dependent, and the non-cotton-dependent counties were those with less than 25%. The median percent of acreage planted in cotton for the whole South was 16.8%. It is worthwhile noting that 87.7% of the 326 cotton- dependent counties experienced at least one black lynching incident over the 1882–1930 period, as compared to 61.7% of the 483 non-cotton-dependent counties. The source of the cotton production data was the U.S. Department of the Interior, Census Reports, Agriculture, Parts land II (Washington, 1902).Google Scholar

36 Since we did not have homicide data at the county level, we adjusted the seasonal pattern of lynching incidents of the cotton-dependent counties by the trend of homicides in the primary cotton-producing states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina). Likewise, we adjusted the pattern of lynchings in the non-cottondependent areas by the trend in homicides in the less-cotton-producing states (Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee).

37 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture, 1920 (Washington, 1921), table 319, p. 823.Google Scholar

38 This analysis of the tobacco culture applies only to the flue-cured, bright leaf tobacco of the Carolinas, and some parts of Georgia and Florida The burley tobacco cultivated in Kentucky and Tennessee had a significantly different production cycle. See Charles, K. Mann, Tobacco: The Ants and the Elephants (Salt Lake City, 1975), pp. 2743,Google Scholar and Gamer, W.W. et al., “History and Status of Tobacco Culture”, Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture, 1922 (Washington, 1923), pp. 395468.Google Scholar In addition to tobacco, two other cash crops were particularly important in some areas of the South: rice and sugar. We ignore these two agricultures in this paper, but see Daniel, (Breaking the Land, pp. 3961),Google Scholar and Vance, Rupert (Human Geography of the South: A Study in Regional Resources and Human Adequacy (Chapel Hill, 1935), pp. 214225) for discussions of these crops, and their importance to the South.Google Scholar

39 For discussions of the tobacco culture and its production cycle, see Daniel, , Breaking the Land, pp. 2338; Garner, et at., “History and Status of Tobacco Culture”, pp. 395468; Mann, , Tobacco: The Ants and the Elephants, pp. 4043;Google ScholarPhillips, , Life and Labor in the Old South, pp. 112115;Google Scholar and Vance, , Human Geography of the South, pp.205213.Google Scholar

40 Vance, , Human Geography of the South, p. 212.Google Scholar

41 The notion of “tobacco-dependent” may be slightly exaggerated. Areas growing flue-cured tobacco were far less dependent upon a single crop than were regions specializing in cotton cultivation. For example, for the 1899 growing season, the two largest producers of tobacco in the Carolinas were Rockingham and Stokes counties in North Carolina. Together these two counties produced over 15 million pounds of tobacco in 1899, yet only 14% of their improved acreage was dedicated to tobacco production. The cotton-dependent counties were quite different: during the 1899 season, in each of the prime cotton producing states, many counties devoted over 50% of their improved land to cotton cultivation – in one Mississippi county, more than 80% of its improved acreage was planted in cotton. Clearly, the “tobacco-dependent” regions were significantly less dependent on their cash crop than were the “cotton-dependent” areas on their's. Because of the differences between the intensity of tobacco and cotton cultivations, we used a lower cutting-point to define the tobacco-dependent counties: we defined any county in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia or Florida as “tobacco-dependent” if more than 3% of its improved acreage was devoted to tobacco cultivation in 1900. By this definition, North Carolina had 19 tobacco-dependent counties, South Carolina three, and Georgia and Florida had none. Of these tobacco-dependent counties, only 14 had lynchings with at least one black victim.

42 Since the overwhelming number of tobacco-dependent counties were in North Carolina, we used the seasonal pattern of homicides between 1945 and 1950 in North Carolina as our proxy for generalized violence in the tobacco culture. Because of the very limited number of white lynchings that took place in these tobacco-dependent counties (only two), it was not possible to include the seasonality of white lynchings as an additional proxy, and control, for generalized violence in the coastal tobacco culture.

43 The pattern for the entire South in Figure 6 is the same pattern originally offered in Figure 3.

44 It must be cautioned, however, that the seasonal trend for the tobacco-dependent counties is based on far fewer counties and lynching incidents than was the seasonal pattern for the cotton-dependent counties. The seasonal trend for the flue-cured tobacco is based on only twenty-five incidents of black lynchings distributed over four counties in the Carolinas. The trend for the cotton-dependent South, however, is based on 971 lynchings with black victims distributed over 286 southern counties. This means that the seasonal pattern in the tobacco counties would be highly sensitive to very small changes in the distribution of lynching incidents.

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