When a black man was appointed postmaster of a small South Carolina town in 1897, the white people of the town attempted to remove him from his new office.
But when they failed to do so legally, a mob set the family’s home on fire and shot at anybody who attempted to run from the burning building. The mob killed the postmaster, Frazier Baker, and his two-year-old daughter.
The lynching gained national attention and widespread condemnation, but the attention intensified after a white woman created a “performance spectacle” about the killings. The performance — which included photography, reenactment, film, music and costumes — showed how art could function as activism, said Autumn Womack, an assistant professor of English and African American studies at Princeton University.
Womack will tell the story March 1 in her presentation, “A Deplorable Spectacle: Performance, Photography and Anti-Lynching Activism.” She’ll speak at Casper College and the University of Wyoming for this year’s Bruce Richardson Lecture in the Humanities.
“It was this weird blend of turn-of-the-century reform theater which was really popular at the time and this brand of anti-lynching activism — and the two did often did overlap in the way they did in this case,” Womack said. “So I’m going to be telling that story, which is fascinating in and of itself, and then I uncover this expansive archive of visual and archival ephemera that will be with it.”
The lecture series is in its third year, and its purpose is to bring exciting scholars and university-level programming to the community, said assistant professor of English at UW-Casper Arielle Zibrak, who organizes the event.
“Autumn is one of the most exciting emerging scholars working in African American studies today” she said.
Womack specializes in 19th-and early 20th-century African American literature and her work focuses on “the intersection of visual technology, race and literary culture,” according to her biography on the Princeton website. She learned about the Lake City Lynching while researching in 2012 for her doctoral dissertation.
“I then started tracing the archival trail and it just kept unraveling,” Womack said. “I keep trying to wrap it up but then I keep finding other things. It has a life of its own.”
The research has taken her to the Library of Congress where she found photographs and reviews of the show and even to the Museum of Modern Art, where she discovered stills from a film.
“It’s interesting, because we have this really what we think of as a well-known archive of lynching photography and then anti-lynching activism, but this is a different branch that I hadn’t heard of,” Womack said. “And that branch is such a fascinating other side of this history that we think we know so well.”
When Zibrak started teaching at the University of Wyoming in 2014, she found her students interested in learning about African American literature and culture. So she started teaching classes on the topic. She thought a speaker on the subject would be interesting for the community as well, so she brought in Womack.
Zibrak started the lecture series shortly after took over the classes of longtime UW-Casper professor Bruce Richardson.
The series launched with a donation from now-retired Richardson along with grants from the Wyoming Humanities Council and the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, she said.
“When I think about who to bring, I try to bring someone who’s going to be both sort of cutting edge in the research of their field but also accessible to the general audience and a dynamic presence,” Zibrak said.
The previous year’s lectures featured Cornell University professor and author Caroline Levine and University of Rochester professor James Longenbach, whose work has in the New Yorker and the New York Times, Zibrak said.
Womack looks forward to visiting Wyoming and sharing the story that’s fascinated her for years and is featured in her upcoming book, “Reform Visions: Race, Visuality, and Literature in the Progressive Era.”
Looking at the archive and telling the story helps with understanding various ways racial violence has happened and endures, Womack said. For instance, there are subtle ways it has implicated women and children, she added.
“I think it just enriches our understanding of African American performance culture and also it really adds texture to stories of turn-of-the century activism,” she said. “I think there’s a way that narratives of the past always really inform how we are conceptualizing our place in the political present.”