Protest song unlocks lynch mob memories

Billie Holliday records Strange Fruit in 1939 Billie Holiday records the famous anti-lynching song Strange Fruit in 1939

'They say the dog didn't bark when Uncle Warren went to her house.'

This is one of the very few bits of information Sylvia Lewis has been able to glean about her great uncle's relationship with a woman called Ethel Fontaine in Mississippi at the turn of the twentieth century, a relationship, or more likely an affair, that led to his death at the hands of a lynch mob in the town of Ocean Springs.

I've been talking to her for a programme in Radio Four's Soul Music series, which takes a piece of music and explores it through people's personal stories.

In the previous series I talked to two old soldiers who spoke poignantly about the song Lili Marlene and how it made them weep for home and for their girlfriends, as well as to Sinead O' Connor about the haunting beauty of She Moved Through The Fair.

I had thought of making a programme about Strange Fruit for the next series, but shied away from it, fearing a programme about a song attacking the lynching of black men and women in America would be too hard to live up to, to do justice to. But when commissioning editor Tony Phillips encouraged me, I felt I should rise to the challenge.

Extreme racism

The research process for Soul Music can take up to three months. It involves scouring the newspapers, the internet, contacting special interest groups, asking friends, colleagues, the man in the street, for anyone with a personal, powerful story connected to the piece. It can seem like looking for a needle in a haystack because you're seeking the kind of personal stories that people don't tend to publicise.

Maggie Ayre Maggie Ayre: Tough to do justice to Strange Fruit

This time, I knew I was only looking for one type of story, for those who had personal experience of lynching and for whom Strange Fruit was a way of expressing pain, anger and repulsion at this most extreme and ugly form of racism.

After a while, I found a lady in New York with a sadly typical story. Sylvia Lewis remembers hearing Strange Fruit as a child growing up in Harlem. It was often played or sung at family soirees but, she says, it was not a popular song with black people. But later the song took on a resonance for her after a casual conversation with her father when she was about eight years old.

'I have two older brothers,' Sylvia says, 'and I remember them constantly being told to behave otherwise they'd end up like Emmett Till. Every black person from the baby boomer era knows the story.'

Lynched for whistling

Start Quote

I was only looking for one type of story, for those who had personal experience of lynching and for whom Strange Fruit was a way of expressing pain, anger and repulsion at this most extreme and ugly form of racism”

End Quote Maggie Ayre Producer

Fourteen year old Emmett Till was on a family visit to Mississippi from Chicago in August 1955 when he innocently whistled at a white woman in a store. That casual, cheeky gesture cost him his life when, three days later in the early hours, a lynch mob forced him out of bed at gunpoint, drove him off in a truck, tortured, beat and shot him, then dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.

I spoke to Emmett's cousin, Simeon Wright, now living in Chicago, who was with him at the store on that fateful day and was sharing a bedroom with him and his brother the night the armed men came for him.

'They asked if he was the boy who had done the whistling. He said 'yeah'. You didn't say that to a white man in Mississippi in 1955. You said 'Yes sir',' he told me. He doesn't believe things have changed much for young blacks in America: 'That strange fruit is still out there - just in a different form,' he says in reference to the shooting last year of the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida and the acquittal of his killer George Zimmerman.

Eight year old Sylvia asked her father whether anything like that had happened in her family. 'Yes' came the stunning reply from her father, 'to my father's brother'.

Later, as an adult, Sylvia found out all she could about her uncle. Warren Stuart was lynched in Mississippi in 1901 after allegedly trying to assault a white woman. Newspaper accounts of the time talk of a lynch mob of around 150 people dragging him out of town before shooting him and hanging his body from a persimmon tree at the roadside.

'5000 souls'

Traumatised by her discovery, Sylvia joined a group made up of people with a shared heritage of racism and slavery. 'For me, the metaphor I wanted to use when I told my story to the group was Strange Fruit,' Sylvia says. 'It's such a sad, sad song, one I have only connected to now through the story of my uncle.'

woman I interviewed who made a quilt with 5000 names of lynching victims on it. April Shipp's quilt remembers US lynching victims

I spoke to many people during the making of my programme, often having to brace myself to pluck up the nerve to ask the difficult, personal, painful questions about what's still a taboo subject.

A quiltmaker I interviewed from Detroit, April Shipp, spent four years working on a large quilt which she called Strange Fruit. It bears the names of over 5000 men, women and children lynched over the course of a century in the United States, each name lovingly sewn in gold thread on black fabric. 'I cried every day I worked on it,' April told me. 'I call it my 5000 souls, and I still cry when I touch it.'

April sent me some photographs of the quilt. I told her about Sylvia's uncle. She found Uncle Warren's name embroidered on the quilt under the section 'Mississippi'. I hesitated before sending the pictures to Sylvia, then decided it might be a comfort to her to know that he is remembered.

'Thank you, thank you,' she replied. 'There is something so comforting knowing he is remembered on a quilt, a place for the weary.'

For Sylvia, April and Simeon, Strange Fruit remains a potent reminder of America's not so distant past. I am humbled and grateful to them for sharing their stories with me.

Soul Music, Radio Four, Tuesday, November 26, 11.30am


Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.