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There Were Lynchings in the North, Too

Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll find out about a new effort at New York University to document a troubling part of America’s past. We’ll also look at the city’s uneven rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit…Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

One night in 1939, in a Greenwich Village cafe that billed itself as “the wrong place for the Right people,” Billie Holiday sang a disturbing ballad called “Strange Fruit” for the first time. “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished,” she said later. “Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.”

The song referred to lynchings in the South. But after the Civil War, there were also lynchings in the North, including one in New York State.

A new website and research project, “Lynchings in the North,” is examining the lives of victims of racial violence as part of the “Hidden Legacies” initiative led by Rachel Swarns, a former New York Times reporter who is a journalism professor at N.Y.U. Swarns is collaborating with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to identify lynching victims, and her students are writing obituaries based on archival records and interviews.

“The fact is that we often think about lynchings in the South, and thousands took place in the South,” Swarns said. “But it’s striking that Billie Holiday performed that song in New York, because racial violence happened in the North, too, and in New York. It’s important for Americans to know and understand that and reckon with that. I was born and raised in New York, and I had no idea.”

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