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At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America

4.38  ·  Rating Details ·  395 Ratings  ·  39 Reviews
Winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction

This extraordinary account of lynching in America, by acclaimed civil rights historian Philip Dray, shines a clear, bright light on American history’s darkest stain—illuminating its causes, perpetrators, apologists, and victims. Philip Dray also tells the story of the men and women who led the long and difficul
Paperback, 544 pages
Published January 7th 2003 by Modern Library (first published 2002)
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Dec 23, 2009 Eric rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, massacres
Somewhere near the end of Koba the Dread, his account of readerly adventures in the Stalin demonology, Martin Amis weighs Hitler and Stalin. He concludes that because racism is the purest product of our unreflecting reptilian brain, a racist ideology must represent the worst brand of the political violence our species finds so instrumental (Baudelaire was not overstating things when he equated cosmopolitanism with a “divine grace”). Along with Nazi Germany, we should look to the American South ( ...more
Amazing book about appalling history...As a history buff who has also read a lot about the death penalty in the United States, I was surprised by how many of the stories and names in this book were completely new to me. I was also surprised to learn how wrong I was in my prior assumptions about what a "typical" lynching looked like--I had no idea how often victims were killed by means other than hanging (especially being burned alive) or how often the body was further mistreated even after death ...more
Apr 16, 2009 Eric rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those that actually want to understand fully the Black experience in America
Shelves: history
This book was hard on my soul. I always thought when a Black person was lynched, they died of a broken neck, which is a relatively quick death. I didn't know that being strung up on a rope was done after the person was tortured, mostly by first taking "souvenirs" of the still living person. The first to go was the victim's penis. then the fingers, toes, ears, etc. Then the person was roasted slowly over a fire, and then hung. After that pictures were taken of the body and sent all over the count ...more
Jean louise Finch
Sep 15, 2011 Jean louise Finch rated it it was amazing
Excellent book, reads like a novel. I could see so many parallels with the present time. Read this after you read fluff like The Help for a more accurate reality and proof that black people were not "victims" but actively sought to change their circumstances. Also read "Without Sanctuary" the descriptions of these brutal and animalistic lynchings by racist America are almost hard to believe until you see the actual postcard photos that were collectors items!
Jul 16, 2013 Emma rated it it was amazing
Sweeping, definitive, sickening. A companion to 'Buried in the Bitter Waters' that should be mandatory reading for those who utter the phrase 'post-racial age'.
Andrew Tollemache
Feb 25, 2015 Andrew Tollemache rated it it was amazing
Over the last few years I have started to realize that the Ken Burns classic documentary "The Civil War" did a huge disservice to the country. Though widely praised and loved, it really overly romanticized a conflict that was way more brutal and savage than we give it credit for. Away from the set piece battles of Lee and Grant was a very brutal, almost guerilla war, that truth be told, did not end until decades after the Appomattox treaty.
This book by Philip Dray on the history of lynching i
John Rymer
Dec 14, 2014 John Rymer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an amazing book; read it. The premise sounds negative -- I mean, a history of *lynching*?? And the opening of the book was gruesome enough to scare me away for a few months. Why would you read such a book? I'm glad I picked up the book again and finished it. "At the Hands of Persons Unknown" is really a history of the black experience in America, circa 1890 through 1964, told through the lens of lynching. It is a horrifying tale, unflinchingly told. The cruelty inflicted on our black fel ...more
I walked up to the 'Black History Month' table at Housing Works Bookstore & Café in Soho. I had passed it by a few times during my stroll and perusal of books in the store. It's one of those used bookstores I always end up leaving with something unexpected, something unsought. My first glance at the 'Black History Month' brought a smart remark somewhere in the front of my brain. It floated and tapped at the back of my eyeballs. "Why only a month?" Of course, I understand why and where these ...more
Jun 02, 2012 Christoaugust rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a fascinating history of a forgotten past era. What happened to black people in post-reconstruction America is sadly left out of most history books. This book places lynching in context of racial developments and also details the origins of many civil rights reformers devoted to ending it. Must-read.
Jun 24, 2012 Beverly rated it it was amazing
The is a well researched and well written history of the lynching of black people in America. It should be on everyone's reading list. There are parts of the book that are hard to read, but they should be read. It will not make one "proud to be an American".
Karen Ferguson
Apr 02, 2014 Karen Ferguson rated it really liked it
Shocking history of lynching in America. I could barely believe what I was reading it was so horrific.
Marisa Bowe
May 23, 2011 Marisa Bowe rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An absolutely essential read for anyone interested in American history, let alone African-American history. It utterly changes your perspective.
Mar 07, 2012 Seth rated it it was amazing
Everyone in the U.S. should read this.
Feb 17, 2010 Juliaf rated it it was amazing
excellent book as a work of scholarship - is literally nightmarish - reading it gave me terrible dreams - but terrible is really the only word for lynching, so is quite appropriate.
May 09, 2017 Andy rated it it was amazing
Dray's powers as a writer are formidable; that and his humanity and command of the material combined to give me an experience that deepened my understanding of our history, wretched and noble, by leagues. I was immeasurably rewarded for overcoming my dread of approaching the horrific subject matter.

Jan 28, 2017 Noah rated it it was amazing
This book is haunting. I wish every single white person in the US would read this. It details a US holocaust of frightening proportions while also highlighting the work & ideals of heroes like Ida B. Wells & W.E.B. DuBois. This book will leave you shaken to your core. Probably the best researched 7 sourced US history book I've ever read, as well.
Mar 09, 2017 Josiah rated it it was amazing
This opened my eyes to what lynching means. Philip Dray lays out example after example so that we can see how lynching functioned as a social mechanism. That is, the triggers were keeping black men from considering relations with white women (and any gossip to this effect could be attached but not undone: the accusation was the sentence) and keeping 'the n****s' in their place.

The real reasons for lynching were always the latter -- often enough as punishment for minor successes.

I now know of E
David Longo
Dec 26, 2016 David Longo rated it really liked it
Philip Dray's "At The Hands of Persons Unknown" is a disturbingly good read. It chronicles a century's worth of lynchings of African-Americans. In the process, Dray takes a long hard look at Ida Wells, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Walter White, the NAACP and much more.

Dray is a damn good researcher. He seems to leave no stone unturned. "At The Hands of Persons Unknown" serves as a great companion to "Capitol Men," Dray's earlier book on black mistreatment during Reconstruction and the f
Feb 20, 2013 Maduck831 rated it it was amazing
“But because of the widespread sentiment against destroying another man’s property, slaves were often extended far more legal consideration than their free descendants, the nominal beneficiaries of emancipation and citizenship rights granted by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.” (29) “In contrast, influenced by Romantic ideals and perhaps to adjust somehow for their animalistic lusting after black women, whites had placed their own women on a pedestal of virtue and purity – the polar opp ...more
Olga Sormaz
Sep 15, 2016 Olga Sormaz rated it it was amazing
How can you even describe a book that uncovers the truth behind the Reconstruction Period in American History? Definitely worth the read.
Feb 01, 2016 Bryan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A powerful book that looks unflinchingly at the history of the lynching of Blacks in America. At times almost too horrific to read, I believe that all who doubt the heavy burden being Black in America should read it. It is unimaginable that simply being suspected of committing a crime, sometimes of a relatively minor sort, could lead to death by mob if you were Black. So many of the lynchings recounted in this book go beyond a simple hanging, and involve torture and bestial levels of physical ab ...more
Jim DeBell
Jun 04, 2015 Jim DeBell rated it it was amazing
After all the recent controversy over the confederate flag in South Carolina, it's ironic that it's mentioned a number of times in this eloquently written, landmark book. Next time I hear "heritage not hate" here in Richmond Virginia, I'll invite that individual to read this account of southern history. If their gut is not sickened and their heart not broken by the stories described; if they can bear to read another tale of what African-American's endured during this lengthy period of time (and ...more
Nov 19, 2016 Bill added it
It took me a few weeks to read this book, one because it was massive and two because the material was so emotionally gut wrenching, but it was worth the effort. America has never really faced its demons about the past, and we must look at it if we are ever to truly heal. Dray makes us look at the horrible, examining lynching in this country, but also finds the heroes, Ida B Wells, Walter White, and others who at great peril challenged is to be a better nation. 3.9 Martinie glasses
Lisa Barrett
Apr 21, 2015 Lisa Barrett rated it it was amazing
A well-researched, well-written, and thoroughly disturbing book. Everyone should be aware of the prevalence of lynching well into the 20th Century, in the northern part of the U.S. as well as the south. Lynching is a form of terrorism, preventing African Americans from living a full life as well as preventing them from voting, from living in middle class neighborhoods, from assuming leadership positions.

Dec 07, 2007 Visha rated it really liked it
Great structure; includes graphic photographs; Dray does not just focus on the South - which is refreshing - but holds all of America accountable for some of the most horrific (and forgotten) travesties people have dealt others. Found a couple of small mistakes; overall phenomenal tome: worth owning.
Mary Gail O'Dea
Sep 28, 2012 Mary Gail O'Dea rated it it was amazing
I knew lynching occurred. I had no idea that it was as widespread and brutal as it was, including burning African Americans alive, while schoolchildren picnicked and watched. The standard accusation that a Black man raped or wanted to rape woman was so very much a projection the white male Southerners' long history of raping Black women. This is an important book.
Required reading. Exhaustive research. I would say this is hard to read, but it would be harder to live with yourself ignorant of this facet of U.S. history, to be frank. This very, very recent history that has been purposefully and collectively overlooked by white America in favor of the narrative that racist violence is something of the past. The past is breathing down our necks.
Leroi Mora
May 27, 2014 Leroi Mora rated it it was amazing
Excellent and well researched book on the lynching history against African Americans. Stomach churning but also well written in making the reader grasp of the cruelties perpetrated against African Americans. Must read for any student or scholar interested in this terrible chapter of American History.
Oct 26, 2014 Karl rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: alatt-recommends
I learned so much about American history as I read this book. It wasn't an easy read (took me well over a year to work through), but it's important. Especially as it relates to #blacklivesmatter and recent events. Highly recommended.
Freddie K. Hollman
Nov 07, 2011 Freddie K. Hollman rated it it was amazing
This book was very powerful!!!!! I cried when I first, read the book, then after that I could not put it down. I would recommend this book to everyone.
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Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award.

Lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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“I tried to balance the sufferings of the miserable victim against the moral degradation of Memphis, and the truth flashed over me that in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.” 0 likes
“The torture of the victim lasted almost half an hour. It began when a man stepped forward and very matter-of-factly sliced off Hose’s ears. Then several men grabbed Hose’s arms and held them forward so his fingers could be severed one by one and shown to the crowd. Finally, a blade was passed between his thighs, Hose cried in agony, and a moment later his genitals were held aloft.” 0 likes
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