Vertis Hayes, The Lynchers

Warning: this video contains graphic scenes of racial violence

Vertis Hayes, The Lynchers, 1930s, oil on canvas, 19-1/2 x 15-1/4 inches (Georgia Museum of Art, Athens); speakers: Dr. Shawnya Harris, Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art at the Georgia Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:19] We’re in the Georgia Museum of Art, looking at a painting by Vertis Hayes, “The Lynchers,” and it dates from the 1930s. As soon as we read the title, we conjure an image, at least I do, of the terrible violence of a lynching.

Dr. Shawnya Harris: [0:26] The violence would be perpetrated against African Americans for basically no reason other than pure hatred.

Dr. Beth: [0:28] Minor infractions. Looking at someone the wrong way, crossing the street the wrong way, white fears of interracial sex. The purpose of lynching was to terrorize communities and to keep them under control.

Dr. Shawnya: [0:43] The largest body of individuals impacted were African American males, and that can resonate with the contemporary era.

Dr. Beth: [0:57] We’re talking about public acts of violence and torture that took place in front of often large crowds of people.

Dr. Shawnya: [1:05] In actuality, many of these were documented by the perpetrators themselves. They would photograph a person that was hung or burned, and through postcards.

[1:16] This painting is interesting because it doesn’t show the victim, but it does show many of the perpetrators in many ways that resemble those early photographs.

Dr. Beth: [1:20] The photographs would have the victim and those who witnessed and perpetrated the violence. But here the victim is missing and we’re focusing entirely on the crowd. My mind does go to those photographs. And then I come back and the nonchalance that I see in some of these figures feels almost unbelievable.

Dr. Shawnya: [1:40] It’s everything from indifference, where some people have their eyes on the actual scene in a very intense way, there’s a smugness, but what’s interesting are the children in the front. Having children at an event like this that is so violent, makes it especially heinous.

[1:56] A young girl who’s still holding a doll staring at a scene which is so graphic. Then a young boy who actually is looking down. You wonder if there’s a little bit of an aversion to what he’s seeing or a little bit of reflection that this is not something good.

Dr. Beth: [2:11] The oldest figure, who’s holding onto his suspenders and has a rifle in his hand, looks very much to me like the kinds of people we see in the photographs, proud of what he’s doing. He wants someone to photograph him, to show him doing this because he believes in the righteousness of what the crowd is doing.

[2:32] Then the figure next to him who lights a cigarette, there’s something very casual and everyday about that. Then the figure he’s in conversation with seems to be loading his gun.

Dr. Shawnya: [2:38] The implication of violence, whether it be in the form of a rifle, a pistol, the suggestion of burning a victim with the cigarette lighter, is really haunting as well.

[2:49] We get a sense of this mob mentality, that it isn’t just these three central figures, but there are all these figures in the background, whether they seem more anonymous, their eyes are non-distinct, they become this lumpen mob of figures.

Dr. Beth: [3:02] It’s as if the artist is showing us all the different kinds of people who took part in lynchings, from the man who wears the black hat to the figure in suspenders. There seem to be generations and people from different classes who have united in this act.

Dr. Shawnya: [3:21] Interestingly enough, the artist, who was born in Atlanta, left the South in part because of the threat of lynchings, and he would have created this after he had lived and worked as a muralist in New York. Moving from these affirming images of African Americans in the Harlem Hospital murals to ones that tackled such hard subjects as lynching, it showed the range of issues in the 1930s.

Dr. Beth: [0:00] Here, the perpetrators are very close to us.

Dr. Shawnya: [3:52] The interesting anecdote about this painting is that there was another title, possibly “The Victims,” which one could argue it’s not only the victims that we don’t see, but the victims that these people would become. Violent acts have an impact on them negatively and through generations, as implied by the children.

Dr. Beth: [4:13] Witnessing that level of violence is a traumatic experience. It can lead to people feeling less empathy.

Dr. Shawnya: [4:21] The fact that we can still look at a painting like this and it haunts us reminds us of where we’ve been, but also where we are, and where we need to be in terms of levels of empathy and tolerance in this country.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Shawnya L. Harris and Dr. Beth Harris, "Vertis Hayes, The Lynchers," in Smarthistory, June 7, 2021, accessed July 15, 2024,