Accounts printed in the daily press show that 1,665 blacks were lynched in the decade ending 1900. James Weldon Johnson wrote that "numbers of them were lynched with a savagery that was ... nothing short of torture, mutilation and burning alive at the stake." Indiana and Mississippi mobs had alike been lynching innocent blacks. Such horrible occurrences gave Paul Laurence Dunbar a theme for a strong poem of hostility, "The Haunted Oak."
The ballad is the wail of an oak tree on which an innocent victim has been hanged by a mob. Mayor Brand Whitlock, a white "Progressive" and patron from Toledo, Ohio, criticized the poet's usage of the word "innocence" in the verse:
From those who ride fast on our heels
With mind to do him wrong:
They have no care for his innocence,
And the rope they bear is long.
Dunbar defended his choice of nouns, indicating that had "innocence been left out, . . . it would have destroyed our element of dramatic powers ... our feeling at a crime committed against a criminal is never so deep as that of one injustice done to any innocent man."
Even uglier than lynching is the fact that in a number of instances the black victim was hanged merely because of the color of his skin. In a collection of short stories by Dunbar, a story entitled "The Lynching of Jube Benson" indicated the murder of an innocent black. In the story, after the lynching of Jube the mob left. This gave the protagonist not only the opportunity of trying to resuscitate Jube, but also time to inspect the body of the rape victim: "Carefully, carefully, I searched underneath her broken finger nails. There was skin there. I took it out, the little curled pieces. . . . It was the skin of a white man, and in it were embedded strands of short, brown hair or beard." A "white ruffian" had committed the crime and had smeared his face with dirt "to imitate a Negro's."
From "The Crowded Years: Paul Laurence Dunbar in History" in A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Jay Martin. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Jay Martin.