I was born and raised in New York City and I’ve been a journalist for The New York Times for nearly three decades. But it wasn’t until 2018 that I learned that a Black man had been lynched in my home state. I was astonished. Lynchings in the North? It turns out that more than 300 Black Americans were lynched in the Northeast and across the Midwest between 1880 and 1940, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. I needed to know more. So I got in my car and drove 65 miles to Port Jervis, New York to find out about the killing of a man named Robert Lewis. This project, Lynchings in the North, has its roots in that road trip.

Richard Puryear

CITATION: Philadelphia Inquirer, “He Broke Jail to Be Lynched.” Philadelphia: March 16, 1894. From Proquest, Src(accessed Aug. 21, 2023)

I learned that Lewis, a young black man who worked at a local hotel, was hung by a mob in 1892 after being accused of raping a white woman. In the initial articles about the murder, newspapers ranging from The New York Times to the Saint Paul Daily Globe and the Mayville, Kentucky Evening Bulletin, mistakenly identified Lewis as “Robert Jackson” and the coverage highlighted the biases that white media – even in the North –  perpetuated about the Black community.

Using archival newspapers and records held by the Port Jervis Historical Society, articles from the Black press, and rare court documents from the legal proceedings in the case, I was able to learn more. The mob hung Lewis from a tree in front of a crowd of hundreds of people. A policeman identified the white men involved and an inquest was held to determine what had happened. The evidence raised questions about Lewis’s guilt, but no one was prosecuted for his killing. Lewis is believed to be buried in an unmarked grave on a hill overlooking the Delaware River in New York.

Through this project, we hope to bring to light the stories of these victims’ lives and to highlight the patterns of racial terror perpetrated across the Northeast and Midwest. In addition to writing obituaries and contemporary histories about these victims, we are collecting archival documents related to these murders, including coverage from historic African American newspapers and white papers across the United States. These documents are vital to recovering these forgotten histories, and highlight how biases and reporting shape our collective memory. 

Photo of grave site in the snow
The project is part of my research initiative, Hidden Legacies: Slavery, Race and the Making of 21st Century America, which seeks to deepen Americans’ understanding of the legacies of slavery and to bring journalists, scholars, students and communities together to promote and produce research and reporting that illuminates the experiences of people of color in the United States. Our research is ongoing.