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The Story of James Cameron

There have been many infamous photographs taken during America’s dark time of racism. Among one happened not in the South but in the heartland—Marion, Indiana.

This particular photograph had inspired poet, Abel Meeropol, to write the song Strange Fruit, which became one of Billie Holiday’s greatest hits. The emotions of Meeropol, perhaps, aren't different compared to anyone who views the picture today. You would not be human if it didn't spark an unnerving anger as you see someone’s son or brother hanging lifeless on a maple tree.

Worse, the crowd that swelled by the thousands stood proudly in front of photographer, Lawrence Beilter, which later sold the photograph for fifty cents. With boasting smiles and pointing fingers in the photograph as if they were at a County Fair, there was supposed to been a third person on that lone branch. Yet his life was spared.

On August 6, 1930—eighty-one miles from the capitol of Indianapolis—James Cameron (16), Thomas Shipp (18), and Abram Smith (19) were accused of armed robbery and murder of factory worker, Claude Deeter, and the rape of his companion, Mary Ball.

By Cameron’s accounts in a 2006 Washington Post article, he recalled Shipp and Smith wanted to rob someone and saw Deeter’s car parked at Lover’s Lane. Cameron remembered one of the teens placing a gun his hand but when he discovered the man in the car was the person he shined shoes in town, he refused and ran home. While in his pursuit, the sixteen-year-old heard ringing of gunshots. He continued his mission home without looking back.

The youths were later arrested and sent to jail, and the news of the murder and rape went rapidly through the small town—forming an angry mob. Indiana University Professor and the Author of, Lynching in the Heartland, James H. Madison wrote: “The mob broke into the jail and removed the prisoners. First Shipp was hanged through the bar windows and dragged to a maple tree to the town’s square and lynched.”

The facts if Shipp or Smith were already dead before the noose went around their necks were sketchy. In an online video, Marion Indiana 1930 Lynching, there were actual witnesses speaking in detail of that night. One of the witnesses had said Abram Smith was alive all the way to the tree. "As they placed the noose around his neck, he tried to loosen rope but the mob lowered him back down to break his arms and hoister him up again and lynched him."

Another witness from same video said the crowd began to sound like spectators at a football game by chanting: “We want Cameron!” In a February 2003 article with the Associated Press, Cameron vividly described the moment as he was led through the crowd: “Pearl-white glowing moon, the roar of the frenzied mob, and the rough hands forcing my head into the noose.”

While waiting for his demise, he began to pray to God for his sins. Cameron said a voice came from the crowd. “Take this boy back—he had nothing to with any killing or raping”. According to him the voice sounded angelic, almost as if came from Heaven. He also continued to say the crowd became quiet and obeyed. They released Cameron, and he returned back to the jail.

Cameron was later convicted and served four years in prison for the crime. And at the age of twenty-one he was released and began his new life with hope. He moved to Detroit and worked in a factory. As Cameron settled into married life, he returned to Indiana to live in the town of Anderson. Yvonne Shinhoster in a Washington Post article wrote that he owned the only black business in town—a combination of shoeshine parlor, record shop, and knickknack store.

James Cameron

 For ten years living the Indiana town, Cameron founded three Indiana chapters of the NAACP and served as Indiana State Director of the Office of Civil Liberties, but his passion for civil rights work grew difficult in the heavily-Klan state—so he moved his family North. Cameron’s initial intention was to go Canada but stopped in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for prospective job opportunities. He became a self-taught historian as well as working for a brewery and enrolled at a local trade school to become a boiler engineer. Cameron continued his civil rights quest by working with Father James Groppe to end housing discrimination in the city.

In the late-1970’s, he and his wife went to Israel and was inspired by a trip to Yad Vashem Memorial—a museum to remember the Holocaust victims. Cameron were so moved by what he saw that he told his wife it should be a museum in the United States to honor the lost lives of African Americans from racial injustice.

When he returned to Milwaukee he was determined to build the museum that told the stories of thousands of Americans—of whom were predominately black—lynched from 1882 to 1968. More importantly, it would be an institution to house the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans. “I wonder if God saved me for this mission” Cameron later said to the Associated Press. “It had to be. And I thank him for that”.

In addition of opening The Black Holocaust Museum, James Cameron published his memoirs in 1982 titled, A Time of Terror as well publishing articles and booklets; such as, What is Equality in American Life and The Lingering Problem.

In 1993, Cameron was pardon by the Indiana Governor, Evan Bayh and the Mayor of Marion, Indiana—the town that changed his life forever—by giving him the key to the city. In 2005 he went to Washington D.C. in frailty of his life, for the U.S. Senate apology for the failure to end lynching.

On June 11, 2006, James Cameron—the only person to have known to survived lynching—passed away at 92. He left a lasting legacy spanning from that sweltering night in Marion, Indiana, to neighboring town of Anderson leaving an imprint of his civil right causes, and to Milwaukee where a simple dream became a reality—the Black Holocaust Museum.

In a video titled “Marion Indiana 1930 Lynching, Cameron proved he was beyond the resentment from leftover scars from racism after his pardon: “Indiana forgave me, and I forgave Indiana”. 

Sources: – online article, Fredrick H. Lowe – online article, unknown author – online article, unknown author – online article, Abel Meeropol Biography, unknown author
Washington Post – online article, Yvonne Shinhoster, June 13, 2006 – Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday – Marion Indiana 1930 Lynching – James Cameron, Being Saved from Lynching

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