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Lynch Law in America

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Cameron Rowland
American, born 1988

About this artwork

[Lynching] is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an  insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an  “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury,  without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. 
—Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in America,” 1900 

Emergency calls to the police are built on lynch law. Calling the police is a request that someone be injured, arrested, incarcerated, or killed. Calling the police is participation in an authority that uses lynching as law enforcement. Descriptions given to the police provide the grounds for stops of anyone who matches them. 
The power of white people to enforce the law and invoke legal authority was the basis for colonial slave codes. The1740  Slave Codes in South Carolina determined that if enslaved people did not submit to searches by white colonists, they  could be lawfully killed. If any slave, found out of the house or plantation to which they were bound, “shall refuse to  submit or undergo the examination of any white person, it shall be lawful for any such white person to pursue, apprehend,  and moderately correct such slave; and if any such slave shall assault and strike such white person, such slave may be  lawfully killed.” 

The racist legal practice of matching a description has been practiced in the United States since its founding. Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution is known as the Fugitive Slave Clause. It dictates that any slave who absconds to a  state that has abolished slavery does not become free, but legally remains the property of the master. The regular fugitivity  of the enslaved caused the framers of the Constitution to prioritize the recognition, recapture, and return of enslaved  property. The Fugitive Slave Clause was enhanced by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which stipulated  that:  

it shall be the duty of the executive authority of the State or Territory to which such person shall have fled, to  cause him or her arrest to be given to the Executive authority making such demand, or to the agent when he shall  appear … .[A]nd upon proof to the satisfaction of such judge or magistrate, either by oral testimony or affidavit  taken before and certified by a magistrate of any such state or territory, that the person so seized or arrested, doth,  under the laws of the state or territory from which he or she fled, owe service or labour to the person claiming him  or her, it shall be the duty of such judge or magistrate to give a certificate thereof to such claimant, his agent or  attorney, which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive from labour, to the state or territory from  which he or she fled. 

Enforcement of the fugitive slave laws allowed any Black person matching a description to be accused of being a fugitive,  and to be drawn into or returned to slavery. In the absence of formal slavery, the sharecropping system, the lynch mob, the Ku Klux Klan, and the professional police  collaboratively formed a regime of racial terror intended to control the labor and life of Black people across the country.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, police facilitated and participated in lynch mobs. Police continue the practice of  lynching as enforcement of the “unwritten law.” —CR


On View, Gallery 294


Contemporary Art


Cameron Rowland


Lynch Law in America


United States (Object made in)




Emergency call box


66 × 35.6 × 32.4 cm (26 × 14 × 12 3/4 in.)

Credit Line

Contemporary Art Discretionary Fund

Reference Number


Extended information about this artwork

Object information is a work in progress and may be updated as new research findings emerge. To help improve this record, please email . Information about image downloads and licensing is available here.


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