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On sunny summer days of the past, you likely decided that it was the perfect time for a picnic with family or friends. You know...the kind where you throw down a big blanket, break open the picnic basket, and relax into the evening.
Well, unfortunately that is not how picnics have always looked. From 1882 to 1968, almost 3,500 Black people were lynched in the United States and nearly all of these occurred in a picnic-like environment.
What exactly does that mean? It means that white people gathered around with their families, enjoyed meals together, and posed for pictures while a Black victim dangled lifeless from a tree in the background.
Even worse, some of these picnics actually included cooking the lynched victim. According to historian Philip Dray, “the experience of having witnessed the event was thought incomplete if one did not go home with some piece of cooked human being; and there is evidence of lynch crowds either consuming food and drink while taking part in the execution or retiring en masse immediately afterward for a meal.”
When we collectively think about lynchings, we typically envision the KKK or an angry mob, but it is important to remember that ordinary folks from the white community attended these picnics, cheered on the brutal murders of Black people, and went home like nothing out-of-the-norm just happened.
The word picnic originated in France during the 17th century to denote a social gathering where participants bring food, and everyone leisurely “picks at” each other’s dish. However, while the word did not initially have racist origins, it is undeniable that the word’s meaning evolved after 80 years of lynchings at these events.
Defenders of the word typically point to its meaning without the proper context or understanding that thousands of Black lives were lost at picnics. They made a spectacle out of our ancestors, and we will not forget the valuable lives lost for their enjoyment and entertainment.
Interested in finding out more about lynching and picnics? You can find more detailed information here in At The Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America.