Thomas Shipp

Thomas Shipp school photo taken at age 14, 1925
Thomas Shipp school photo taken at age 14, 1925
Courtesy of the Cameron Family / America's Black Holocaust Museum

Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two teenagers, were lynched by a mob on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana. Police had charged three teens with the armed robbery and murder of a white man and the rape of a white woman.

On that hot August night, a murderous crowd gathered in front of the jailhouse. Men, women, and children shouted and jeered, and demanded that the sheriff release his three prisoners. The three Black teens huddled terrified inside their cells. Ultimately, a mob of thousands broke into the jail, with sledgehammers and crowbars.

The lynch mob savagely beat the defenseless boys. They tortured and hanged Thomas Shipp from a jailhouse window. When Abram Smith tried to free himself from the noose as his body was hauled up, he was lowered back down, and the barbarians broke his arms to prevent such efforts. They then dragged Abram into the courthouse square, stabbed him, and hanged him from a tree. Abram was dead from the beating before the mob hanged his remains from a tree in the courthouse square. The blood-thirsty mob then dragged Thomas’ corpse and hung it next to Abram’s.

A local studio photographer, Lawrence Beitler, took the famous photograph of the dead teenagers hanging from a tree surrounded by the large mob of identifiable spectators underneath. The police department did not protect Thomas and Abram from the bestial mob, and they never arrested or convicted anyone in the crowd. The photographer sold thousands of copies because souvenirs from lynchings were a hot commodity.

Miraculously, James Cameron, the youngest of the three at 16 years old, managed to survive his attempted lynching. James had gone out with his two older friends, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. However, James said he ran away before the man was killed. James was beaten and a noose was put around his neck. But before the mob could hang him, an unidentified woman intervened, saying that he was not guilty. A local sports hero and football All-American from Indiana University intervened as well and removed the noose from James’ neck, saying he deserved a fair trial. James' neck was scarred from the noose for a long time after.

James was convicted at trial in 1931 as an accessory before the fact to murder. The rape charge was later dropped, after the girl retracted her false accusation. He served four years of his sentence in a state prison. After he was paroled, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked at Stroh Brewery Company and attended Wayne State University. James studied to become a boiler engineer and worked in that field until he was 65.

At the same time, James continued to study lynchings, race and civil rights in America and became an activist. In the 1940s, he founded three chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Indiana. He also served as Indiana's State Director of the Office of Civil Liberties from 1942 to 1950. In the 1950s he moved with his family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he continued his work as an activist and started speaking on African American history. In 1988 he founded America's Black Holocaust Museum, devoted to African American history from slavery to the present. James Cameron passed away on June 11, 2006, an incredible 76 years after he was almost lynched alongside Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.

James Cameron managed to achieve something nearly impossible to believe; he survived his own lynching, unlike Claude Neal or Hayes Turner and his wife Mary Turner—who was eight months pregnant—or tens of thousands of other lynching victims whose names we will never know.