The story of James Cameron, a La Crosse native known as the only survivor among three youths during a lynching, will be one of the focal points of a program from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at English Lutheran Church 1509 King St. in La Crosse.
Cameron was born in April 1914 in La Crosse, where his father was apprenticed as a barber, but the family moved when he was young, said Reggie Jackson, who will deliver the presentation, titled “The Hidden History of Racial Disparities in La Crosse and Wisconsin.”
Jackson is the head griot at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, which Cameron founded in Milwaukee in 1988. “Griot” is the term for oral historian in the French area of West Africa.
Cameron’s family left La Crosse after his dad became an accomplished barber, Jackson said.
La Crosse was “kind of a mecca for black barbers,” largely because of the training they picked up at the chairs of the descendants of Zacharies Louis Moss, who had set up shop in 1859 and died in 1902. Son Zacharies Henry Moss and grandson Orby Moss carried on the tradition.
Cameron was living in Indiana in 1930 when, at the age of 16, he and two friends, Tommy and Abe, were driving around in a Ford Roadster after an evening of playing horseshoes, according to Cameron’s recorded account on the museum’s web site.
The two pals wanted to rob some white folks to buy another car, which Cameron resisted. They talked him into brandishing a gun, but he refused when they stopped the car of a white couple and he recognized the man, according to his account. He went home.
Tommy and Abe killed the couple, but police also arrested Cameron, and all three were tossed in jail. A lynch mob took one to a nearby tree and hanged him, then the next one, according to accounts of witnesses on the web site video.
The second youth was grabbing the rope at his neck to avoid choking, so the mob lowered him, broke his arms so he couldn’t do that and hoisted him again, a white woman who witnessed the event says with an odd, misshapen smile that betrays a warped sense of approval on the video.
When the mob came back for Cameron and was dragging him along the street, Cameron recalls praying for his life. Then he heard a voice from heaven telling the crowd to leave him alone because he had not been involved in the killing.
The mob released him, with one member saying, “We didn’t hear a voice — you were just lucky.”
Cameron, who served four years in prison as an accessory before the fact, interpreted his being spared as a sign from God that he must aspire to greater things. He became a noted civil rights leader after he fled Indiana to escape the very active Ku Klux Klan in that state, Jackson said.
At the age of 74, Cameron founded the Black Holocaust Museum in 1988 because he was so moved when he and his wife, Virginia, visited a Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
Cameron found the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust so similar to the often-deadly treatment inflicted upon blacks that he named it America’s Black Holocaust Museum in their honor, Jackson said.
“He’s just this icon in Milwaukee” because of the museum, Jackson said of the nationally renowned rights leader, who died in 2006.
Jackson said blacks met with a degree of success in early La Crosse, but it didn’t last long.
Wisconsin is the most difficult state for blacks to live in, with the highest black incarceration rate in the country, the largest black-white education gap and other factors, Jackson said.
“As a community, we need to engage in a thoughtful, honest and nonpartisan conversation about racial disparities present in our community and our state,” said English Lutheran senior pastor Mark Solyst. “Healthy communities find ways to discuss difficult topics.”
Sponsors of Jackson’s presentation besides English Lutheran include La Crosse County, Black Leaders Acquiring Collective Knowledge, Universalist Unitarians, the Compassionate Community Faith Alliance and the African American Mutual Assistance Network.
Copies of Cameron’s memoir, “A Time of Terror,” will be available for purchase at the program.
The Great Recession resulted in the closure of America’s Black Holocaust Museum in 2008, Jackson said, but it is close to reopening in a new facility at Fourth Street and North Avenue in Milwaukee, the site of the original.
The museum, which has four themes — Remembrance, Resistance, Redemption and Reconciliation — is expected to open on the ground floor of an apartment building called The Griot, named in honor of Cameron, next spring.