James Cameron, 92; Lynching Survivor Founded Black Holocaust Museum
The bruised and battered bodies of two young men hung from the limb of a maple tree. Between the corpses was a space: wide enough for a black boy to be lynched, room enough for more death.
The space was intended for James Cameron.
That summer’s night in 1930, the same mob that lynched his two friends came for 16-year-old Cameron. A noose was forced around the boy’s neck. Voices called for his death.
Yet Cameron lived to tell the story of that night in Marion, Ind. -- and the story of lynching in this country -- well into the 21st century.
“They had the rope around my neck, and they were going to rope me up between my buddies. And I prayed to God,” Cameron said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year. “I was saved by a miracle.”
Cameron -- who was believed to be the nation’s last known survivor of a lynching and whose brush with death fostered a lifelong commitment to civil rights that included the creation of America’s Black Holocaust Museum -- died Sunday of congestive heart failure at a Milwaukee hospital.
He was 92 and had suffered from cancer for several years.
Speaking with the unrivaled authority of a survivor, Cameron gave voice to history’s untold number of lynching victims, reminding the nation that this disgraceful page from its past was written not so long ago.
“Dad was constantly teaching,” Cameron’s son Virgil of Milwaukee told The Times in an interview. “He just wanted people to become more aware of their history. He believed if you know your history, there would be a tendency not to repeat some of the things that happened.”
Before that night in 1930 Cameron was a shoeshine boy with no criminal record. He was in a car with two older friends -- Thomas Shipp, 18, and Shipp’s friend Abe Smith, 19 -- when they began to plan a robbery, “and like an idiot, I followed them,” he said.
Shipp and Smith gave Cameron a gun and told him to rob a couple parked at Lovers Lane. Cameron tried, but realized the man in the car was Claude Deeter, whose shoes he shined. Cameron gave the gun back and ran home, never stopping or turning back even after he heard gunshots.
Cameron and the two others were arrested a short time later.
The next day Deeter died of wounds he suffered that night. Word of his death and the claim that his girlfriend had been raped spread, and soon a huge mob formed. The mob broke into the jail and dragged the boys out one by one. From the window of his cell, Cameron watched the barbaric spectacle of his friends being beaten and lynched.
“They got Tommy, and they dragged him through the street like a dead horse,” he told a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter.
Then they came back for Cameron. The mob beat the boy, spit on him, kicked him, bit him and chanted for his death. Cameron looked into the faces of neighbors, people whose shoes he’d shined, “and with whom I’d pass the cordialities of the day.”
With the noose around his neck, he prepared to die. Cameron described what happened next as divine intervention: “And then a voice came down from heaven and said, ‘Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any killing or raping.’ ”
Someone removed the noose, and the mob allowed him to stumble back to the jail.
Eventually Deeter’s girlfriend admitted that she had not been raped. After a year in jail, Cameron was convicted of being an accessory before the crime and served four years of a two-to-21-year sentence. No one was convicted for the lynchings.
After his release at the age of 21, Cameron moved to Detroit, where he found work driving a truck for a laundry. On his route he met Virginia Hamilton, and the two married in 1938.
The couple had five children. In addition to his wife and son Virgil, Cameron is survived by another son, Walter, of West Palm Beach, Fla.; a daughter, Dolores Donzetta Cameron of Chicago; five grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren. Sons James and David predeceased him.
The family eventually moved back to Indiana, where Cameron founded three chapters of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and became president of the Madison County Branch in Anderson. For eight years, beginning in 1942, he served as the state’s director of civil liberties, a position whose duties included reporting to the governor on violations of the “equal accommodations” laws.
When such work brought threats against his family, Cameron packed up his wife and children and set out for Canada, determined to leave America’s racism behind. On the way, he stopped in Milwaukee, liked the city and decided to make it the family’s new home.
The move marked a coming home for Cameron, who was born in La Crosse, Wis., on Feb. 25, 1914. In 1952, when he returned, racial injustice was still a fact of life in the state. He worked at a brewery in Milwaukee, among other jobs, and became involved in protests to end housing segregation.
Growing up, the Cameron children knew little about their father’s experience with lynching. When they were old enough, he allowed them to read a manuscript about his life. They were just kids, and it sounded like fiction to them, said Virgil Cameron.
But when Virgil was a 20-year-old college student, his father’s book, “A Time of Terror, a Survivor’s Story,” was published. Then the sobering reality of his father’s -- and the nation’s -- past hit him.
“There was some anger there, and luckily I was old enough to sort through that, to realize it wasn’t the whole white race that was responsible for this,” Virgil said.
After an emotional 1979 visit to Yad Vashem, the museum in Israel that honors the millions killed in the Holocaust, James Cameron decided to create a memorial to African Americans whose lives were lost to lynching, slavery and other injustices.
In 1988 on June 19 -- also known as Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. -- the doors of America’s Black Holocaust Museum opened.
The museum is housed in a 12,000-square-foot building purchased from the city of Milwaukee for $1 and has operated on grants and donations. It houses a permanent exhibit on slavery, including a 15-foot reproduction of the cargo hold of a slave ship and a 45-foot enclosed mural depicting the journey from Africa across the Atlantic.
There is a series of photographs of lynchings and an exhibit on the Marion lynching, which includes a piece of rope used in the killings and a now-infamous photo taken that night of Shipp and Smith hanging from a tree while a gleeful crowd mills about below.
By the 1990s, Cameron’s story had reached a wide audience through newspaper articles and television talk shows, including “Larry King Live” and “Oprah.” There was a documentary about the incident and plans for a movie about his life.
Last June, Cameron was present when the U.S. Senate issued an apology for its failure to outlaw lynching. While some criticized the apology, Cameron was more circumspect: Yes, it was 100 years too late, he said, but he was glad to have it.
“I can forgive,” he often said, “but I can never forget. That’s why I started this museum.”
A funeral will be held at St. John’s Cathedral in Milwaukee on June 19, the 18th anniversary of the museum’s opening.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to America’s Black Holocaust Museum, 2233 N. 4th St., Milwaukee, WI 53212.
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