The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — A case of misguided justice that happened 100 years ago in Georgia comes alive in a new exhibit that opened Monday at the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance.
The exhibit “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited” tells the story of Frank, a superintendent in a pencil factory in Atlanta. In 1913, Frank, who was Jewish, was convicted of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a worker at the factory.
Evidence was sketchy, yet appeals were denied.
When the governor of Georgia commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison, reaction was swift. Riots erupted in Atlanta. Vigilantes took Frank from prison, drove 200 miles to Marietta and lynched him.
The Dallas Morning News museum president and chief executive officer Mary Pat Higgins said the exhibit is timely because hate groups, and in particular anti-Semitism, are on the rise. She noted that the recent Trayvon Martin case is similar in showing the effects of a vigilante mentality.
“The exhibit shows the responsibility of the community and the press to support the justice system,” Higgins said.
The Frank case captured the attention of the nation. Newspapers splashed the details across their front pages. These newspapers, now yellowed, make up a large part of the exhibit. Other artifacts include original and scanned photos, artifacts such as Frank‘s degree from Cornell University and Mary’s baby clothes, letters and a video. There are also items that provide a historical backdrop.
The materials come from The William Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum in Atlanta.
While Higgins acknowledges that showing the lynching of one white person when so many blacks suffered the same fate may not seem right, the exhibit aims to reflect the overall dangers of prejudice. At that time, the Jewish community in the South became as terrified as the black community.
“It’s more about teaching tolerance and acceptance,” she said.
To include more from the black perspective, Higgins said the Holocaust Museum will partner with the African American Museum, which is planning an exhibit on lynching this fall.
Charlotte Decoster, education coordinator for the Holocaust Museum, said she will bring in a speaker on lynching.
She’ll also hold a preview for educators Sept. 16 and offer a teacher guide.
“Seeking Justice” runs through Dec. 31, a longer-than-usual run for an exhibit because of the history involved, Higgins said. This year marks not only the 100th anniversary of the Frank case, but also the centennial of the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in Chicago. The league was galvanized by this case and soon grew in membership and significance.
The exhibit also displays the power of the press, from The Jeffersonian to The New York Times. When The Times entered the battle, it produced a backlash, since many in the South resented being told what to do by a Northern newspaper.
Books and films have also touched on the case, including “Death in the Deep South” by Ward Greene, and the film “They Won’t Forget.” A PBS documentary is in the works.
In a small corner of the exhibit, a video plays reactions from relatives of both the Franks and the Phagans. It seems the tragedy was never discussed in subsequent generations. The exhibit ends with a photo of Frank’s body dangling from a tree, with well-dressed men standing below, glaring at the camera.