Although lynching stood at the center of a long tradition of American vigilantism for decades, the practice increased dramatically in both frequency and intensity after the Civil War and Reconstruction. It became the primary tool for enforcing racial hierarchy and subordination of African Americans through terror, peaking from the 1890s through the first decade of the 20th century.

During this time, lynching became an increasingly Southern, racialized phenomenon, as white Southerners sought to restore their dominance in the face of emancipation and the threat of Black enfranchisement and social autonomy.

Lynchings became communal spectacles where hundreds and sometimes thousands of people – some with children in tow – gathered and watched gruesome acts of horrific violence inflicted on Black men and women who were tortured, mutilated, and hanged. Even when pending legal proceedings had been initiated to respond to an accusation that a Black person had committed a crime, mobs disrupted the process by summarily executing the accused.

Determining the exact number of lynchings committed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is a difficult task because many lynchings were not recorded. Conservative estimates indicate that, between 1880 and 1940, white mobs in the South lynched nearly 4000 African Americans.