October 26, 2004

Straight Gallery Features Leo Frank 1906 Exhibit

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The Straight Art Gallery is hosting an exhibit through Nov. 5 featuring the story of Leo Frank1906, a Cornell alumnus who was the only Jew ever to be lynched in America.

The exhibit is sponsored by Cornell Hillel, the Jewish Student Union, the College of Engineering, Cornell Law School, the department of American Studies, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, the program of Jewish Studies, and SAFC.

The Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta sent thirteen images and items to be displayed about Frank in the art gallery.

Frank, a graduate of the Engineering college, was convicted of the murder of 13 year old Mary Phagan. Frank was the owner of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia where Phagan was found dead on April 27, 1913. Phagan was an employee of the National Pencil Factory.

Frank was consequently convicted of Phagan’s murder. His trial was appealed to the Supreme Court, who rejected Frank’s final appeal.

Numerous protests claimed that the Phagan murder trial was a case of prejudice.

One juror, Henslee, said, “I am glad they indicted the God damn Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him.”

He was sentenced on Sept. 26, 1913 with the execution to take place on Oct. 10, 1913.

Frank was eventually vindicated when Gov. John Slaton, who believed Frank to be innocent, sentenced him to a life term in prison instead of execution. While in jail, Frank was kidnapped from prison by an angry mob and lynched on Aug. 16, 1915.

In 1982, Alonzo Mann, a worker for the National Pencil Factory, came forth with information that he had seen Jim Conley, a janitor at the factory, dragging Phagan’s dead body outside. Conley threatened Mann with his life if he told authorities of the girl’s murder.

The Anti-Defamation League eventually convinced the Georgia Board of Pardons to pardon Frank on March 11, 1986.

Julia Levy ’05, co-president of Kesher, a reform Jewish organization on campus, organized the exhibit in the Straight Art Gallery.

“I wanted this series to honor Leo Frank and keep his legacy alive,” Levy said. “We want to show the entire Cornell community who Leo Frank was, why he was unjustly accused of Phagan’s murder, and how prejudice has affected a Cornell alum in the past.”

Frank was named one of the 100 Most Notable Cornellians in 2003. “We wanted to keep his legacy alive by him by exhibiting information about his life,” Levy said.

The case against Frank took place in Marion, Georgia which is Levy’s hometown.

“I became interested in the life of Leo Frank from learning about him at my synagogue at home. I then worked for Rabbi Ed Rosenthal as an intern last year and began researching more information about his life. I realized how he was truly a great person and I wanted to learn more about his trial.”

The exhibit featured Frank’s diploma from Cornell, an invitation to Frank’s wedding, a photograph of Frank’s dormitory, and a photograph of the lynching that appeared in The Atlantian in April 1914.

“Anyone who is interested should come out and see the pictures and documents we have about Frank. He was a student at Cornell about 100 years ago, and it is truly amazing to see a copy the Cornell yearbook with his picture from the debate team in it as well as a letter from the president of the University to the governor of Georgia,” said Levy.

Elishera Yun ’08, will be the Straight gallery coordinator next semester. She attended the exhibit to see how the various groups on campus collaborated to display Frank’s life.

“It was really nice to be able to walk around and learn about this brave man. I like how they have both text documents from Frank’s experience at Cornell such as his diploma and letters he wrote to his family,” Yun said.

“The picture of Frank being lynched is really effective. I think the groups who put this exhibit together did a great job portraying his life and the struggles he went through,” said Yun.

Archived article by Allison Markowitz
Sun Staff Writer