October 09, 1995 12:00 PM

STEP THROUGH THE LOOKING glass that is the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, and you’ll walk into a nightmare. Display cases are filled with artifacts of an era when white supremacy was often enforced by brutal acts of terror: hooded Ku Klux Klan robes, a tube of “Darkie Tooth Paste,” a piece of rope used in a lynching. Chilling too is a series of black-and-white photos of lynching victims. One in particular stands out. Taken by a studio photographer on Aug. 7, 1930, shortly after two black teenagers were hauled from a Marion, Ind., jail and strung up in the courthouse square, the famous photo is especially unsettling because of the expressions on the faces of the white spectators, who were smiling and joshing with each other as if attending a sideshow.

Even more disturbing, though, is the story of the museum’s proprietor, James Cameron, 81, who as a 16-year-old schoolboy narrowly escaped being hanged by the very same mob. “As they were beating me, I was looking into the faces of people,” recalls Cameron of that day 65 years ago when he was dragged from a cell to the hanging tree. “I saw some of my neighbors, some whose shoes I’d shined, whose cars I’d washed, whose lawns I’d mowed and with whom I’d pass the cordialities of the day. I thought they liked me and I liked them.”

As founder of the museum—which he opened in 1988, inspired by a tearful visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial nine years earlier—Cameron has devoted himself to keeping the memory of what happened to him and other African-Americans from fading away. “God saved me for something,” says Cameron, who remains convinced that nothing less than divine intervention spared him from death. “Maybe it was this museum.”

The son of Herbert and Vera Cameron, an itinerant barber and a homemaker who divorced in 1919, James was 14 when he settled with his mother and two sisters in Marion, then an industrial town of 60,000 that was a northern stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. Two years later, Cameron was pitching horseshoes near his home when a schoolmate, Thomas Shipp, 18, and Shipp’s friend Abe Smith, 19, picked him up for a joyride in Shipp’s Ford roadster. Cameron remembers Smith saying, “Let’s hold up somebody.” Cameron froze. “Something inside me said, ‘Go back,’ ” he recalls. “But I followed them just as if I were tied to them. I wanted to show that I wasn’t scared.”

When they reached a spot called Lovers Lane, Smith pulled out a .38-caliber revolver from his bib overalls and handed it to Cameron, saying, “Hold the people up.” Obediently, Cameron approached a parked car, yanked the door open and, mimicking the bad guys in gangster movies, snarled, “Stick ’em up.” As soon as he recognized the driver of the car—one of his white shoeshine customers, 23-year-old Claude Deeter—Cameron says he gave the gun back to Smith and ran home, six miles away. “I had gone about two or three blocks when I heard some shots,” says Cameron, who hid under his bedcovers when police came for him a couple hours later. Cameron says he was beaten by interrogators and forced to sign a confession stating that he had helped Smith rape Deeter’s date Mary Ball, 19, and watched him get shot three times. Deeter died from his wounds the next day.

The evening after the crime, a crowd of thousands, inflamed by the sight of Deeter’s bloodied white shirt hanging at police headquarters, converged on the jailhouse. Cameron says he watched from his second-floor cell window as a group of 25 to 50 white men, some wearing Klan garb, stormed the jail and took first Shipp and then Smith from their ground-floor cells, beat them and then hanged them from a tree in the town square. “I had watched one man die, then another, and now I knew it was my turn,” says Cameron, describing how he felt as the the mob was heading back to the jail. “They began to chant for me like I was a football player: ‘We want Cameron! We want Cameron!’ I thought I would die. I felt cold and clammy.”

Cameron was dragged to the square and stood dazed as someone put a noose over his head. “They got me up to the tree where Tommy and Abe were hanging,” he says. “There I stood with death on both sides of me, and I prayed, ‘Lord, forgive me my sins.’ ” Just then, he says, a voice cried out, “Take this boy back—he had nothing to do with any raping or killing.” While Cameron believes it was “the voice of heaven” that saved him, Blaine Scott, 92, a fireman who arrived on the scene as Cameron was about to be hanged, believes it was simply the voice of a reasonable man who swayed the crowd.

The court threw out Cameron’s confession after Mary Ball testified she hadn’t been raped, but he served four years in prison as an accessory to the incident. No mob members were ever charged with the lynchings, an episode in Marion’s history of which few speak openly, but which continues to haunt residents. “It’s just like a shroud that hangs over the city,” says Tom Wise, 57, a cousin of Cameron’s who now serves on the Marion police force. Both whites and blacks “are in denial,” says another black Marion resident, Carlyle Gulliford Jr. “Older people just don’t want to talk about it.”

When he was released from prison at 21, Cameron moved to Detroit, where he finished high school, attended Wayne State University and in 1938 married Virginia Hamilton, now 76. Cameron, who was a salesman and construction worker, helped organize NAACP chapters in Indiana before retiring in 1980. An amateur historian, he published his account of the Marion lynching in 1982. (Last year the book, A Time of Terror, was reprinted by Black Classic Press.) Cameron used his Social Security benefits to open his museum upstairs in a mosque in Milwaukee, the city where he and Virginia had raised their five children. In April 1994 the Milwaukee City Council sold him an old 12,000-square-foot gym for $1. Buoyed by an anonymous donation of $50,000 from a Jewish businessman, Cameron expanded the exhibits and has since guided more than 2,000 visitors—more whites than blacks—through the museum. “I forgive those who harmed me,” Cameron said in a speech in 1993 after then Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh granted him a full pardon. But, Cameron added, “I can never forget.”


LUCHINA FISHER in Marion and Milwaukee