Leo Frank commemoration: Museum partnerships and controversial topics
17 November 2015 – Anna TuckerSouthern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History forged a partnership with the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and the Museum of History and Holocaust Education to present the exhibit, “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited.” The following reflective case study provides an example of how public history can address a controversial subject in its most sensitive geographic location.
One hundred years ago and a few miles from the Southern Museum’s current location in suburban Atlanta, a group of armed men lynched Jewish factory owner Leo Frank. Two years prior, in 1913, the state of Georgia sentenced Frank, a recent New York transplant, to death for the murder of Mary Phagan, his 13-year-old factory employee. When Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison in June 1915, the extralegal recourse of prominent members of Mary Phagan’s childhood home sent shock waves through the community that reverberate today. 
In the last century, metro Atlanta’s demographics changed considerably, and fewer than 40% of its current residents were born in Georgia. Despite this shift, the aftermath of Leo Frank’s lynching remains controversial in the region. Although “Seeking Justice” presents details of the flawed trial and subsequent lynching, many local residents focus on debating the innocence of Frank while others believe the event “needs to be put away, like the flag, in its proper place.” 
In response to the simmering controversy, the museum partnership presented five public events to engage the community: a Yizkor (Memorial) Service on the 100th anniversary of Leo Frank’s lynching; a panel dialogue about the Leo Frank case in the media; a tour of “Seeking Justice,” led by the original curator; and two upcoming performances of Alfred Uhry’s Parade in November, with the first, scheduled for this Thursday, featuring a Q&A with the playwright.
Although public history institutions aspire to engage multiple audiences in dialogue, resource constraints often mean they must focus on smaller segments. Through a partnership model, the three primary museums joined together to reach a far wider and more diverse populace. Members of the Breman Museum traveled to the Atlanta suburbs to attend the Southern Museum’s curator tour; a descendant of a lynch party member attended the media panel at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education; and university faculty, homeschool audiences, public officials, and Jewish students attended the interfaith service at Congregation Ner Tamid. While it is unknown how attendance demographics might be different without the partnership, anecdotal sampling suggests that each museum’s affiliation encouraged its core constituency to visit the other museums’ events, often crossing unfamiliar thresholds for the first time.
The partnership team hoped to provoke dialogue by addressing overlooked issues and by honoring both victims of the tragic events of 1913-1915. The interfaith Yizkor Service at Congregation Ner Tamid on August 17 focused on the remembrance of Leo Frank but also incorporated commemoration of Mary Phagan. The most well-attended event in the series, “The Leo Frank Case: 100 Years in the Media,” featured a panel with prominent local journalists, a media scholar, and a former governor. The panel summarized the media’s involvement with the Leo Frank case but also reflected on current public issues involving the media and conflict, including the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014; the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, and the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting in 2015.
A shared strategic mission enabled the public history institutions to present a united front to the public and media in the face of potential controversies, and the higher number of involved professionals necessitated clear communication and frequent review of objectives. That’s not to say all challenges were anticipated; along the way, the partnership identified room for improvement. There were several overlapping events hosted by outside institutions (two memorial services were held at the same day and time, just miles apart), and at times, community members experienced confusion over who represented what initiative: a local rabbi erected a “Leo Frank Was Innocent” billboard in close proximity to the Southern Museum, and some visitors assumed the Southern Museum owned it.
The partnership among the three museums made possible the increased numbers of visitors, the infrastructure, and the strategic mission and demonstrated public history’s potential to tackle challenging issues, especially those previously repressed by the community. Southern Museum director Richard Banz’s statement to 11Alive reiterates this sentiment: “[The trial and lynching] were very grotesque, horrifying scenes of our past […] the only way that we ever really rid ourselves of that is to have open dialogue.”
~ Anna Tucker is Public Relations and Marketing Manager for the Kennesaw State University Department of Museums, Archives and Rare Books. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in history at Georgia State University.
Dinnerstein, Leonard, and Mazal Holocaust Collection. The Leo Frank Case. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.
Oney, Steve. And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.
Scott, Thomas A. “Cobb County.” New Georgia Encyclopedia (accessed October 27, 2015).
 Leonard Dinnerstein’s The Leo Frank Case (1968) sparked public interest in the scholarly review of the Leo Frank case; however, Steve Oney’s And the Dead Shall Rise (2003) is now widely considered the more popular and authoritative text on the subject.
 Scott, Thomas A. “Cobb County.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. Accessed October 27, 2015. 2013 figures provided by Scott via the US Census Bureau.
 In 1986, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole granted Leo Frank a pardon based in part on the State’s lack of protection for Frank and his subsequent lynching. While many protested that this pardon stopped short of full exoneration, others, including the grandniece of Mary Phagan, firmly oppose his innocence.