Historian Bill Carrigan knows the power of photographs when it comes to the subject of lynchings. He was a University of Texas at Austin student in the 1990s when he saw the grisly ones from the May 15, 1916, lynching of black teenager Jesse Washington in downtown Waco, and it set him on a research path that has occupied much of his academic career.
The 45-year-old Chalk Bluff native comes to Waco on Thursday to talk about lynchings — what allowed them to happen, the individuals who managed to stop some and what lessons can be learned from a shameful part of the past.
His talk, “Why Ordinary People Supported Lynching and How Some Extraordinary People Prevented It,” is part of a community dinner and lecture from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church parish hall, 305 N. 30th St. Admission to the event, sponsored by the Community Race Relations Coalition, is free, but reservations are recommended. People interested in attending should call 836-4599.
Carrigan’s doctoral dissertation became the 2004 book “The Making of a Lynching Culture,” which he has since followed with “Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928,” published in 2013 and co-written by Clive Webb.
A graduate of Vanguard College Preparatory School, Carrigan started studies at UT as an engineering major, following in the footsteps of several family members.
History professor George Wright, now president of Prairie View A&M University, introduced Carrigan to the history of lynching, particularly in Texas and including the infamous one of Jesse Washington, whose hanging and burning was watched by thousands of Waco citizens crowding downtown streets.
Carrigan soon found himself gravitating away from engineering and toward history, graduating in 1993 with a history degree, later a doctorate at Emory University, and focusing on the culture of lynching as a research subject.
What made the 1916 Waco lynching photographs so compelling, then and now, is that they captured a lynching in progress, viewed at every horrific step by thousands of spectators — as many as 15,000 by some estimates, he said.
Washington, a 17-year-old black farmhand, was found guilty of murdering Lucy Fryer, the white wife of a Robinson farmer, by a McLennan County jury.
Before he could be sentenced, he was seized, chained and dragged to a tree outside the courthouse, hanged, then burned and mutilated before a massive crowd that had gathered for the trial.
No one was prosecuted for Washington’s torture or death.
Carrigan, chair of the history department of Rowan University in Glassboro and Camden, New Jersey, found in his extensive research that a continual history of violence created a culture in which lynching was tacitly approved if not overtly sanctioned.
Making a difference
Still, individual stands against it made a difference, either in foiling lynching attempts or dampening response to a call to violence, he said.
Carrigan points to a period from the 1890s to 1905 when lynchings were largely absent in McLennan County, at a time that they were on the rise nationally. The reason?
A 54th District Court judge named Samuel R. Scott pushed to prosecute the men involved in a 1896 lynching. A grand jury indicted the men, but the cases were later dismissed.
Still, Scott’s action and his stand for fair representation for black defendants in a criminal trial chilled a local tendency to pursue extra-judicial violence against accused blacks and Mexicans, Carrigan said.
Sheriffs and law officers had the most influence in defusing lynching, followed by family members of potential victims, judges and public prosecutors.
“It proves that individuals can matter,” he said.
That lynch-free period ended in 1905 with the hanging of Sank Majors from a downtown bridge, an act that went unpunished, Carrigan said.
The absence of criminal consequences for lynchers soon returned the practice to McLennan County, leading ultimately, Carrigan said, to the Jesse Washington case.
Reporting the Washington lynching to a national audience and its call for anti-lynching laws proved a pivotal moment to legitimize the then-fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
A national sense of disgust at the Washington lynching eventually led to the practice largely dying out in McLennan County by the 1930s.
“All the attention on Waco led the white elites in Central Texas and Waco to work hard to prevent future lynchings,” Carrigan said.
The history professor said he is still criticized for his work in detailing and describing lynching history, often from those who feel the horrors of the past should be left there and not revisited in the present. The trouble with that attitude is that there is often no consensus on interpreting that past.
“It’s a real problem. Whites and blacks see and remember the past differently. There’s a segregation of memory of sorts,” Carrigan said. “In my work, I try to find a way to see what actually happened so two sides can see and come together for a more productive dialogue.”
That is the reason the Community Race Relations Coalition invited Carrigan to speak in one of a series of events marking the 100th anniversary of the Washington public lynching, CRRC board chairman Jo Welter said.
While whites sought to bury attention to the lynching, seeing it as a blight on their city’s reputation, many blacks remembered it as an event that broke their families, with husbands, sons and uncles moving out of a Waco where their lives were at risk, Welter said.
Events earlier this year that remembered the public lynching of 1916 included a talk by Patricia Bernstein, author of “The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP”; a pilgrimage from Robinson to the McLennan County courthouse; and a screening of the film “Shadows of the Lynching Tree,” featuring its producer, Carvin Eison.
More commemorations are planned leading up to a May 15 memorial service at Bledsoe Miller Recreation Center on the lynching’s centennial.
“It’s not to memorialize Jesse Washington but to acknowledge and apologize for a lynching culture, as well as share statements on who we are now,” Welter said.