Mary Pearson doesn’t need to be reminded of Jesse Washington’s lynching.
The Robinson resident grew up hearing the stories from her grandmother, a relative of the 17-year-old farmhand who was tortured to death on Waco’s town square a century ago Sunday. The moral was never precisely stated, but the horror has stuck with Pearson all her 67 years.
Just after the boy received a death sentence for murdering his white employer, a mob seized him and dragged him to City Hall, where they doused him with coal oil and hanged him over a pile of burning wooden crates. They carved his charred body into souvenirs and dragged it around town.
But even more troubling for Pearson was what didn’t happen: Law enforcement didn’t intervene in the lynching, nor did anyone in a crowd of 15,000 spectators.
“All the folks were standing around, most of them were white, and nobody said anything, nobody stood up to try to do anything,” Pearson said in an interview after a recent proclamation by Waco’s mayor condemning the lynching. “It’s a hurt and frustration even to think about it. . . . It can cause me a heavy depression.
“Every time I think about it, I get really angry and I have to ask the Lord to help me.”
White Waco spent most of the 20th century trying to forget the atrocity, dubbed the “Waco Horror” by the national press. The incident stood as a turning point in national anti-lynching efforts and helped bring to prominence the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. But the atrocity received no mention in local history books until the late 1960s and was largely ignored or downplayed locally until 1998, when Councilman Lawrence Johnson publicly called for a memorial to “atone” for the lynching.
Meanwhile, the story survived on the frequency of a whisper in corners of the black community, in the form of legends and admonitions to sons and daughters.
Forgetting became impossible in the mid-2000s, when a series of books, exhibits and news articles brought the incident again to national attention. In 2006, the Waco City Council and McLennan County commissioners passed a general condemnation of the area’s lynching past.
The Community Race Relations Coalition and the NAACP have headed an effort to commemorate the centennial this spring with a lecture series, a march and a push to get a state historical marker for the lynching. The observances culminate at 2 p.m. Sunday with a “town hall” meeting at the Bledsoe-Miller Community Center, 300 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
The centennial is not meant to reopen old racial wounds or cast blame on anyone now living, said Peaches Henry, a McLennan Community College assistant English professor and president of the Waco NAACP. Rather, it’s an opportunity to bring whites and blacks together to reflect on a difficult shared history.
“Here’s the importance of history: It allows us to remind ourselves of both the good and the bad, and then to correct our course,” she said.
Henry said the city and county resolution against lynching a decade ago was a good start. The question of Washington’s innocence or guilt aside, Henry said city and county leaders failed to uphold the rule of law and were complicit in a heinous crime of torture.
The recent proclamation by Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. went further and specifically referred to the “heinous lynching of Jesse Washington.”
“It’s important to call the names of those who were wronged,” Henry said. “The same was true of the woman (Lucy Fryer) who was murdered. She was someone’s mother, sister and cousin. She was also important. For the council to offer a proclamation naming Jesse Washington is very significant. It means that in the public record he is no longer invisible.”
Those involved in the commemorations say burying the past doesn’t keep it from haunting the present.
Scheherazade Perkins, 64, a member of the race relations board, grew up in Waco and graduated from the black A.J. Moore High School in 1969. She never heard of the lynching until she was an adult, but it helped explain anxieties she heard when she was growing up.
“Obviously there is much that has been done, much progress that has been made,” Perkins said. “But there are processes that still go on, an unspoken terror that still exists, that makes people want to stay under the radar. It makes them hesitant to come forward with concerns for fear that they will be not only labeled but mistreated.
“Some of that lingers, not only with the older people who were right on the fringes of the atrocity, but with those who pass the same sentiment down: ‘Boy, you need to watch your mouth, because you never know.’ ”
The centennial comes at a time of national debate and unrest over police killings of unarmed black males, such as Freddie Gray in Baltimore; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. A Washington Post investigation found that 40 percent of unarmed men shot and killed by police in 2015 were black, even though black men make up only 6 percent of the population.
Henry, the local NAACP president, said she has high regard for Waco police leadership, but she still has anxieties for her own son, an Eagle Scout and college junior, wherever he goes.
“There’s the talk that every young African-American man receives: When you get pulled over, keep your hands on the steering wheel,” she said. “You never make a move without letting the officer know.
“There’s nothing about my son when he is walking or driving down the street that can protect him.”
It’s a more subtle version of the same fear that African-Americans had a century ago, Henry said.
“What the lynching proved about our community was that African-American men and women were not viewed as humans or equal citizens,” Henry said. “While they no longer hang people upon trees, we do see situations where African-American lives are not valued.”
Only 7 days
The dark trajectory from the murder of Lucy Fryer to the murder of Jesse Washington took only seven days.
Around dinnertime on May 8, Fryer’s grown daughter returned from the fields to discover her mother in the seed shed of the family’s farm in Robinson, with her head bashed in with a blacksmith’s hammer. A physician also said there was evidence she was raped, though he did not testify in the trial.
According to newspaper accounts from the time, law officers found Washington a few hours later, sitting in his yard, whittling a piece of wood. Washington was part of a family that had moved in earlier that year to work for the Fryers.
Deputy Sheriff Lee Jenkins would later testify that he found blood all over Washington’s clothes and put him and other family members under arrest. Once in the police car, Washington fell asleep in the back seat. In Waco, he was interrogated, first denying then confessing to the rape and murder, giving officers information leading them to the blacksmith hammer hidden in hackberry brush.
In a 2005 book about the case, “The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP,” Patricia Bernstein leaves open the question of Washington’s guilt. She notes questions from the time about his intellectual capacity to understand the proceedings, as well as a legal system that had stacked the deck against black defendants.
As a mob of Robinson and Waco vigilantes grew, vowing to avenge the crime, Sheriff Samuel Fleming had Washington sent for safekeeping to jails in Hillsboro and Dallas, according to Bernstein’s book. He allowed a crowd of 500 people to search McLennan County Jail to ensure that Washington was not there.
By the time the trial started Monday morning, crowds were thronging around the courthouse. Newspapers at the time estimated that 2,500 people were allowed to squeeze into the courtroom of 54th District Judge Richard Irby Munroe. Many were carrying guns and threatening to lynch Washington.
As jury foreman W.B. Brazelton read the guilty verdict on the murder charge at 11:22 a.m., Judge Munroe began to record the guilty plea in his docket, but he left the sentence unfinished. A man yelled, “Get the nigger,” and a crowd grabbed Washington. The crowd carried him down the back stairs of the courthouse, put a chain around his neck and attacked him with bricks and knives on the way to the makeshift gallows in front of City Hall.
As Washington’s self-appointed executioners dangled him over the fire, photographer Fred Gildersleeve sat in the mayor’s office in City Hall, taking photos that he would later sell as postcards. Standing beside him were Mayor John Dollins and Police Chief Guy McNamara, according to “The First Waco Horror.”
Mid-afternoon, the corpse was cut down and dragged, first by a horseman, then by a car, to Robinson.
Local newspapers at first covered the lynching in graphic detail, then abruptly dropped the subject. The Times-Herald proclaimed that “yesterday’s exciting occurrence is a closed incident.”
Another newspaper, the Waco Semiweekly Tribune, lamented the ascendancy of mob violence but favorably compared Waco to other towns where blacks were lynched.
“There is no evidence of hostility to the negro simply because of his race, and we should feel regret if it were otherwise.”
A history of lynchings
The Jesse Washington lynching could not have come as a surprise to anyone living in Waco, white or black. More than anything, Waco leaders seemed shocked at the international censure that followed from newspapers, and the scathing report from the NAACP’s journal, which sent investigative journalist Elizabeth Freeman to Waco.
It wasn’t like this had never happened before. Racial lynchings had been a Texas tradition for decades but became increasingly ghastly and public in the early 20th century.
In Dallas in 1910, a black man charged with attempted rape was seized from the courtroom and hanged on a downtown archway in front of a crowd of 5,000. That same year, a murder and rape suspect, Henry Gentry, was burned on the Square in Belton. In 1915, Will Stanley was burned and hanged by a mob of 5,000 in Temple.
Rowan University historian William Carrigan has documented the lynching of 21 black people in McLennan County between Reconstruction and the Great Depression. Carrigan, a Waco native, studied Central Texas lynchings exhaustively for his 2004 book, “The Making of a Lynching Culture.”
Carrigan says the lynching of accused rapist Sank Majors in Waco on Aug. 7, 1905, ended an 8-year hiatus of lynchings in Central Texas.
A judge had granted Majors an interracial legal team and a black juror and finally a retrial, which never came. A mob smashed through the McLennan County jailhouse with sledgehammers and fought jailers hand-to-hand, then dragged Majors to the square to be burned.
At the last-minute request of the victim, the mob moved the execution site to the new Washington Avenue bridge, where Majors was hanged. None of the mob was brought to justice, and the result was a new era of lynching, Carrigan said.
“No one did anything about Sank Majors,” he said. “The lynching of Jesse Washington is the outcome of the Sank Majors case.”
These lynchings can’t be explained simply by the racism or inflamed passion of individuals, Carrigan says. In their ritualistic excess, they were meant to sent a message of terror to blacks and enforce white supremacy.
Even speaking out against violence could be dangerous: One black man who decried the Sank Majors lynching was visited by a night-riding mob that gave him 150 lashes, Carrigan writes.
His book details how Jim Crow laws, residential segregation and black voter disenfranchisement had actually worsened in the early 20th century. The “convict lease” system allowed governments to profit by rounding up black men for minor infractions and leasing them as laborers to private farms.
The return of lynchings may have been “the last straw” for many blacks, who started leaving the area in such numbers that some whites worried about labor shortages in the cotton fields.
Racial terrorism in this area didn’t end with Jesse Washington. Six more black people in Central Texas died from white mob violence between 1916 and 1922, when Jesse Thomas, a Waco man mistakenly accused of rape, was killed and then dragged around Waco’s square. Meanwhile, Waco in the early 1920s became a haven for the Ku Klux Klan, which publicly disavowed mobs but was known for extralegal violence.
But the extreme nature of the Jesse Washington lynching, and the resulting negative publicity for Waco, caused local officials to take stronger measures against mobs, Carrigan argues, pointing to the arrest and trial of Riesel men accused of beating a black man to death in 1917.
‘Critical turning point’
“I think Jesse Washington was a critical turning point in the legal system saying, ‘We’re no longer going to condone extralegal violence,’ ” he said.
Jim SoRelle, a Baylor historian who grew up in white schools in Waco in the 1960s, said he never heard about the Jesse Washington lynching until he was in college. He wrote the first full-length scholarly article about the incident in 1983.
“I went K through 12 and never heard a word about such an incident happening,” SoRelle said. “We would spend all our time talking about the tornado but never a word about Jesse Washington.”
SoRelle said the omission was a matter of “selective forgetting.”
“To the extent anyone remembers what happened, it had a much deeper impact within the African-American community,” he said. “From the perspective of white citizens, the idea was that ‘justice has been served; now we’ll get on with our business.’ ”
SoRelle said he’s glad to see a public discussion and commemoration of the lynching centennial.
“It may not be comfortable, but I think it’s healthy,” he said.
The Baylor Institute for Oral History is doing its part with an online presentation on the event at WacoHistory.org.
“I hope we can look at our past honestly, not just for what we want from it,” said Stephen Sloan, the institute’s director. “I hope we can have an honest conversation about inequity and injustice in a way that is not detached from the present. . . . I would love for Waco to be at the forefront of having these kinds of conversations. I think we can show the way a community can handle this and deal with it.”
Scheherazade Perkins, the Community Race Relations Coalition member, said Waco’s history of racial violence is like “a wound that has not healed.”
“It has a scab on it, but every time something similar happens, that scab is broken,” she said.
But she hopes this community dialogue will bring healing.
“I see promise in the future and a great possibility for a united community,” Perkins said. “I see a city that can become what it started to become more than a century ago, when it was an up-and-coming, progressive, leading-edge city. . . . If I were not hopeful, I would not be part of it.”