Apology for Slavery from Texas Wouldn’t Be Enough

THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE
March 28, 2007

Written by: Patricia Bernstein

While I applaud the efforts of Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis and State Rep. Senfronia Thompson to pass a Resolution of formal apology for slavery, their proposal does not go far enough. It may be a necessary first step, but Texas and Virginia, and the other slaveholding states, have much more to apologize for than just the institution of slavery, hideous though it was. 

Particularly during the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods, African-Americans in the South were treated with extraordinary brutality and cruelty, from the second-class citizenship status formalized in segregation to the epidemic of lynching that swept across the South and up into the Midwest as far north as Duluth, Minn., between about 1880 and 1930. Almost 500 documented lynchings took place in Texas alone, a greater number than in any other state except Georgia and Mississippi. 

These lynchings included some of the most atrocious of the so-called"spectacle lynchings," a species of mass entertainment that probably began on Feb. 1, 1893, in Paris, Texas, with the prolonged torture/murder with hot irons and a bonfire of Henry Smith, a retarded black man, before a cheering mob of 10,000 spectators. In addition to
the violence directed at individuals, there were also periodic "race riots," which usually meant pogroms directed at blacks. In 1886, all blacks were completely driven out of Comanche County by vigilantes. My father, who grew up in Comanche County in the 1920s, remembers stories of signs posted on the edge of town that read, "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you here." 

The law enforcement system of the late 1800s and early 1900s, such as it was, was always rigged against blacks and expended far more effort punishing blacks who spoke out against atrocities than identifying and prosecuting the malefactors who committed the atrocities. In 1905, for instance, after the mob lynching of 19-year-old Sank Majors in Waco, local authorities fined and jailed those who protested the lynchings for "incendiary language" but made no effort to prosecute any of the 200 men who had broken down the jail doors with a sledgehammer and
seized and murdered the prisoner. 

Waco has been a standout among Texas towns in recent years, with both the City Council and county Commissioners, in response to the prodding of a local interracial coalition, finally passing in 2006 resolutions of regret for the city's nasty history of violence against blacks. The Waco newspaper even published an editorial apologizing for the role that Waco's newspapers played in inciting the lynchings of long ago. It is very little and very late, but more than others have done. Many Texas cities and towns have not yet even begun to confront their own ugly racist past. 

Why is it so important to remember and memorialize the evil acts of the past when the same funds could be used to feed, house and educate people today? Why should we apologize for deeds committed by others long dead? Precisely because we are the only ones left to do it and someone must. And because our white ancestors, and ultimately we, benefited economically, socially and culturally from the mistreatment of others. Black Texans of the time, and ultimately their descendants, suffered and were deprived. 

Public apologies are needed in order to heal the wounds left by the past, in order to help us understand how the past creates the present, and in order to educate each new generation about the real consequences of bigotry unleashed. My teachers made sure I knew about the atrocity of the Alamo but never told me about the atrocity of the lynching of Henry Smith. 

The resolution by Ellis and Thompson is timely and appropriate, but it needs to be expanded to include the evils of the post-slavery era, as well, so that the whole story is available to us, and no one is allowed to look away, minimize or evade the past anymore. 

Bernstein is a Houston writer and author of "The First Waco Horror: the Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP," published by Texas A&M University Press in 2005. 

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Caroline Garry