Author Analyzes Ugly Piece of Waco History

March 12, 2005
Section: Metro
Edition: FINAL
Page: 5B
Written By: Art Chapman, Star-Telegram Staff Writer


Until a few years ago, Houston-based writer Patricia Bernstein knew very little about Waco. She grew up in Dallas, not far from the Central Texas city, but her only experience there was an occasional family stopover at the famous Chicken Shack.

That was enough to make Waco an unqualified success in her memory.

But the chicken restaurant is gone, and so is Bernstein's unreserved opinion of the town. It is still, perhaps, a good place, but there are now serious qualifications.

For five years Bernstein has plowed deeply through Waco's history. She has delved into its darkest records. She wrote The First Waco Horror, The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP.

The book is published by Texas A&M University Press.

This is not a book that Waco would have wanted. Some people there have already cried out against it; they contend that this story happened long ago and should remain buried in the past.

Bernstein strongly disagrees.

"They say the story is old and ugly and happened so long ago and we don't need to talk about it anymore," she said in a telephone interview from her Houston public relations office. "But it doesn't go away. This story compares to anything that was done to one person during the Holocaust or the Inquisition. It doesn't leave a place unscarred."

Jesse Washington was a 17-year-old retarded black man who had just been convicted of murdering and raping a white woman. The May 15, 1916, trial was questionable, the jury took four minutes to reach its verdict, and the prisoner was unprotected.

An angry mob dragged Washington from the courtroom, wrapped a chain around his neck and hauled him through the streets. "He became the plaything of the mob," one reporter wrote.

Bernstein records, in gruesome detail, the rest of the ordeal. In front of a crowd of some 15,000 Waco residents, Washington's body was mutilated, slashed by knives from the crowd, hung from a tree and set afire.

The mayor and the city police chief looked on from a second-story window. No one dared interfere.

The sadistic torture and the huge crowd's involvement were all recorded by commercial photographer Fred Gildersleeve.

"The more I got into it, the more I was shocked," Bernstein said. "Waco was considered pretty and refined. It was called the 'Athens of Texas' because it has so many institutions of higher learning. There were two black colleges in Waco. It was not a backwoods little tiny community. It had 30,000 people; it was quite prosperous."

In Bernstein's opinion, and those of other historians as well, Waco has never owned up to the horrendous deed, never acknowledged the shame. Though the story has not been hidden, it has been muted. There are no statues, no memorials, no markers to explain what happened.

But there are positives that came from the dreadful experience, Bernstein contends.

"If it was just a horrible atrocity, I probably wouldn't have spent five years on it," she said. "But it is also the story about the founding of the NAACP, and of a very brave young woman who was sent in to investigate the lynching."

Bernstein spends a full chapter on Elisabeth Freeman, the young white suffragist the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sent to Waco immediately after the lynching to conduct an undercover investigation.

Her report formed the basis of "The Waco Horror," an article that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote for the NAACP journal The Crisis.

"I wanted her heroic story to be as well known as the ugly part of the event," Bernstein said.

And though there have been some negative responses to Bernstein's book, there have also been positives. An editorial last month in the Waco Tribune-Herald read, "So instead of criticizing this author from Houston who visited a horrible past on our behalf and who shares her experiences so that we may learn from it, we should thank her for helping us tend to some unfinished business."


Art Chapman, (817) 390-7422
Copyright 2005 Star-Telegram, Inc.

Caroline Garry