Book Revisits a Long-Forgotten Lynching

Monday, March 21, 2005

Written by: Diane Jennings


For those of us who tend to view history in general, and Texas history in particular, through rose-colored glasses, who tend to think days gone by were more gracious, genteel times, Patricia Bernstein's book, The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP, is a rude awakening, a much-needed one.

Ms. Bernstein, a Houston public-relations executive, meticulously documents one of the darkest, and apparently one of the least known, days in Texas history, May 15, 1916. That's when a 17-year-old black farmhand, Jesse Washington, was lynched, burned and dragged through the streets of downtown Waco in front of a crowd estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 men, women and children, who made little or no protest.

In fact, the mayor of Waco and the police chief watched the horrific spectacle from the second floor of city hall, while a photographer, who had been told in advance where the lynching would occur, took a series of grisly photographs.

The photographs are shocking, as are the details of that day.

Mr. Washington was convicted of the rape and murder of a Robinson housewife and sentenced to death after four minutes of jury deliberation. He confessed to the crime, but as Ms. Bernstein writes, "Nothing he could have done would have justified what happened to him."

As soon as the sentence was pronounced, a mob snatched Mr. Washington from the courtroom, threw a chain around his neck and dragged him down the street. He was stomped on, slashed at with knives and beaten with bricks, shovels and clubs. As he dangled from a tree, his fingers, ears and other body parts were cut off. Mr. Washington was then doused with coal oil and a pile of debris beneath him was set on fire. Half alive, he was lowered into the fire and raised again several times before he died.

Hours later someone took what was left of Mr. Washington's body and dragged it through the streets until arriving in Robinson, where it was put in a sack and hung from a pole in front of a blacksmith's shop.

Mr. Washington was not the only person to be lynched in Texas in the first half of the 20th century, nor was he the last. But his death was particularly horrifying. And because it took place in one of Texas' largest and most educated cities, word spread across the country. Several newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times called the crime a "horror," but W.E.B. Dubois dubbed it the "Waco Horror" in a special section of The Crisis , an NAACP publication. Attention generated by the lynching didn't bring an immediate end to lynching in Waco or across the country, but it did force the issue into the public arena.

The title of Ms. Bernstein's book alludes to the Branch Davidian horror near Waco in 1993, but the killing of Mr. Washington also brings to mind the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. of Jasper in 1998.

Ms. Bernstein's book is well written, though keeping track of those involved in the effort to bring the issue to public attention gets difficult. And it is short: only 206 pages, plus footnotes. But The First Waco Horror is not an easy read because it makes the reader squirm.

Some readers may even find themselves taking a magnifying glass to the crowd pictures to look more closely at the faces of the spectators. They were mostly male, clad in white shirts and straw boaters, or coats and ties and fedoras. No horns, no tails, which makes this book even more disturbing and more necessary to add to any Texas history library.

Caroline Garry