Fresh Outrage in Waco at Grisly Lynching of 1916

May 1, 2005
Written by: Ralph Blumenthal


WACO, Tex., April 28

Gingerly, as if it might be too hot to touch, a large photograph circulated among the pews of the Seventh and James Baptist Church on Wednesday night. It passed from white hands to black hands and back to white hands.

When it reached Amber Franklin, an African-American who is a junior at Waco High School, she recoiled. But she forced herself to study a panorama of spectators in white boater hats, a smudge of wispy smoke and a tangle of naked human limbs fastened to a chain slung over a spindly tree.

She was seeing the lynching of Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black farmhand railroaded to a conviction in the murder and rape of a white woman in Waco on May 15, 1916. He was snatched from court and mutilated and burned alive outside City Hall before some 15,000 spectators -- half of Waco's population at the time -- and a photographer alerted in advance to shoot picture postcards. Afterward the charred corpse was dragged through the streets and hung from a telephone pole.

''I didn't hear about this until Monday,'' Ms. Franklin, 16, said.

A movement is growing to commemorate the lynching, which repelled the nation and helped turn sentiment against racial vigilantism.

''We're not going to be content in just writing letters or being nice,'' said Ingrid Martine, a white management consultant who favors having a memorial. ''We're prepared to go as far as civil disobedience to get things changed.''

But opinion is still split in Waco. ''That's a stupid idea, to put up a monument to a black man who killed my grandmother,'' said Roland R. Fryer, 75, grandson of the woman Mr. Washington was convicted of killing.

For most of a century marred by racial atrocities, a devastating tornado that some took as divine vengeance, and a deadly siege at an outlying cult compound that left Waco branded as aberrant, the people of this ''Athens of Texas'' buried the memory of the lynching, which was featured in a 2000 exhibition and book, ''Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.''

It was also fictionalized in one of the longest novels ever written, ''Sironia, Texas'' by Madison Cooper, a 1,731-page epic published in two volumes in 1953.

But now, with two new books resurrecting what the fledgling N.A.A.C.P. denounced at the time as ''the Waco Horror,'' the silence is embarrassing some Wacoans, including two Baptist congregations, one largely white, the other largely black, that gathered to share dinner and discuss the grisly chapter that others would just as soon forget.

Some have called for a memorial to the lynched youth to join the many other shrines here in Waco, a city of 113,000 neighboring President Bush's ranch in Crawford, and home to Baylor University, founded in 1845, the first institution of higher learning in Texas and the largest Baptist university in the world. Waco, named for an Indian tribe, has halls of fame for the Texas Rangers law officers and for Texas sports legends. It has a new granite teardrop marking the 50th anniversary of the 1953 tornado that killed 114 people.

A library at Baylor has the world's largest collection of works of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. There are memorial markers at the site of the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel, where more than 80 people died in a government siege and fire in 1993. There is even a Dr Pepper museum, memorializing the Waco drugstore where the drink was invented in 1885, a year before Coca-Cola.

But a former City Council member, Lawrence E. Johnson, who is black, said he got nowhere in 1995 when he first proposed a memorial to Mr. Washington after coming across the photograph of the Waco lynching in the Memphis museum commemorating the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Surprisingly to Mr. Johnson, he got little support from Waco's first African-American mayor, Mae Jackson. ''She didn't push racial issues,'' Mr. Johnson said. But he read a news account of the lynching into the council minutes.

Larry D. Groth, Waco's city manager, said Ms. Jackson, who died in February, told him that she regarded the lynching as ''tragic and terrible, not something you'd want to forget,'' but that she was looking ahead.

Another opportunity for a memorial came in 2002 with the refurbishing of a 16-panel series of murals painted from 1966 to 1970 by a local artist, Ruth Smith, in the McLennan County Courthouse -- the domed chalk-white palace Mr. Washington was dragged from under a statue of the law goddess Themis clutching the scales of justice. One of the panels shows the old city hall and courthouse, both since demolished, and a hanging tree with a dangling noose.

A county commissioner, Lester Gibson, who is African-American, saw it as an opportunity to add some text commemorating the lynching. No one even seconded his motion, ''which I thought very insulting,'' said Patricia Bernstein, a Houston writer and author of ''The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the N.A.A.C.P.'' (Texas A&M University Press, 2005).

''I knew about the Alamo and Six Flags Over Texas,'' said Ms. Bernstein, who addressed the church members last week and circulated the photograph. But, she said, ''I had never heard of this horrible event.''

Ms. Bernstein, 60, said she began her research five years ago when she also came across the lynching photo in the Dr. King museum in Memphis. With Texas accounting for about 500 of the 4,697 recorded lynchings between 1880 and 1930, the state stood, she said, ''at the intersection between the casual violence of the frontier and the mad dog racism of the south.'' In 1905, another black farmhand accused of rape, 20-year-old Sank Majors, was hanged from a Waco bridge over the Brazos.

The book draws heavily on archives and an investigation conducted for the seven-year-old N.A.A.C.P. by an intrepid suffragette, Elisabeth Freeman, who was sent to Waco at great risk a day after the killing. Ms. Freeman's ghastly account, compiled under the pretext of showing that Waco was not as bad as portrayed, was published by W.E.B. Du Bois in a supplement to the N.A.A.C.P.'s magazine ''The Crisis.''

The episode began with the murder of a farmer's wife, Lucy Fryer, who was found bludgeoned in her home in nearby Robinson. Mr. Washington, an illiterate cotton hand of borderline intelligence, allegedly confessed to murdering and raping her, signing his name with an ''X'' and leading authorities to the supposed weapon, a hammer. He was indicted in 30 minutes and tried four days later. With as many as 2,500 people cramming the courtroom and hundreds jamming the corridors outside, defense lawyers did not challenge any prospective jurors and asked only a single question during the hourlong trial. The jury took four minutes to return a guilty verdict.

Judge Richard Irby Munroe was in the middle of writing out the punishment when a racial epithet rang out and Mr. Washington was seized, stripped of his clothes and dragged for blocks to City Hall where, bloodied from knife cuts, he was chained to a tree, castrated and lowered into a fire as the mayor and police chief looked down from a window and a renowned commercial photographer, Fred Gildersleeve, already in place, recorded the event.

''It's disgusting that he took these pictures, but thank God he did,'' Ms. Bernstein said. The leaders of the mob were widely known, but the N.A.A.C.P. shied from naming them publicly. Ms. Bernstein does in her book, but they are all long dead.

After the lynching, the same church that held this week's discussion met to talk about the church's cooking facilities and meeting schedule and added as a seeming afterthought, according to written minutes, that two pastoral leaders ''were named to write resolutions condemning action of our citizens who burned Jesse Washington (negro).''

The killing became ''a defining moment in the history of racial violence in the United States,'' and helped turn sentiment against lynching, wrote William D. Carrigan, an associate professor of history at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., in a second new book studying the case, ''The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas 1836-1916'' (University of Illinois Press), published last November. Mr. Carrigan linked the spate of virulent Texas lynchings to a culture of mob violence and repression going back to warfare against the Indians and Mexicans, cattle rustlers and escaped slaves, but he said in an interview that the Waco lynching was seen as ''going too far -- it was out of control.''

Ms. Bernstein praised Wacoans for cooperating with her research for ''The First Waco Horror,'' but pockets of resentment linger.

As Ms. Bernstein walked out of City Hall this week, a receptionist, Jennifer Warren, spotted the book under her arm and chided, ''Oh, you don't want to read that.''

''I wrote it,'' Ms. Bernstein replied.

Mr. Fryer, who was born 13 years after the murder of his grandmother, said many he knew were against a memorial for Mr. Washington. ''History tells you that Waco is not that type of town any more,'' he said.

Raymond Bailey, the white pastor of the Seventh and James Baptist Church, which held the discussion of a memorial with the Antioch Baptist Church, derided those who, he said, believe ''it's better to have buried the past.''

''Before we can claim our future,'' he said, ''we have to confront our past.''

Ashley Cruseturner, a white history teacher at McLennan Community College, said something good would come of the discussion. ''This conversation about a monument is more important than a monument itself,'' he said.

Copyright © 2005 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.

Caroline Garry