“Waco Horror” won’t “Stay Hushed”
Edition: 3 STAR
Written By: Thomas Korosec, Staff
“WACO HORROR” WON’T “STAY HUSHED”
Some in the citywould rather forget man's lynching in 1916, but others say memorial overdue
WACO - Of the nearly 500 lynchings that took place in Texas before the crime abated in the 1930s, the "Waco horror" is among the most notorious.
On May 15, 1916, Jesse Washington, a retarded black farm hand, was mutilated, tortured and hanged over a bonfire in the Waco town square as a crowd of 15,000 watched and cheered. Minutes earlier, the 17-year-old had been convicted in a brief trial of the rape and murder of a white woman, a crime to which authorities said he confessed.
Neither the county sheriff nor presiding judge did anything to stop the mob from dragging Washington from the stately domed McLennan County Courthouse, according to historical accounts. The mayor and police chief watched the gruesome spectacle as Fred Gildersleeve, Waco 's most successful commercial photographer, took pictures that he sold as souvenirs.
Several church leaders and the Baylor University faculty were among the few in the prosperous cotton city of 30,000 to condemn the lynching, for which no one was ever arrested or tried.
Today, people from those same institutions have taken on a task that has proved similarly unpopular in Waco : marking the 89-year-old event in a public way.
"Something like a memorial would do a lot to resolve this whole story," said Patricia Bernstein , a Houston author whose recently published The First Waco Horror examines the Washington murder and how it became the centerpiece of the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign.
"This history keeps erupting, at least twice in Waco politics before I came along," said Bernstein , who is married to Alan Bernstein , deputy national editor at the Houston Chronicle. "Over and over for 89 years at least a part of the white community has been trying to hush it up. But it won't stay hushed."
Plan to take action
On Wednesday, after a lecture by Bernstein , members of the predominantly white Seventh & James Baptist Church and the traditionally black Antioch Baptist Church said they would form a joint committee to mark the lynching with a plaque or more elaborate memorial.
"I think there's a process of exorcism that might come from it ... facing the evil," said Mary Darden, 52, a doctoral student at Baylor who was among the 120 church members at the lecture.
"People don't want to deal with it because it is going to hurt and embarrass us," said Michael Babers, 36, a sixth-grade teacher and member of Antioch Baptist. "You cannot get better unless you first admit you did something wrong. I'm going to do what I can."
Many in the audience, including several high school students who showed up for extra credit but ended up becoming enthralled, said they had never heard of the lynching.
Others, including elementary school teacher Waymon Debose, said they knew of it through a local black folktale.
"People say the tornado that hit Waco in 1953 supposedly followed the path of the lynch mob," said Debose, recalling an event that blacks in Waco came to see as divine retribution. The tornado, which cut a 23-mile path through the region, passed through the center of downtown, killing 114 people of all races.
In the past seven years, black elected officials have twice attempted to erect memorials to the Washington lynching. Both raised emotions in this central Texas city of 114,000 residents, 22 percent of whom are black, before ultimately failing.
In 2002, County Commissioner Lester Gibson offered a resolution to "acknowledge and offer an expression of regret" on behalf of the county and ask residents to "reflect on this profound travesty of justice."
Gibson, the only black commissioner of the five, proposed posting the resolution next to a courthouse mural painted in 1970 depicting a hanging tree. County officials were debating at the time whether to restore the mural.
"The county was as responsible as anyone, and as a commissioner, I'm in a position to acknowledge this," Gibson said.
What stirs him most was that the lynching appeared to be condoned by officials in Waco . The crowd was not riffraff and lowlifes but the so-called "better element."
Although the artist is dead and nobody knows for certain why the hanging tree was painted, Gibson said he sees it as an icon glorifying that era.
"My thought was, `Let's acknowledge what happened and apologize,' but nobody else agreed with that," he said. Gibson's motion was met with silence, and it died for lack of a second.
`Let's move on'
Commissioner Joe Mashek said he heard at the time from a distant relative of Lucy Fryer, the woman Washington was accused of killing, who was appalled that officials would consider an apology.
Mashek said Washington was tried and convicted, then he became the victim of a crime.
"Let's move on, that's the way I feel," said Mashek, who said he sees no connection between the hanging-tree mural and the Washington lynching.
Lawrence Johnson, a black lawyer who served on the Waco City Council, said he was moved to read the 1916 newspaper accounts of Jesse Washington's killing into the city record in 1998 after seeing one of Gildersleeve's photos at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn.
Johnson said he gathered little support at City Hall for placing a plaque or passing a resolution denouncing the incident.
Looking to the future
City Manager Larry Groth, who is white, said he is not certain the Washington lynching needs to be memorialized.
"I don't think we should be judged by an event in 1916," said Groth, a Waco native.
He pointed to the election last year of the city's first black mayor, the late Mae Jackson, who died in February after being hospitalized for chest pains.
Groth said he discussed the matter with Jackson.
"It wasn't something she wanted to push," he said. "She wanted to look to the future."
McLennan County native William Carrigan is a history professor at Rowan University in New Jersey and author of The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas 1836-1916, which was published last year.
He said Waco moved from boasting about the Washington lynching and others to silence after the city became the subject of the NAACP's international shaming. Newspapers in Austin and Houston, and as far away as New York and Paris, denounced "the Waco Horror ."
"In a way the silence was good," Carrigan said. "They were no longer proud of it."
Carrigan said he is not surprised some people today would rather let the matter rest.
"It's difficult and touchy to bring up a matter someone is now ashamed of," he said.
Despite a history of 492 documented lynchings in Texas between 1882 and 1930 - ranking Texas third in the nation - no city in the state has erected a public memorial acknowledging the racial violence.
The Rev. Delvin Atchison, pastor of Antioch Baptist, said there is hesitation in the black community as well.
"Some people say, `Why bring that mess up again?' You have a black city attorney, a black city secretary. Race relations have progressed. There is a thinking that things are going well, why bother bringing this up."
Keeping the past alive
He disagrees, however.
"I've seen racism to that degree, and if a crowd grabs that contagion, it grows and grows," the pastor said as members of both congregations sat down for dinner. "It's important that we examine it so we can never go down that road again."
The Rev. Raymond Bailey, pastor of Seventh & James, concurred.
"We still have mob violence. What causes ordinary, decent, religious persons to act in such inhuman ways? I'd hope we find out what stirred the hatred and fear, and what stirs those today."
Carrigan, the historian, said a broader anti-lynching memorial would likely be an easier sell in Waco than one focusing on the Washington lynching alone. Just as Jerusalem's Holocaust memorial credits people who aided the Jews, Waco 's site might pay tribute to the many documented histories of lawmen who stood up to lynch mobs, he said.
"Waco would come out looking like they changed and reformed," Carrigan said. "If they hem and haw, drag their feet and prolong the debate, it's going to look like a bad reputation is deserved."
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