Patricia Bernstein

Honoring Women's History Month: Four Remarkable Women -- Three Heroines + One Fascinating Villain Part I


When I set out, in my book The First Waco Horror, to write the atrocious story of the “spectacle lynching” of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, in 1916, I never imagined that I would discover two women who blazed forth in a dark time like the old statues of saints surrounded by candles in a dark church.

The first was Mary White Ovington, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The second was a passionate women’s suffragist named Elisabeth Freeman.

Mary White Ovington
Mary White Ovington

Ovington’s Path

Mary White Ovington used her considerable intelligence, charm and patience to hold together several very difficult and thorny personalities—men, of course—and keep the fledgling NAACP alive and effective at times when at times it seemed that an inevitable falling out would destroy the young organization. Ovington was a Unitarian, a socialist, a writer and a social worker whose strong progressive inclinations were inspired by her fiercely abolitionist grandmother who told her “bedtime stories” about the Underground Railroad when she was a child.

Raised in an elegant, upper-class environment in which women were expected to marry and confine their energies to maintaining an impeccable household, Ovington never married, devoting almost her entire career to the NAACP. Towards the end of her life, one newspaper columnist celebrated her as “the Guardian Angel of the NAACP” who “has done more to make America The Land Of The Free And The Home Of The Brave than any other living soul.”

The Brutes

Ovington was also a fine writer and left behind her a particularly shocking short story that, once read, can never be forgotten. The title,“The White Brute,” is a play on the common practice of newspapers and politicians of Ovington’s day making disparaging references to “Black brutes.” Ovington claimed “The White Brute” was based on a true story she had heard from a postmaster’s wife in Alabama.

Image of Mary White Ovington
Mary White Ovington

In the story, two Black newlyweds, Sam, a field hand, and his beloved wife Melinda, are returning home on the train from their wedding in Mississippi and are stuck for several hours at a railroad junction in a disreputable town. Two white men spy the lovely Melinda and carry her off to have “a good time” with her before the next train comes. Sam can do nothing: he knows he will be lynched if he tries to fight them.  

Melinda is returned to him, as promised, and the couple continue on their way but their marriage is blighted, probably forever. Ovington’s purpose was to illustrate that, while the racist politicians ranted about the danger of white women being raped by Black men, Black women were much more likely to fall victim to white men.

Freeman’s Skills

The other heroine in my book is Elisabeth Freeman, a clever, spirited young white woman who joined the militant women’s suffrage movement in England and then returned home to the United States to fight for suffrage as a paid organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

Image of Elisabeth Freeman
Elisabeth Freeman

Petite, charming and very attractive, Freeman, despite having limited means, wore beautiful clothes which her sister, a painter who lived in the artists’ apartments above Carnegie Hall, acquired as castoffs from celebrated opera singers. Over her years in the movement, Freeman became quite skilled at organizing publicity-generating “stunts” on behalf of women’s suffrage and inspiring other women to join the cause.

Ingenious Ploy

Freeman was attending a statewide conference for women’s suffrage in Dallas when the lynching of Jesse Washington took place in Waco. She had been traveling around the state organizing Texas women in the fight for suffrage. The secretary of the NAACP sent her a telegram asking her to go at once to Waco and see if she could discover what had really happened in Waco and what had caused the lynching to take place. Freeman arrived in Waco essentially under cover, pretending to be a Northern newspaperwoman who knew Waco “wasn’t that bad” and would go back home and defend the city in a New York newspaper.

Her ingenious ploy got her in to see all the city officials. She also spoke with Black citizens and even convinced the town’s most prominent photographer to give her prints of the photographs he had taken of the lynching. While she was in Waco, her hotel room was searched and she was almost arrested when she was out alone at night. Somehow Freeman managed to get out of town before her cover story was completely blown.

The Crisis

She took the information and photographs she had gathered back to New York to W.E.B. Dubois, editor of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, who published the entire story in the first special supplement to The Crisis. Dubois also sent this supplement, with its terrible photographs, to every member of Congress, every member of President Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet, and newspaper editors throughout the country. In 1922, only six years after the lynching, the US House of Representatives passed the first federal anti-lynching law. (It took another 100 years to actually get a federal anti-lynching law through both houses of Congress to the president’s desk.)

After her visit to Waco, Freeman undertook a tour on behalf of the NAACP, mostly to black churches, to raise awareness about the lynching epidemic and raise money for the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. Once the vote was finally secured for women, Freeman spent the rest of her life fighting for a series of progressive causes, often, it seems, skirting the edge of real danger. She campaigned for freedom of speech and pacifism before, during and after World War I; for emergency relief for the poor during the Depression; and for the Equal Rights Amendment with the National Woman’s Party. She was consistently a champion of women’s rights, peace and the labor movement.

Honoring Elisabeth

I was afraid that Freeman had been forgotten after she died in California in 1942, but later learned that Freeman had a favorite niece who saved her letters and clippings, and later a great niece who organized all of this memorabilia into a travelling exhibit and finally into a website honoring the indomitable Elisabeth Freeman.


The First Waco Horror

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