In April 1995, Lawrence Johnson, black city councilman from Waco, Texas, visited Memphis to attend the National Conference of Black Mayors. While he was there, he took the time to see the National Civil Rights Museum. Built around the remains of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968, the museum is designed, like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to take the visitor on a journey. The museum leads visitors through the history of the abuse heaped on black Americans over more than three hundred years and the long, grinding struggle to win equal treatment. Visitors see the tarnished hulk of a burned Freedom Riders bus from the 1960s and a complete re-creation of a Woolworth’s lunch counter where young black students protested segregation by “sitting in” while they were beaten, taunted, and splattered with ketchup and mustard. One can even step into an actual Montgomery, Alabama, city bus and hear a recording of a bus driver angrily ordering black riders to “move to the rear.”
But in one corner of the museum, in a display about the lynching of almost five thousand Americans, most of them black, between 1880 and 1930, Lawrence Johnson spotted a photograph that sears the sight of the viewer. The picture Lawrence Johnson saw is infamous among historians who study early-twentieth-century America. It has appeared in many books about lynching and in at least one history of Waco. This photo is still not well known to most Americans, though it should be as familiar as the flag raising on Iwo Jima in 1945, the image of the Hindenburg airship bursting into flame over Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, or the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a naked, weeping Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm bomb in 1972. The picture Lawrence Johnson saw, taken by Waco commercial photographer Fred Gildersleeve, is one of the few extant photographs of a lynching caught in progress rather than after the fact.
At first, the picture appears to be nothing more than a group of hundreds of men crowded into a city square, almost all of them wearing the flat-crowned straw “boater” hats that were popular in the summer of 1916. This ocean of flat-brimmed white hats is lapping against a scraggly little tree in the center of the square.
Only when you look closer do you see a fuzzy area in the center of the picture, below the tree, like a ribbon of smoke. And then, through the smoke, you can just make out . . . a leg, a foot, an elbow. A naked human being lies collapsed at the bottom of the tree on top of a smoldering pile of slats and kindling. Around his neck is a chain, which stretches up over a branch of the tree.
A man in a white shirt with a dark fedora mashed down on his head stands by the folded-up body, yanking on one end of the chain. He is wearing a heavy glove on the hand that holds the chain because it has been heated by the fire and is hot. This self-appointed executioner may have been caught in the act of jerking the blistered creature below the tree upright against the tree trunk in order to display him to the mob. Or perhaps he has just lowered his victim back into the fire. In the meantime, another man in white shirt and light-colored hat is poking and prodding the dying man with a stick or rod of some kind, almost as if he is trying to turn the body on the fire. The onlookers watch intently. Some appear to be smiling or shouting encouragement to the torturers.
After standing transfixed for a moment before the picture, Lawrence Johnson read the caption and learned to his amazement that this particular lynching had taken place in Waco, Texas, his hometown, on May 15, 1916. The caption also explains that the mayor of Waco, who watched the entire episode from an excellent vantage point on the second floor of City Hall, was concerned that the lynchers might damage the tree but expressed no concern for the human being who was stabbed, beaten, mutilated, hanged, and burned to death before his eyes.
Lawrence Johnson had lived in Waco all of his life but had never heard of the lynching of Jesse Washington. When he returned home, he went to the library and found the whole story on microfilm as it was reported in Waco’s newspapers of the day. He also found the tale of Jesse Washington, entitled “The Waco Horror,” described in detail in a July 1916 supplement to The Crisis, a monthly magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In May 1998, Johnson shocked the city of Waco and other city council members by reading the story of the lynching of Jesse Washington, as described at the time in unblinking detail in the Waco Times Herald, during his swearing-in for a fifth term as city councilman. He further stunned his audience by demanding that city officials formally denounce the 1916 lynching and commission some kind of monument or memorial that would describe and disavow what had happened. The lynching was a city-condoned event, Johnson said; the mayor and police chief watched and did nothing. It was up to the city to make amends.
To date, however, although Central Texas is sprinkled with historical markers of all kinds, although Texas history has enshrined the stories of other episodes of cruelty (the Alamo, for example, the sacred monument to the massacre of at least 189 “Texians” by Santa Anna’s army, is visited by about three million people annually), there is no monument, plaque, or marker anywhere commemorating or apologizing for the 1916 torture-murder of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington before a crowd of ten thousand to fifteen thousand cheering Wacoans.
The sadistic nature of the crime and the enthusiastic participation of thousands as spectators are plain in the photograph described above and in others taken by commercial photographer Fred Gildersleeve that day. Even in the vast bloodbath of lynchings that washed across the South and the Midwest during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the Waco lynching stands out. There were so-called race riots in other cities, large and small, in which dozens of black people were injured or killed and whole black neighborhoods destroyed. There were also other supremely hideous lynchings of individuals and small groups of people, but most of these took place in small towns, rural areas, or out in the woods. The Waco Horror—public torture treated as a thrilling spectacle by thousands in a well-established modern city with some pretensions to culture and enlightenment—was unique.
Yet the story behind the killing of Jesse Washington has up to now been largely unexplored beyond periodic brief mentions in histories chronicling the mistreatment of blacks in America, a few scholarly articles, and the eight-page discussion in the July 1916 issue of The Crisis. How could such a medieval barbarity possibly have taken place in our own nation within the memory of persons still living, in front of many educated, middle-class people who enjoyed all the comforts of the modern age, including automobiles, ready-made clothing, telephones, and public libraries?
The true story of the lynching of Jesse Washington, told here at length for the first time, is not a simple one. Villains appear in this tale, as do unsung heroes, although, unfortunately, no heroes stepped forward in Waco on May 15, 1916. One heroine, in particular, plays a major role in the story and undeniably risked her own safety to make sure that Jesse Washington’s tragic end and the circumstances around it were recorded and spread abroad. And there were genuine American heroes in the young NAACP-“cranks,” as Clarence Darrow styled them, mostly white, who simply would not sit down and shut up anymore and allow the abuse of black Americans to continue without raising carefully orchestrated hell about it.
In the summer of 1916, these three disparate forces-a vibrant, growing city bursting with optimism on the blackland prairie of Central Texas; a young woman already tempered in the front-line battles for women’s suffrage; and a very small organization of grimly determined “progressives” in New York City-collided, with consequences no one could have foreseen. They were brought irrevocably together by the public murder following prolonged torture of a black Waco teenager named Jesse Washington-the atrocity that became known as the Waco Horror.