A Win in the Battle to Commemorate a Notorious Waco, TX LynchingHistorians in the News
tags: lynching, Waco, Texas history
“Sometimes, it gets so hot down here,” Hattie McGill sang to hundreds of onlookers assembled before Waco City Hall. “It feels like my soul is on fire.” The recent Sunday afternoon ceremony had begun with a prayer and a haunting a cappella performance of McGill’s version of “Motherless Child,” the spiritual that originated among enslaved laborers in the American South.
We had all gathered under a clear blue sky to witness the unveiling of a state historical marker commemorating a brutally racist incident. Many, like me, had been born and raised in Waco. Others had come from places as disparate as Houston and Wales. As the marker’s text noted, more than a century before, on these grounds, one of the most notorious lynchings in American history took place in front of a crowd of some 15,000.
On May 15, 1916, a seventeen-year-old Black farmhand named Jesse Washington stood trial for the murder of Lucy Fryer, a white farmer’s wife and a mother. Washington, who was illiterate and thought to suffer from an intellectual disability, had worked with his brother for the past few months on the Fryers’ cotton farm in Robinson, just south of Waco. He initially denied any involvement in the murder, but later, under questioning, is said to have confessed to the crime. He signed the transcribed confession with an X. Just one week after the murder, the evidence was hastily presented at trial, and a jury of twelve white men convened. After four minutes of deliberation, they issued a guilty verdict.
Chaos broke out in the courtroom. A mob of white men grabbed Washington, wrapped a chain around his neck, and dragged him a couple blocks toward the Brazos River, stabbing, beating, and stoning him along the way. On the grounds of City Hall, in full view of the Black part of town on the opposite bank of the river, members of the mob doused Washington in coal oil, mutilated him, then hung him from a tree and burned him to death. Later, a horseman dragged his body through the streets before young boys pried out Washington’s teeth to sell as souvenirs. As the horror unfolded, the thousands of spectators who filled the lawns of downtown Waco, including children who had been released early from school, ate picnic lunches and cheered. The events were documented in horrific detail in photos taken by Fred Gildersleeve, a commercial photographer who had set up his camera in a window at the mayor’s office.
The atrocity, which became known as the “Waco Horror,” was widely covered at the time. The nascent National Association for the Advancement of Colored People used it as a centerpiece of its anti-lynching campaign. Then it was largely forgotten for almost a century, at least outside of the Black community in Waco. For decades, the city’s civil rights leaders and organizations such as the Community Race Relations Coalition have been fighting for some kind of marker officially recognizing this event and others like it.
Finally, on February 12, before more than three hundred spectators, a row of news cameras, and several living relatives of Jesse Washington, the community dedicated a marker. As some of the state’s leading Republican politicians fight to suppress ugly aspects of Texas’s history by proposing bans on library books and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, the marker’s advocates say it’s no small thing that this testimonial now stands for all to see, directly in front of City Hall.
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