This Sunday will be 100 years since the lynching of Jesse Washington – an event so gruesome it’s known as the “Waco Horror”. This week, in collaboration with the Baylor University Institute for Oral History, KWBU presents a 3-part series that looks at how the lynching of Jesse Washington forever changed the city. In this first episode, a look at the years and the events that set the stage for what would happen in 1916.
On a seasonably warm May afternoon, a slight breeze shakes the trees that line the parking lot shared by City Hall and the Hilton in downtown Waco. Birds are chirruping and the wind has caused water from a nearby fountain to spill onto the cobblestone street. A pastoral scene that 100 years ago was the site where an estimated 15,000 people gathered to witness, and some participate, as Jesse Washington – an illiterate farmhand – was lynched.
The event was so gruesome it became nationally known as the “Waco Horror.”
Soon the community found itself at a crossroads: to denounce the act, or to allow this culture to continue. Lynching, however, wasn’t an outlier, not for the time and not for the area, as lynch law and mob violence had become an all-too common occurrence, especially in Central Texas.
William Carrigan is the author of “The Making of a Lynching Culture.” He says, lynch mobs often justified their actions by saying the frontier conditions made the legal system ineffective – so in order to protect the community and their families, they took maters into their own hands.
“What happens after 1880 is that there is still a culture that says, ‘a real man takes the law into their own hands and is willing to defend their community whenever crisis emerges. That value is still there," Carrigan says. "Fathers still tell their sons that and it’s still kind of clear from all these other aspects of the culture that that’s what a real man is.”
These beliefs, charged with racist ideologies, are in part, what fueled the lynching culture that ran rampant in Central Texas, says James SoRelle, a professor of history at Baylor University. SoRelle wrote the 1983 article “The Waco Horror”: The Lynching of Jesse Washington.
“Lynching – kind of almost by definition – has been depicted, or was depicted in the 19th century as a response, a justifiable response to some terrible aggression committed, typically against women," SoRelle says.
Like many Southern towns on the heels of the Reconstruction Era, Waco retained high levels of racial tension, allowing for mob violence and lynchings to grow in numbers. But from 1897 to 1905, lynch mob activity in Central Texas halted. Carrigan attributes this to Waco’s first 54th district County Judge Samuel Scott, who took action against lynch mobs.
However, that reprieve ended in 1905 – just 11 years before the lynching of Jesse Washington – when Sank Majors, a black man who was in jail awaiting retrial for an alleged rape, was taken by a white mob, and hanged from the Washington Street Bridge in Waco. Throughout this time, Carrigan says, there were individuals like Samuel Scott who stood against rise of the lynching culture in Central Texas. There were, however, those who helped to reinforce it.
“The culture is never so powerful that it never controls individuals and in fact, individuals can make decisions that can go against this lynching culture, and individuals do," Carrigan says. "A lot of individuals don’t but some do. And they can be pretty powerful if they’re the right individuals at the right time.”
Despite the 8-year stay in lynch mob activity in Central Texas, lynching was still an all too common practice in the state. Anderson and McLennan counties, according to the advocacy group Equal Justice Initiative, had the most recorded lynchings in Texas between 1877 and 1950. During this time, the group estimates that nearly 380 lynchings occurred. The heaviest concentration of which, according to the Texas State Historical Association, happened along the Brazos River from Waco down to the Gulf of Mexico. The distinction between the South and other areas in the country, SoRelle says, is the South's long history of whites and blacks living together.
“On one hand you can say well that would breed a familiarity. I think that’s what whites argued, we know our colored people," SoRelle says. "But it also bred a tension, a conflict, particularly when you mix in arguments about sexual aggression.”
In the decades leading up to the lynching of Jesse Washington, Waco was trying to promote a completely different image for itself, most notably as the so-called “Athens of Texas” – a moniker that acknowledged the city’s many schools. It was also soon dubbed “The Wonder City” and “The City with a Soul”. That specific nickname: a reflection of the city’s strong religious undercurrent. At the time, there were 63 churches, including a Baptist University in the city. But part from the nicknames, Waco was a thriving community. With a population of 33,000, it was one of the 8 largest urban areas in Texas.
The Waco community saw their town as the perfect medium between a metropolitan city and a true Southern town – and its economy reflected that. At the turn of the century, a booming cotton culture replaced the fading industry that was bolstered by the Chisholm Trail in the early 1800s. The cotton industry was heavily maintained by slaves, who when freed, would take on sharecropping and tenant farming.
However, the idyllic image of an Athens on the Brazos was broken, as the city’s seemingly progressive, and religiously moral atmosphere did not extend to all corners of its culture.
There was one other epithet for Waco: “Six-Shooter Junction”, a reference to the pockets of violent frontier life that remained in the city. That violence was allowed to continue through legal inaction.
“How the court system and the legal authorities respond to lynching is absolutely key," Carrigan says. "And I think that if you look, that's the difference between Waco and some place in Ohio or some place in Indiana. It's not that people in Indiana, that there was not a lot of racist people in Indiana that hated black people, there absolutely were, but somehow, some way in Indiana legal authorities had less tolerance for extralegal violence.”
Extralegal violence continued well into the early twentieth century. Lynching occurred when Jim Crow laws still existed, laws put into effect by Southern states to limit African-American rights.
With racial intolerance at the helm and a town that had turned towards mob violence for they believed was justice; the scene was undeniably set for what would happen in 1916.