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Waco's Unfinished Legacy: Part 3 - The Years After Jesse Washington

A mural in the McLennan Courthouse features a hanging tree and noose. In 2011, commisioner Lestor Gibson worked to get the city's 2006 resolution, which denounced lynching, placed under the painting.

The events of the “Waco Horror” happened over the course of 8 days. But for 100 years since then, the lynching of Jesse Washington has left an indelible mark on the city of Waco. For years now there has been community efforts to redress and apologize for the city’s troubled past. In our final episode: a look at the recent efforts to remember Jesse Washington. You can revisit episode 1 in the series and episode 2

For the last year, the Community Race Relations Coalition has hosted a series of events to mark the 100 years since the lynching of Jesse Washington.

Recently, at one of these events, member Hattie McGill sang “Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." Originally a traditional black gospel song that became an important freedom song during the Civil Rights Movement, the song found new meaning at a time when the city is working towards remembering Jesse Washington. 

But it wasn't always this way. The yearlong events mark a recent shift in local attitudes about recalling the “Waco Horror”. 

"I think it's opened up a lot of old wounds, you know that old adage, don't ever kick a sleeping dog? I think that dogs been kicked hard.'"

It was just 10 years ago, when controversy fell on Waco, as a resolution condemning lynching was brought up for discussion at the McLennan County Commissioners’ Court and City Council. Some, lobbied for some kind of apology or a memorial

Former McLennan County Commissioner Ray Meadows was disagreed with the move. In an interview with NPR in 2006, Meadows said he regretted that the event happened, but didn’t feel the need to apologize for it.

“I’ve lived in McLennan County all my life and I never heard this story until about 4 years ago when a fellow county commissioner brought it up on the same resolution to be approved," Meadows told NPR. "So this is something that they think is gonna do a lot of healing but I think it’s actually divided the people more. I think it’s opened up a lot of old wounds, you know that old adage, ‘don’t ever kick a sleeping dog’? I think that dogs been kicked hard.” 

Despite the mixed support, the Commissioner’s court and City Hall both adopted a version of the resolution.

But this wasn’t the first time a resolution denouncing lynching was discussed. Just four years earlier, County Commissioner Lester Gibson introduced a similar resolution, but it failed to gain any traction. The difference in 2006: The CRRC. In an interview with the Baylor Institute for Oral History, CRRC board chair Jo Welter, said, the city needed to acknowledge and remember its past, while taking into account the suffering of both the Washingtons and the Fryers.

“Our hearts went out to Lucy Fryer’s family because this we knew was going to be hard for them", Welter said. "And we’re not here to idolize Jesse Washington but to say we cannot take the law into our own hands and torture human beings and then have an audience of half the population of the city and say that it’s okay.”

Although the resolution denouncing lynching was adopted in 2006,  the city would continue to struggle with coming to terms with its past.

"I think we'll talk about Jesse Washington as long as there's a Waco, Texas."

In 2011,  Gibson recommended that the anti-lynching resolution be placed in the McLennan County courthouse rotunda – a move that was again met with opposition. The reason: Inside the courthouse is a series of murals which had been done in the 1960s. They reflect the city’s history - even the darker moments. In one panel, a painting of the old courthouse and city hall, there was a hanging tree with a noose swaying from its branch. Gibson said the painting was offensive, and placing the resolution underneath the painting would add context to the troubling image. Commissioner Gibson’s efforts and the 2006 resolution brought to surface the city’s mixed feelings towards acknowledging the city’s past, says McLennan Community professor Ashley Cruseturner.

"We were fairly placid and maybe what it was is it was all below the surface", Crusturner said. "But we sort of roil the waters here, and so you suddenly, as a group, on a smaller scale this community is forced to reckon with its past and of course its present.” 

The efforts to remember Waco’s past – which also includes ideas for a Jesse Washington monument or historical marker – have only happened recently.

Once again, Waco has found itself at a crossroads: To talk about the city's violent and racist past, or to remain silent, as the community had for decades.

  In the years and decades following the lynching of Jesse Washington… some preferred not to acknowledge the event at all, and some were scared to. This left the memory to be buried in the wake of other tragedies that Waco is more readily associated with…such as the deadly 1953 tornado, an event that left more than 100 dead and caused millions of dollars in damage. Some in the African-American community saw this moment as divine retribution for the Jesse Washington lynching. The tornado destroyed the predominantly white side of town, but never crossed the Brazos, leaving black communities largely untouched. But other than that, Jesse Washington and what happened in 1916 was never really discussed. Cruseturner says that’s changed now, and that no matter the time or place, the legacy of Jesse Washington will continue to be of importance for Central Texas.

“I think this will continue to come up, somehow this thing that almost typifies, kind of, Waco’s star-crossed ability to wander into infamy, to be notorious, you know. I do think this—I think we’ll talk about Jesse Washington as long as there’s a Waco, Texas.”

Once again, Waco has found itself at a crossroads: To talk about the city’s violent and racist past, or to remain silent, as the community had for decades. This Sunday on the anniversary of Jesse Washington’s lynching – just across the river from where it took place – the community will gather once again, this time to read and recall Jesse Washington’s name and the names of others that fell victim to the sins of our past.