Documentary sheds light on Waco lynching

In this photograph, an estimated 15,000 residents of Waco assembled together to witness the lynching of Jesse Washington. Carvin Eison’s documentary “Shadows of the Lynching Tree” seeks to remind people of the incident while revealing that hatred is not a thing of the past.
Courtesy Photo

By Jamie Lim

For most Americans, nothing significant happened on May 15, 1916 — or so they thought.

Imagine a crowd of 15,000 Waco citizens with lightly colored boater hats fighting off the summer heat. These citizens include men, women and children in their Sunday best attire. They are the witnesses of what was deemed to be known as Waco’s first horror.

In the center of the crowd was a tree. The tree was nothing spectacular, just a medium-size, leafless tree. A chain hanging from a limb wrapped around the neck of Jesse Washington. His bruised and battered body rested upon a pile of wood. Moments later he was lit on fire. After his body was burned beyond recognition, flashes from cameras went off, capturing the disturbing image.

“Washington’s story is local history. An unpleasant bit of local history, but history nonetheless,” Dr. Elizabeth Thorpe, Baylor alum and visiting assistant professor at The College at Brockport: State University of New York, said. “I think there is something to be said for trying to know a little about the community you are in.”

Washington’s lynching seems to be forgotten in the pages of history books. In 2005, nearly a century after Washington’s lynching took place, Carvin Eison, associate professor at The College of Brockport, started producing and directing a documentary focusing on lynching.

In March, Eison will be at Baylor for a showing of his documentary “Shadows of the Lynching Tree.” The meaning behind the title is from the shadows the past has not swept under the rug of history.

“There will definitely be some people who do not like it at all. There will be some who find it shocking or extreme –but I think that speaks to the importance of the topic,” Thorpe said. “There will also be those who find it moving. And some will see it as an inspiration to start talking about things that perhaps they had not talked about before.”

The film focuses on Washington and another Jesse. This Jesse is from James Baldwin’s short story “Going to Meet the Man.” He is a 10-year-old Caucasian boy who accompanies his father to witness Washington’s lynching.

Eison’s documentary emphasizes the ugly truth about lynching, which can be quite controversial. The trailer alone is filled with many disturbing images.

“His passion knows no bounds. It’s pretty infectious,” Thorpe said.

Eison seeks to show a contrast between the bodies of African-Americans, mainly males, that were mutilated, castrated, beaten, burned, and riddled with bullets and the crowds of people that came to view the lynching like it was Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“What’s more fascinating and interesting to me are the people in the background of the photographs,” Eison said. “The people who crane their necks to be portrayed in the event.”

The focus of Eison’s documentary may be about the two Jesses, but the images he used to narrate the film come from lynching throughout American history and how it was used as a mechanism to intimidate the African-American community.

“Metaphorically, one lynching is all lynching,” Eison said.

The question proposed is whether or not Americans have moved beyond the past. Eison seems to think that a good majority of people are striving to move forward and he cites the 2008 presidential election when America elected its first African-American president, Barack Obama, as an example.

Eison said this generation will change American history, because race and ethnicity is not as big of a hang-up as it was a century ago.

Even with the country maturing, Eison states that there are still pockets of hatred. “Shadows of the Lynching Tree” seeks to shed light on these pockets of hatred still present in America.