Next month, students will have the opportunity to use their own work to remember and reflect upon the horrific death of Jesse Washington 100 years ago. The religion department is seeking submissions for its memorial service for Washington, to be held 3 p.m. March 19 in Elliston Chapel. Essays, musical compositions, videos, poems, performances, prayers and other reflective pieces may be emailed to Natalie_Carnes@baylor.edu for the ecumenical service.
On May 15, 1916, 17-year-old Washington, a black field hand, was lynched by a mob of Waco citizens after confessing to the murder of his employer’s wife, Lucy Fryer. He was dragged from the McLennan County Courthouse where he was convicted. His body was brutalized by fire, stabbing and other tortures in an episode that later came to be known as the “Waco Horror.”
The religion department is seeking submissions for its memorial service for Washington next month. Essays, musical compositions, videos, poems, performances, prayers and other pieces of reflection and remembrance will all be accepted for the service.
Assistant professor of religion Dr. Natalie Carnes hopes Baylor participants will be led to reflect more closely on the tragedy by contributing their own work and seeing the work of their fellow students. Students are welcome to submit any of their own original work, from written prayers to pieces of drama to video or audio segments. Any text submissions, such as poems or essays, must be sent in a Word or PDF format.
She said even though many students may not originally hail from Waco or the South, their presence in the city where Washington was killed only 100 years ago should lead them to reflect on his memory and the legacy of their chosen city.
“We want to help students think about what it means for them as Christians that we live in a city where this happened,” Carnes said.
Carnes has worked with associate professor of theology Dr. Paul Martens and religion lecturer Dr. Elise Edwards to plan and put on the memorial. They chose March 19 to allow students to participate in the service before they leave for the summer. The date will also make the memorial, which falls a week before Holy Week, a part of the Lenten season.
Carnes said her attention was drawn to the lynching when she read W.E.B. Du Bois’s short story “Jesus Christ in Texas,” which begins “It was in Waco, Texas” before telling the story of a man who looks, sounds and acts a lot like Jesus and is ultimately lynched for his trouble.
The submissions will be put together to follow the form of a liturgy, a pattern which Carnes said would help participants enter into Washington’s suffering as they might enter into the suffering of Christ. The liturgy is a standard religious service, most frequently practiced in Catholic or Episcopal churches, which leads participants through prayer, worship, the taking of the sacraments and other sacred practices.
“There’s something special about joining in the shared histories and traditions of millions of people who have been doing this for thousands of years and performing that same ritualistic function,” said Waco graduate student Nate Myrick, who is working toward his doctorate in church music. “The liturgy does have the ability to subvert evil or to name sin.”
Myrick has submitted one of his own songs, “Confessions,” to be a part of the service.
“It talks about the ways we put God into perspectives that don’t necessarily exist, usually our own perspectives,” Myrick said. “It’s a confession of pride, and it’s a confession of complicity in systemic sin.”
Myrick, who is originally from Minnesota, said he was shocked to learn that the lynching occurred only 100 years ago. According to WacoHistory.org, approximately 468 lynchings occurred in Texas between 1885 and 1942. A lynching is the usually racially motivated retaliation by a mob against alleged criminals.
In the case of Washington’s lynching, police and public officials stood by as large numbers of people—anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000—dragged the 17-year-old from the courthouse in chains, stabbed him, suspended him from a tree and dropped him into hot flames. His charred and blackened body was later hung from a utility pole in Robinson, where it was subsequently taken down and buried.
“This is an event that has an ongoing legacy, and it’s important for us to think about that legacy,” Carnes said.
The week before the service, other events, such as a documentary screening, will be held to recognize Washington and Waco’s history. The McLennan County Historical Commission has announced its intent to erect a memorial to Washington as a reminder of the city’s not-so-distant past. The city will also hold events throughout the month of May to pay tribute to his memory.