By Carson Lewis | Page One Editor
History surrounds us. The events of the past have weight on the way we do things today and affect the tensions and strains on the communities we exist within. If the horrors of our past can go unrecognized, as some of them did at their occurrence, then we will have a narrow and dangerous view of the world we inhabit.
I used to think about the start of May as the beginning of my birthday month. When I was little, it signaled the closing days of school and the beginning of summer. In high school, I remember seeing it as a time in which I would work more, putting in more hours at my part-time job, and more free time to myself.
At Baylor, however, I’m reminded of the Waco Horror.
Jesse Washington was a 17-year-old black man who worked and lived on a farm in Robinson, a town south of Waco, about an 11-minute drive away from Baylor. On May 15, 1916, he faced trial for the killing of Lucy Fryer, a 53-year-old white woman. In fear of mob violence against him, he was sent to a Dallas jail before the trial where he signed a detailed confession with an “x.” He wasn’t literate. An all-white jury found him guilty of murder after four minutes of deliberation. A mob gathered outside the courthouse during the sentencing, and they seized Jesse after his conviction.
He had a chain wrapped around his neck, and was dragged outside before being stabbed, beaten and castrated. Parts of Washington’s body and clothing were torn off and taken as souvenirs by the crowd, which was stated to be 10,000-20,000 strong. He was hung from a tree, and his body was lit on fire. He burned for two hours.
Fully covering the specifics of the event could fill volumes of newspapers, but I recommend you to do your own research on the event. There are many things not elaborated upon in this piece that give a better picture of exactly what happened in May of 1916 in the center of Waco.
The Waco Horror lives up to its name. I’m disgusted by the event itself and the closeness of it all. While the location of Jesse Washington’s lynching is debated, I believe I recently stood very near to the location of his death that took place almost 104 years ago at the McLennan County Courthouse. I was covering a story for the Lariat and interviewed people feet away from the spot where he is thought to have been killed. That knowledge is powerful and grants a horrifying reality of what is possible with the wrong combination of things.
In observing photos of the lynching, there’s one that stands out. On the website where I found it, the photo is cropped to fit the screen. Without clicking on it, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. In frame, in grainy 1900s photo style, is what looks to be a tree, with a crowd gathered in the background. A man stands off to the right of the tree, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that he looked awfully like me. His hair was pushed off to the side in a similar manner to mine, and he gives a toothy grin to the camera, not unlike the ones I’ve shown during family photos. In enlarging the image, however, the picture completed itself, and told a very different tale than that of a familial gathering. The charred corpse of Washington is hung from a scorched tree. His limbs are missing, and a chain hangs from his neck. The grinning man stared back at me, beside the broken body of Jesse Washington.
I can’t forget the events of May 15, 1916. When driving through the city, on my way to dinner, at a friend’s house to celebrate an event, or covering a story for the Lariat, I see the places involved in the events. I shiver looking at the courthouse and wince when I realize just how close it is to everything I do. I can’t escape it. But it’s important to remember. The fear of remembering the event is overcome by a terror that the lynching will be forgotten.
I looked over the archives of Lariat newspapers. There is one issue close to the event, dated May 18. While only the first page is archived, it doesn’t mention Jesse Washington, or the thousands that watched him burn alive in an extrajudicial killing. There are mentions of a former Baylor professor, Henry Sale Halbert, dying in Alabama, and a baseball victory over Texas A&M. Also written is an account of Lariat staff being entertained at the house of the first editor of the paper.
It made me wonder about the absence of the news. Why didn’t the information make the front page? And why do so few people on Baylor’s campus have knowledge of the event?
It’s important to understand the history of Waco, and of the surrounding areas. Events like the Waco Horror need to be remembered. If we forget, then it opens up the possibility for the horror to return. If we don’t acknowledge the worst of our past, then we will fail to recognize terrible things when they occur in our present day.
Carson is a sophomore journalism major from Phoenix, Ariz.