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Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most horrific episodes of racial violence in American history: the mutilation and public burning of Jesse Washington. It happened in my adopted hometown of Waco, Texas.
Historians call the late 19th and early 20th century the “nadir” of American race relations. The American South was ravaged and destabilized by the Civil War. The corrupt and abusive system of chattel slavery had formed the social structure of much of the pre-Civil War South. Emancipation had wrecked that structure.
For many whites, violence against “insolent” blacks seemed warranted in the war’s disorienting aftermath.
We Can’t Move On
It wasn’t a coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan was founded right after the Civil War, or that “lynching” became much more common in the post-Civil War South than it had ever been before. White Southerners were grasping to reassert order in their upside-down region. To be sure, the whole nation was experiencing its share of racial strife: the Klan of the 1920s was as big in the northern states as the South, for instance.
But the South has a special burden to carry with regard to those racial “nadir” decades. As my Baylor colleague James SoRelle has noted, more than 3,000 lynchings happened in America between 1889 and 1918. The vast majority of the victims, like Jesse Washington, were African Americans, and the vast majority of lynchings happened in the Southern states.
If you’re from the South, you don’t have to dig around too much to find hideous examples of racial violence from around the turn of the 20th century. But you do sometimes have to dig. My native hometown of Aiken, South Carolina, witnessed the lynching of three members of an African American family, the Lowmans, in 1926. I didn’t learn about that lynching until I was in my doctoral program at the University of Notre Dame.
I can understand why some might not be eager to discuss controversial topics like these lynchings. Shouldn’t we just move on, some might ask? Others would say—rightly, in my view—“No, we can’t move on.” Not until the history of racial violence in America is more fully acknowledged.
The steps leading to Jesse Washington’s lynching began when the body of a white woman named Lucy Fryer was discovered. Fryer had been killed by blows to the head. Authorities identified Washington, a 17-year-old field hand at the Fryers’ farm, as the chief suspect. Scholarly studies have debated how likely it was that Washington was involved with the crime, but the evidence against him was mixed. It included a confession of guilt from Washington, but there were no eyewitnesses to the murder. Washington’s lawyers offered no defense of their client.
A hastily summoned all-white jury convicted Washington of the killing. Then a mob of whites seized Washington and lynched him before a lunchtime audience of thousands in downtown Waco. They cut off parts of Washington’s body, hung him from a chain, and slowly burned him to death. A photographer took pictures of the loathsome scene, providing rare visual documentation of an actual lynching.
Reactions to Washington’s execution ran the gamut from hearty approval to disgust and revulsion.