Thursday, August 17, 2017

The live burning of Jesse Washington is a birthmark on the face of Waco, Texas 100 years later

If in reading this article it seems that you are re-reading the same accounting of the Jesse Washington lynching that is because eyewitnesses and newspapers observed the same incident with difference eyes. Newspapers accounts were somewhat different. The variety of differences answers questions that were not previously answered by report. All-in-all the information does fall into place.

The live roasting death of 17-year-old Jesse Washington in Waco, 1916. Vigilante instigators hold two chains around his neck as the bloodthirsty mob look on like they were watching a movie. No one stepped in to stop the execution.
Once upon a time acts of violence against Black people were so horrendous and characteristically faithful in White America’s DNA that it frightened Black folks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The fear pushed them into hiding inside their houses, churches,  sometimes slipping out of town. There were no magic stairs for them to climb in their quest to escape their involuntary imprisonment. Even after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing African slaves from bondage, the sun did not shine any brighter for them.

Life for the freed Africans was akin to psychological robbery of their souls; deliberate vandalism of their well-being. Fear and death were constant companions. They did not know how or when they would be selected to die at the hands of bogarting Whites, who acted with impunity, because White privilege allowed them that luxury. Inbred panic and adopted expectations of serious harm and death never took vacations in the lives of the newly emancipated slaves regardless of age.

John Dollard, a psychologist and social scientist studied race relations in America. In his 1937 book “Caste and Class in a Southern Town”, Dollard collected data on Southern states. He discovered: “Every Negro in the South knows that he is under a kind of sentence of death; he does not know when his turn will come, it may never come, but it may also be at any time”.

The author of an editorial published in The Waco Iconoclast did not pretend to be race friendly. William Cowper Brann parted with this biting proposal on how to eradicate the South of Black males suspected of "spoiling" White women. “If the South is ever going to rid herself of the negro rape fiend she must take a day off and kill every member of the accused race that declines to leave the country”.

In Texas between 1885 and 1942 there were 468 lynchings of which 339 were Black; 77 White; 53 Hispanic, and one Indian. Texas was the third state in line behind Georgia and Mississippi in hangings. The heaviest concentration of vigilante hoodlumism occurred along the Brazos River, from Waco to the Gulf of Mexico. Waco was the county seat of McLennan County. In 1916 lynching was a violation in Texas.

The resurrection of Jesse Washington

The resurrection of Jesse Washington’s lynching suddenly walked into the spotlight in 2001; first locally and then nationally. ABC’s Ted Kopple aired an 85th anniversary special on lynching in America. One guest was James Allen, author of “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography In America”, a heart wrenching pictorial history of lynched men and women, the majority being African Americans. Sometimes four or five victims were lynched simultaneously from bridges, trees, utility poles, any place the mobs could throw a rope.

After researching lynchings in America it was difficult to choose a particular incident to write about. All of the compassionless deaths were ugly, reprehensible and inhumane. While looking at James Allen’s book I decided on 17-year old Jesse Washington. His death was, and still is a gigantic birthmark on the face of Waco, Texas. Washington’s short life was a tale of racism, terror, ambitious politicians, mob schizophrenia, unbridled, racial hatred and hostility. Waco citizens today are striving to erase the notorious horror story bearing their state’s name 100 years later. But the barbarity of Jesse Washington’s death refuses to disappear. His fire roasted ghost hovers Waco like a dark cloud. The historical pictures will never vanish.

Lynching and burning at the stake were once absolute entertainment for blood thirsty despots in Texas and nationwide.  Black folks did not have to be guilty of a crime to be executed by a lynch ready mob. They were always subject to getting labeled “criminal.” Mere suspicion of committing a crime led to a death sentence. A “crime” was whatever a White man, woman or mob wanted it to be. When a single hanging or multiple hangings occurred Black victims were sadistically taunted, butchered for souvenirs, and tortured before death took mercy on them.

Such was the case of Jesse Washington, who lived with his mother, father, several sister and brothers. Born in 1899, Washington and lived in Robinson, Texas, a rural community. The Crisis magazine, in a story titled “The Waco Horror”, Washington was described as a “big, well developed fellow, but ignorant, barely unable to either read or write. He seemed to have been sullen, and perhaps mental deficient, with a strong, and even daring temper”.

A farmhand, Washington’s troubles commenced when he was arrested for the beating death of Lucy Fryar (or Fryer), 53, wife and mother of two. He worked for George and Lucy Fryar on their farm in Robinson. Returning from the field one afternoon Fryar’s daughter discovered her mother’s lifeless body inside the farm’s seed shed. Lucy Fryar had been bludgeoned to death with a hammer. Suspicion fingers pointed the sheriff and his posse toward Washington, who was immediately arrested and booked.

After Washington was tried and lynched the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) secretary Royal Nash commissioned suffragist Elisabeth Freeman to investigate the Waco Horror, write a report and to obtain photos if any were available. “Will you not get the facts for us”? Nash asked in a letter to Freeman. “Your suffrage work will probably give you an excuse for being in Waco”. Freeman spent a week in Waco interviewing city officials, citizens, politicians, witnesses to the lynching, read newspapers, interviewed editors, the Washington and Fryar families, and neighbors. 

The ex-mayor of Waco, Allan Stanford, Sheriff Fleming and Judge Munroe cut a deal before the trail. The mayor sought reassurances from Robinson officials that Washington would not be lynched. “They shut the mouths of the better element of Waco by telling them that the Robinson people had promised not to do it. . . . But they did not get the pledge from the disreputable bunch of Waco that they would not stat the affair”, writes Elisabeth Freeman, commissioned investigator/reporter for the NAACP.

 The Killing of Lucy Fryar (also Fryer)

Lucy Fryer (Fryar)
Elisabeth Freeman wrote: “On Monday, May 8, while Mr. Fryar, his son of fourteen, and his daughter of twenty-four were hoeing cotton in one part of their farm; the boy, Jesse, was plowing with his mules and sowing cotton seed near the house where Mrs. Fryar was alone. He went to the house for more cotton seed. As Mrs. Fryar was scooping it up for him into the bag which he held, she scolded him for beating the mules. He knocked her down with a blacksmith hammer, and as he had confessed, criminally assaulted her; finally he killed her with the hammer.

“The boy then returned to the field, finished his work, and went home to the cabin, where he lived with his father and mother and several brothers and sisters. When the murdered woman was discovered suspicion pointed to Jesse Washington, who was found sitting in his yard whittling a stick. He was arrested and immediately taken to jail in Waco. Tuesday a mob visited the jail. They came with about thirty automobiles, each holding as many as he could crowd in. There was no noise, no tooting of horns, the lights were dim, and some had no lights at all.

“These were all Robinson people. They looked for the boy, but could not find him, for he had been taken to a neighboring county where the sheriff obtained a confession from him. Another mob went to the county seat to get the boy, but he was again removed to Dallas. Finally the Robinson people pledged themselves not to lynch the boy if the authorities acted promptly, and if the boy would waive his legal rights. A second confession in which the boy waived all his legal rights was attained in the Dallas jail. The Grand Jury indicted him on Thursday, and the case was set for trial Monday, May 15”.

Jumping ahead of the bloodthirsty miscreants intent on killing Washington, Sheriff Fleming transferred him from Dallas to Waco around midnight on a Sunday. He was “secreted to the office of the judge. There was not the slightest doubt that he would be tried and hanged the next day, if the law took its course. There was little doubt of his guilt. The confessions were obtained, of course, under duress, and were, perhaps, suspiciously clear, and not entirely in the boy’s own words. It seems, however, probably that the boy was guilty of murder, and possibly of the premeditated rape”.

In Freeman’s report she revealed that Waco politicians demanded a hanging, because there “was a political value to the county officials who are running for office.  All that elected element who took part in the lynching will vote for the Sheriff. The Judge is of value to his party because he appoints the three commissioners of the jury, and these commissioners pick the Grand Jury”.

The characters in question are Judge R. I. Munroe, who presided over Washington’s trial and Sheriff S. S. Fleming, who arrested him. Fleming was up for re-election and “has made much political capital out of the lynching”, wrote Freeman, adding that he had a “beautiful story to tell”.  When Fleming told his story he put all blame for the lynching on the shoulders of Judge Munroe. In a later interview with the Judge, Freeman asked why he did not seek a change of venue to avoid trouble. He told she did not know the South, and that a change of venue would not stop a mob. “A mob anywhere would have done the same thing”.

Waco courtroom filled to capacity on judgment day

Before the trial had begun a thrill seeking mob poured into Waco anticipating a cinematic showdown. They were ready and prepared to make the verdict happen. A Black man accused of killing and raping a White woman. A bad paring of two races. Only one verdict and one sentence was acceptable: Guilty. Death by hanging. Or chained and roasted over a bonfire. Or both.

The Waco 54th District Court’s capacity was 500, but Judge Munroe allowed 1,500 spectators to squeeze into the courtroom. News reports stated that the courtroom was so packed “the jurors could scarcely get in and out of their seats”. On Monday, May 15, 1916 the kangaroo trial began at 11 a.m. By 11:22 a.m. the foreman, W. B. Brazelton, read the verdict: Guilty. The decision was made by 12 White male jurors, one of whom “was a convicted murderer with a suspended sentence over him”. The doctor who examined Lucy Fryar’s (Fryer’s) head wounds, assessed that she had been raped, but he did not testify to the rape at the trial. Washington’s court appointed lawyer did not put on a defense, nor did he challenge the prosecutor. There are no reports that the state presented exhibits or damning evidence such as a bloody hammer, bloody clothes worn by Washington.  

It seems that Washington knew a lynch mob was going to steal him life. “The boy, Jesse Washington, was asked what he thought about them coming after him. He said, ‘They promised they would not if I would tell them about it. He seemed not to care, but was thoroughly indifferent’”, wrote Freeman, repeating a newspaper account.

Some spectators entered the courtroom armed with guns and other weapons, ready for action. According to Freeman, “A door which opened by a peculiar device had been fixed so that it would open”.  Before the verdict was completely recorded Washington was grabbed by a herd of homicidal vigilantes, and dragged out the back door of the courthouse. A large crowd was waiting for Washington’s delivery to the alley. The Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune noted what happened in the courtroom. “Then the tall man started over the heads of the crowd. Fred H. Kingsbury, who was standing alongside of Judge Munroe”.

Bloodthirsty mob from Waco and Robinson gather for the lynching.
Freeman reiterated what she read in a news reports: “A big fellow in the back of the courtroom yelled, ‘Get the Nigger’! Barney Goldberg, one of the deputy sheriffs, told me that he did not know that Fleming had dropped orders to let them get the Negro, and pulled his revolver. Afterwards he got his friends to swear to an affidavit that he was present”.

In an interview with the court stenographer Freeman learned that “there was a full minute” before all hell broke loose in the courtroom. “The people crowded around him and he knew what was coming, so he slipped out the back door with his records. Sheriff Fleming slipped out also”. Goldberg had a reason to lie. If Fleming did not win re-election he would be unemployed. He said the sheriff’s rival was “unable to read and write”. However, being illiterate was not a disqualifier. Fleming’s opponent had “three dead niggers to his credit”, and that appeared to outweigh reading and writing.

When Freeman got a chance to interview Fleming she asked him where he and the fifty deputies was when Washington was kidnapped from the courtroom. Fleming asked her, “Would you want to protect a nigger”? He told her that all he was “called upon to do in the way of protecting the boy was to get him to court”. He told her that Judge Munroe made no effort to stop the mob, although he had firearms in his desk in the courtroom.

The Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune wrote when the chain thrown around Washington broke, one of the instigators stepped forward. “The big fellow took the chain off the Negro under the cover of the crowd and wound it around his wrist so that the crowd jerking the chain was jerking at the man’s wrist and he was holding the boy. The boy shrieked and struggled”. An estimated 15,000 from Waco and Robinson attended the burning.

Freeman learned that “the mob ripped off the boy’s clothes, cut them in bits and even cut the boy. Someone cut his ear off; someone else unsexed him. A little girl working for Goldstein Mingle Department Store told me that she saw this done”.  The “little girl” was an adult manicurist. She witnessed the castration of Washington while looking out the store’s window. Although Freeman reported that names of the primary instigators were known to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organization refused to make the names known to the public unless it received an “application responsible parties”. After learning who the ringleaders were Freeman set out to prove they were the mob participants in Gildersleeve’s photos. The five were identified by people who knew them. Their faces are prominent in the photos.

To get a feel for the distance Washington was dragged before he was lynched, Freeman wrote:  “I went over the route the boy had been taken and saw that they dragged him between a quarter-and-a-half-mile from the court house to the bridge and then dragged him two blocks and another block over to the City Hall. After they had gotten up to the bridge, someone said that a fire was already going up at City Hall, and they turned around and went back. Several people denied that this fire was going, but the photograph allows that it was”.

Lynching takes place under mayor’s window at City Hall

The live roasting of Jesse Washington.
The Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune describe the mob’s gathering of materials to start a bonfire, and setting Washington’s body afire. “A huge dry goods box was then produced and filled to the top with all kinds of the material that had been secured. The Negro’s body was swaying in the air, and all of the time a noise of thousands was heard and the Negro’s body was lowered into the box. No sooner had his body touched the box than people pressed forward, each eager to be the first to light the fire. And as the smoke rapidly rose in the air, such a demonstration as of people gone mad was never heard before. Everybody pressed closer to get souvenirs of the affair. When they had finished with the Negro his body was mutilated.

“He tried to get away, but could not. He reached up to grab the chain and they cut off his fingers. The big man struck the boy on the back of the neck with a knife just as they were pulling him up on the tree. Mr. Lester thought this was this was practically the death blow. He was lowered into the fire several times by means of the chain around his neck. Someone said they estimate the boy had about twenty-four stab wounds, none of them death-dealing.

 “When the Negro was first hoisted into the air his tongue protruded from his mouth and his face was smeared with blood. Life was not extinct within the Negro’s body, although nearly so. When another chain was placed around his neck and thrown over the limb of a tree on the lawn, everybody was trying to get to the Negro and have some part of his death. . . . As rapidly as possible the Negro was then jerked into the air at which time shouts from thousands of throats went upon the morning air”.

“Mr. Lester” was believed to be the father of the woman who observed the castration of Washington. Freeman wrote that Lester had climbed up a tree to watch the lynching. “He had seen the mob cut off Washington’s fingers and saw the blow to the back of his head by the big man that probably finished him off”.

The live roasting of Washington took place close to City Hall, under the window Mayor Dollins. Standing at the window watching the tragedy unfold were the mayor, chief of Police Guy McNamara and local photographer Fred Gildersleeve. He had been told by telephone that Washington was going to be lynched. Spectators were also watching from windows in nearby buildings, and from trees. Mayor Dollins was reportedly more concerned about destruction of the tree than burning the life out of Jesse Washington.

Whereas he took photos of the mob and the lynching/burning, Gildersleeve did not take any photos of Washington’s before his death. There is a mind-staining photo of the teenager’s naked body splayed in a grotesque pose atop the fire. The chain is around his neck, one leg is partially on the ground. The majority all-male posse of hooligans calmly watched Washington’s lowered body, undisturbed by the tragedy they helped perpetuate. 

Observing Jesse Washington hanged and roasted alive, dying an undignified death, the frenzied clan
Charred body of Washington raised for the mob to cheer his death.
of sadmasochists were not ssatisfied. They heaped more acts of violence upon Washington’s charred body. Someone lassoed his torso, threw the rope over a saddled horse, and dragged the corpse through the streets of Waco. ** I am going to take poetic license and say the body was likely dragged a short distance rather than the streets of Waco. It might have been within the square around the court house.

Waco Times Herald reported: “The body of the Negro was burned to a crisp, and was left for some time in the smoldering remains of the fire. Women and children were who decided to view the scene were allowed to do so, the crowds parting to let them look at the scene.  After some time the body of the Negro was jerked into the air where everybody could view the remains, and mighty shouts rose in the air. The torso was taken to Robinson, hung on a tree, and shown off for a while, then they too it back down again and dragged it back to town and put it back on the fire again at five o’clock”.

Freeman learned that as Washington’s torso was dragged behind a horse, “limbs dropped off and the head was put on the stoop of a disresputable woman in the reservation district. Some little boys pulled out the teeth and sold them for five dollars apiece. The chain link was sold for five cents a link”.  **disresputable” and “reservation district” suggests a house of prostitution in a red light district or neighborhood.

The brutal execution of Washington was memorialized on 5.5x3.5 post cards, made available by Gildersleeve. Countless post cards displaying the appalling photos were sold in Waco. One postcard mailed to a father from his son said: “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is on the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe”.

When Elisabeth requested photos from the Waco photographer he was reluctant to provide copies to her. He wrote a note to the Waco Times Herald, telling the paper why he would no longer sell the photos. “We have quit selling the mob photos, this step was taken because our ‘city dads’ objected on the grounds of ‘bad publicity’ as we wanted to be boosters and not knockers. We agreed to stop all sale’”.

A Houston Chronicle and Herald editorial dated May 24, 1916, observed: “The sovereignty of the great State of Texas, the constituted authority of the United States, have been defied and outraged in order that an angry mob might make the last few moments of a Negro, already condemned to death, more horrible than the law decrees; so horrible indeed that no respectable citizen of this state will lower himself to declare them unjustified. It is so bad that silence must be maintained even though that silence amounts to perjury. It is so bad that thousands must lie. Remember this was not in the dead of night; not a secretly planned affair; not an assault on an unprepared jail. It was in the daytime, in the court house, in open and deliberate defiance of law and order. To burn a human is a horrible thing”.

In 2006 an interracial organization gathered at the Waco court house steps to read a resolution condemning the lynching of Jesse Washington, and to apologize for the century old tragedy. Whereas the group agreed that the lynching should be acknowledged, the majority of Waco citizens, Black and White, did not want to be reminded of 1916. They preferred that Washington’s ghost stay in its unmarked grave, hidden from Waco, history and the world.

Roland R. Fryer, the 75-year-old grandson of Lucy Fryer, did not approve of any recognition of the “Waco Horror” or Jesse Washington. He said it a “stupid idea to put up a monument to a Black man who killed my grandmother”.

Jesse Washington, author and sportswriter for “The Undefeated”, who was named after the deceased teenager, said he learned about Washington a decade ago. He set out on a personal journey to discover what happen to young Jesse Washington. He traveled to Waco, where he interviewed several people, including politicians. His last interview was with relatives of the dead teenager.
Teen's body is left on smoldering fire, later dragged to Robinson.

 One relative, Mary Pearson, 67, was very emotional when she talked to Washington about Jesse Washington, and how his death had affected her, though she did not know him. The horrific photos Washington’s charred body told the story for her. “It is something I just can’t shake. I look at the pictures . . .  it just makes me want to get me a machine gun”, says Pearson. “You lose rest. You can’t sleep.

“What really get me is how could you have a heart to do another soul like that? I mean, you can see a chicken, a hog that have no soul . . . How could you sit up there and go and get pieces of his body and save it as a souvenir . . .  How they drug him in his flesh, flesh was falling off the bone . . . Seventeen years old? Seventeen? That takes a whole lot of me. I’ve tried to keep from getting angry, but I can help it. That’s the reason why I had to go up under the doctor to get me some medicine . . .”

Washington said the family would like to see a historical marker situated at the spot where Jesse Washington was lynched, plus an apology. He said both of these requests can be realized but it's not likely to happen. Politicians and reluctant citizens have repeatdly said no to the idea.