Past, Tense

Not everyone in Waco wants to remember the lynching of Jesse Washington.

AS TEXANS CONTEMPLATE the aftermath of James Byrd, Jr.’s, death, we should remember that race-related violence has been an unfortunate fact of life in the state for more than a century. Between 1880 and 1930, for instance, there were approximately 492 lynchings here. One particularly brutal murder occurred in Waco in 1916, when a 17-year-old black man named Jesse Washington was convicted of murdering Lucy Fryer, a 53-year-old white woman. After the all-white jury delivered its verdict, a mob seized Washington and dragged him to the town square. In front of more than 10,000 onlookers, Washington’s attackers tore off his clothes, beat him, sliced off body parts with knives, hung him from a tree with a chain, and burned him to death. The body was then dragged through town until the head came off. Young boys extracted the teeth and sold them as souvenirs.

As Waco celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, city councilman Lawrence Johnson would like to see the city acknowledge what has become known as “the Waco Horror.” A fifty-year-old lawyer who has served on the city council since 1990, Johnson had never heard of Jesse Washington until he saw a photograph of the lynching four years ago at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. “I felt the pain of that incident for my town,” says Johnson, who is black. “This was a city-condoned event.” Indeed, Waco’s mayor and police chief at the time watched the grisly scene from the mayor’s office at City Hall. Johnson is pushing for the city to build a memorial to commemorate the slaying, including a statement of condemnation and a declaration that Waco is now dedicated to “justice, due process, and the protection of people.” He hopes to have the city council vote on his proposal later this year.

Mayor Mike Morrison, however, is reluctant to see the city become involved in rectifying old grievances. “Every community has things in its past it would rather not bask in the glow of,” he says, “but I can’t sense any groundswell within the community to resurrect this.” Morrison worries that if Johnson’s memorial is approved, other groups will then demand restitution for past wrongs. He believes that most citizens want the city to focus its time and money on solving existing racial problems and improving race relations in the future. Longtime Waco resident Roland Fryer raises a more personal objection: He is the 69-year-old grandson of Lucy Fryer. Roland is disturbed that the city would consider building a memorial to the man he believes killed his grandmother. “That, to me, is stupid,” he says. “History will tell you we don’t lynch people anymore.”

Johnson remains undeterred. “Since no one was ever held accountable for what happened to Jesse Washington,” he says, “it falls on the rest of us to do something about it.” And he’s not the only person in the state who wants cities to address past crimes. Pat Davis, a black city councilwoman in Palestine, is contemplating leading an effort similar to Johnson’s. In 1910 at least ten black residents were hunted down and killed in nearby Slocum by whites who feared a black uprising. “There were injustices done that were never reconciled,” Davis says. “It’s like a sore that scabs over, but every now and then the scab is pulled off, and the infection remains.”

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