On Saturday, January 16, a group gathered in the small town of Slocum for the unveiling of one of Texas’s newest historical markers. After years of reaching out to producers and writers, Constance Hollie-Jawaid had finally succeeded in giving the Slocum Massacre an official place in Texas history.
“We can’t move forward unless we face the truth,” Hollie-Jawaid says in a short video. “And once Texas faces the truth—acknowledges the truth—the next step is to make things right.”
For Hollie-Jawaid, that truth took over a century to fully recognize. During the summer 1910 in Slocum, three black men stepped out to feed their livestock. Unfortunately for them, they crossed paths with a mob of armed white men who immediately began firing upon them. The three men, Charlie Wilson, Cleve Larkin, and Lusk Holley had unknowingly walked into the beginning of what would become known as the Slocum Massacre.
There are varying reports on what exactly started its—rumors of retaliation from the town’s black residents after a lynching in a nearby county, white workers disgruntled over taking order from a black man, a scuffle between a white man and a black man he was collecting a debt from—but whatever it was mobilized many of the white men of Slocum and neighboring towns. Soon, armed mobs of white men were seeking out black people to kill.
“Men were going about killing Negroes as fast as they could find them, and, so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause,” then-Anderson County Sheriff William Black told The New York Times in 1910. “I don’t know how many there were in the mob, but there may have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut telephone wires. They hunted the Negroes down like sheep.”
Larkin, one of the three men who crossed paths with the mob on the morning of July 29, was one of the first victims of the massacre. Holley, who was able to escape the mob that morning, tried to flee to Palestine that evening with his brother, Alex Holley, and a friend. During their escape, they ran into a group of about 20 white men, who fired upon them and killed Alex.
The massacre went on into the next day, and official reports named eight victims of the incident, including Larkin and Holley, though law enforcement suspected more had been killed, their bodies said to be buried in an unmarked mass grave somewhere in Slocum. Sheriff Black and Palestine Judge Benjamin Gardner moved quickly to bring the mob to justice. According to the Washington Post, Gardner railed against the massacre, telling the quickly convened grand jury: “All of you are white men, and all of you are Southern men, and it is your duty now to investigate the killing and murder of a large number of Negroes, say, at least eight and possibly 10 or 12 or more, who have been killed in the southeastern part of your county by men of your color.”
The grand jury indicted seven men with 22 counts of murder, but the case didn’t make it far after it was transferred to Harris County, where it was ignored. And that’s how the Slocum Massacre has been treated over the course of more than a hundred years—as an unspoken and largely forgotten part of the town’s history. When Hollie-Jawaid began in earnest to try to spread the word about the massacre that had claimed her great-grandfather, Alex Holley (her family changed the spelling of their last name after the killing), it was with the purpose of giving it official recognition in Texas history.
“My purpose for seeking the marker is—first and foremost—just to acknowledge the atrocities of the past,” Hollie-Jawaid says in another short video. “Because what has happened in the past still impacts us today, especially as African Americans.”
“Many times, we’re told as African Americans to get over it. Get over the past, get over slavery, this massacre, or that hanging. Yet we live in a society where it’s all about remembrance, “ she continues. “My family’s history is just as important and it needs to recognized and immortalized.”
Hollie-Jawaid’s journey to get her family’s history recognized didn’t come to fruition until 2011, when the Fort-Worth Star Telegram wrote about the massacre in a piece that led the Texas legislature to acknowledge that the massacre had occurred—over a hundred years after it took place. Later, in 2014, Hollie-Jawaid applied for a historical marker with the Texas Historical Commission along with E.R. Bills, a writer who wrote about the incident in “The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas.”
Even after the official acknowledgement of the massacre, Hollie-Jawaid wasn’t very hopeful about the marker’s approval, mostly due to opposition from local officials in Slocum and Anderson County. Members of the Anderson County Historical Commission were hesitant to place a historical marker based on what they believed would be conflicting newspaper accounts.
“I do feel like (Hollie-Jawaid) [sic] had great intentions of having this recognized as to what happened, but you can’t take all these newspaper accounts and give an accurate description of what happened,” Jimmy Odom, the chairman of the Anderson County Historical Commission, told the Austin American-Statesman in 2014.
And of course, there was the fear that this historical marker would make Slocum look bad. In response to Hollie-Jawaid’s application, Odom wrote: “The citizens of Slocum today had absolutely nothing to do with what happened over a hundred years ago. This is a nice, quiet community with a wonderful school system. It would be a shame to mark them as racist from now until the end of time.”
Unfortunately, we don’t get to pick and choose which history we acknowledge simply because of how it makes us look. And even if today’s Slocum residents have nothing to do with the massacre, they are still, at the very least, reaping the benefits of it. During the 48 hours of the massacre, black families fled the area for safety, many never to return to their homes again. The Holleys left behind their legacy, according to Hollie-Jawaid. Her great-great-grandfather was born a slave, but eventually came to own a dairy, a granary, a general store, and 700 acres of land—land that was taken over by white residents after her family fled the area.
Although the marker is an important step for Hollie-Jawaid, other descendants of victims of the Slocum Massacre, and for Texas as a whole, there’s still more to be done. Hollie-Jawaid hopes that the marker will move the state to open an investigation on the massacre and find the mass grave where the victims are buried, so that they can be properly put to rest.
During the dedication of the marker—an event that Hollie Jawaid crowd-funded—eight black balloons were released to represent the eight official victims accounted for. The historical marker is located in Slocum, on the west side of FM 2022.