My Ancestors’ Violence


The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916

The First Waco Horror:The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP

Clive Weldon Timmons, my paternal grandfather, was born on November 11, 1906 in Prairie Hill, Limestone County, Texas. His parents, Joseph and Elizabeth Timmons, hailed from Georgia—not too far from where I currently teach college history classes. Five of my grandfather’s siblings were born east of the Mississippi. But in the late 1880s for some reason or another—probably economic survival—Clive’s parents took their growing family to Central Texas: an area south of Dallas, north of Austin, and west of Houston, soon to be enriched by cotton sales. Clive ended up in Fort Worth, married a Kimbrough, resulting in my father’s birth in 1937. I have relatives lying in the Prairie Hill Cemetery in Limestone County.

My father disowned his family—I was born in England—never talked about his relatives, and until his 1993 suicide rendered him incapable of further objections, refused to register his two sons for U.S. citizenship with the embassy in London. I’ve always been curious about who my American relatives were and why my father became so hostile to his past. Recently I’ve started to pay more attention to my family history because Central Texans and Georgians loom large in America’s experience of racial violence—a subject that fascinates me as much as it disturbs.

We discuss lynching at length in my classes. I teach in the South, in a British accent. These facts are not significant. But I tell students that my father was the son of Central Texans, and the grandson of Georgians, a strategy that helps me probe the silence that often surrounds Americans who ignore the memory of racial violence.

Late 19th- and early 20th-century lynching postcards collected in James Allen’s Without Sanctuary force students to confront the devastating effects of racial and gender inequalities. The most shocking images I show in class depict the charred body of Jesse Washington, a young black man tried and convicted for the murder of white, middle-aged Lucy Fryer near Waco in 1916. At the moment the McClennan County jury handed down Washington’s conviction, a mob rose in the room, plucked the defendant from the clutches of local law enforcement, dragging him to the square where he was brutally tortured, burned, castrated, and killed. Washington’s lynching was distinctive because Waco photographer Fred Gildersleeve took pictures of it as it was happening. As we study his images, I consider it crucial to tell my students that my family was undoubtedly aware of—and perhaps even participated in—the Washington lynching. After all, it attracted a crowd of 15,000.

Historian William Carrigan’s Making of a Lynching Culture proves that my ancestors would have been familiar with a type of violence that generated a self-sustaining racist and sexist culture. When my great-grandparents left Georgia around 1890, that state’s white citizens were mercilessly lynching blacks as they consolidated Jim Crow social practices. By the time my grandfather was born, Central Texans had 80 years of vigilantism behind them. As Carrigan demonstrates, the practice of lynching predates the founding of the Texas Republic; white settlers had turned from lynching Indians, Mexicans, Texas Unionists, and horse thieves and rustlers of all sorts, to the terrorizing of black male residents who faced the furious, fatal indignity of lynch mobs for alleged crimes against white women.

The culture of mob violence that supported the lynching of Jesse Washington was eight decades old in 1916. Central Texans had long justified extralegal killing as a necessary fact of life. In the earliest days of white settlement such violence was administered not by lynch mobs but by citizen posses in pursuit of “encroaching” Native Americans or “invading” Mexicans. As the region became more settled, a tradition emerged of administering justice without recourse to the still-developing court system. During the sectional conflict, vigilance committees sought out suspected slave insurrectionists, abolitionists, and Republicans. After emancipation, whites continued to rely upon mob violence as a means of maintaining order over freemen who had become, in the minds of whites, dangerous murderers and rapists.

Carrigan mines various sources to reconstruct the world view of those who shaped the “lynching culture”: newspapers of the time, oral interviews with Central Texas residents, free people and former slaves, local government and court records, and documents from state and national archives. This detailed survey of published and archival sources enables him to grasp how most Central Texans lived within “a culture of violence.” Carrigan analyzes how the region’s white residents celebrated memories of vigilante violence, and how these prior instances of violent retribution framed lynching in meaningful ways. In other words, how one generation’s memory of lynching helped legitimize its continued practice, even as the targeted victims changed.

Carrigan argues that lynching lay at the heart of the culture, powerfully defining the concepts of public duty and prestige. In 1884 for the first time in Central Texas, a mob lynched a black man, Zeke Hadley, for the alleged rape of a white woman. The Hill County mob surrounded the jail in Hillsboro on June 23, extracted Hadley from a cell, and hanged him. They explained their actions in the Whitney Messenger:

We regret the necessity of having to step beyond the limits of the law in the execution of this negro but we have positive proof of his guilt and think the crime justifies the act … [we] dedicate this precident [sic.] to the mothers, wives, and daughters of this community, the extreme measures to which we have resorted.

Some three decades and about 30 instances of lynching after Hadley, other Central Texans butchered Jesse Washington in Waco’s square. Carrigan explains such acts by looking at the big picture—going back to the founding of the Texas Republic—and paying attention to intriguing patterns, including fairly secretive mob-killings of blacks and whites during Reconstruction. By 1900, he states, such violence had become institutionalized as a “punishment for blacks administered by whites.” His breadth of research and ability to use stories to craft analysis help the modern reader recognize how and why lynching became widely embraced, and how such vigilantism became a tool to enforce a particular set of racial and gendered power relations in the region.

Unlike Carrigan, Patricia Bernstein is not an academic historian, but has delved into a wide range of published and archival primary sources to write her first book, The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP. The owner of a Houston public relations firm, Bernstein describes herself as a writer who has published articles in Smithsonian Magazine, Texas Monthly, and Cosmopolitan. Like Carrigan, she is a native of Central Texas, and The First Waco Horror advances the historical debate about lynching in important ways. But despite her wide reading, Bernstein cannot conceive of lynching as Carrigan does—an integral part of a “culture of violence.” Instead, she asks

… after all the books have been read and all the theories of lynching carefully considered, separately and in combination, there remains an essential darkness at the heart of the lynching epidemic that none of the analyses adequately illuminates: How could otherwise absolutely conventional twentieth-century people living in a prosperous, industrialized society suddenly metamorphose into a wild mob howling for blood and then, within two or three hours—their blood lust sated—revert to being inoffensive, everyday folk again?

Indeed, she does not shy from presenting lynching as an outrageous brutality, a practice seemingly at odds with contemporary Central Texans’ belief that they were highly civilized and cultured:

If you had been picked up from wherever you were and dropped into Waco, Texas, on the morning of May 15, 1916, and if you, devoid of all context, had watched the Waco Horror unfold, you would surely have thought you were no longer on earth but had fallen into the bottom pit of Hell. How could such a thing take place? … Waco was not even a backwoods outpost, peopled with inbred crackers driven mad by moonshine and pellagra. The people of Waco considered themselves to be thoroughly civilized and modern. They were not our ancient ancestors; they were our grandparents and great-grandparents. …

“How could such a thing take place?” It’s a good question, but it’s not one that her methodology allows her to answer adequately. Repeatedly, Bernstein refers to how “riff raff” led the lynch mob, how the authorities failed in their duty to protect Washington, how they conspired with Fred Gildersleeve to allow him to take pictures of the lynching from a courthouse window, and how they also failed to prosecute the mob leaders, even though they knew their identities. To be sure, Bernstein documents all of these findings. But she refuses to recognize that conspiring to commit such an act—going back to at least 1836—had defined civilized behavior.

Instead, Bernstein uses Washington’s lynching to explore how it galvanized the NAACP. The civil rights organization’s anti-lynching campaign referred to it as the “Waco horror,” a phrase that Bernstein repackages for the title of her book. Like Elisabeth Freeman, the NAACP activist who investigated the lynching, Bernstein remains focused on the graphic nature of the Gildersleeve photographs:

Only when you look closer do you see a fuzzy area in the center of the picture, below the tree, like a ribbon of smoke. And then, through the smoke, you can just make out … a leg, a foot, an elbow. A naked human being lies collapsed at the bottom of the tree on top of a smoldering pile of slats and kindling. Around his neck is a chain, which stretches up over a branch of the tree.

But that focus prompts a series of questions: Were other forms of such violence any less brutal, even if they weren’t documented by a photographer? Or protested by the NAACP? Indeed, it’s the second part of Bernstein’s subtitle that best explains her approach: the rise of the NAACP. Her book is less of an exploration of the historical roots of lynching and more a narrative of how Freeman, a militant in the movement for women’s suffrage, came to investigate the Washington lynching for the NAACP, and how that investigation influenced progressive movements in developing a strategy to chip away at the legitimacy of Jim Crow justice. Bernstein has heroes in this book: Elisabeth Freeman and the progressives, like W. E. B. Du Bois, who supported her.

Carrigan’s research provides a more satisfactory answer to questions about how ordinary Wacoans engaged in lynching. While Bernstein sees lynching as exceptional, partly because of its grotesquerie, Carrigan finds lynching to be an inextricable part of the region’s history. Go back to the 1830s, he explains, and you’ll find that Central Texans were anything but mild-mannered—that they perceived themselves to live on a frontier, without recourse to functioning courts, and deployed extreme violence against those who threatened them. The Washington lynching was hardly the most gruesome, certainly not the last, and unique only for its being photographed in a particular way. Indeed, what happened to Jesse Washington in Waco in 1916 was more “ordinary” than Bernstein would care to admit. Across the South, as muckraking journalist Ida B. Wells argued repeatedly, the charge that black men raped and killed white women was a fallacy with fatal consequences, violence wrought with the effect of shoring up a particular set of definitions of white manhood.

My ancestors—the Texans and the Georgians—would undoubtedly have been comfortable with the racism behind lynching. Reading these books together substantiates the point that Central Texans defined their “civilization” in racist and sexist ways. But we also know that a “culture of violence” cannot be restricted to one Texas region. Historians of the Texas Borderlands such as David Montejano, Neil Foley, Benjamin Heber Johnson, and James Sandos have documented instances of white extralegal violence against Mexicans, culminating in the 1915 Plan de San Diego, a proposed armed uprising of Mexicans in that South Texas town that provoked violent massacres and forced removals of tens of thousands of Mexicans by white authorities. Indeed, Carrigan suggests that Mexicans in South Texas faced a greater threat of lynching than blacks in the Deep South. For East Texas, sociologists James Marquart, Jonathan Sorensen and Sheldon Ekland-Olson have demonstrated the racist vagaries of that region’s vigorous support for capital punishment throughout the 20th century. My Texan ancestors would have been a part of all of the processes minutely documented by Carrigan’s and Bernstein’s fine books. The traumatic effects of lynching reverberate to the present and somehow, in some way, I am still connected to this legacy.

Patrick Timmons is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Augusta State University in Georgia. He is a 2005 Mexico-North Transnationalism Fellow.