Jesse Washington Lynching

Society in the South evolved ensuing the emancipation of slaves after the Civil War. The Reconstruction of the South ended in 1877 and only added to the bad racial tensions in the region. Whites instituted laws that held blacks back from education, jobs, and participating in many forms of government. Lynching of blacks became rather prevalent and reached fever pitch in the 1890s all across the United States, but mostly in the South. Lynching escalated during the 1920s and Texas ranked third among states between the years 1885 and 1942 with approximately 468, including 339 blacks. The only states that had more lynching incidents were Mississippi and Georgia.

In May 1916, Jesse Washington, a seventeen year old black man, was arrested for the killing of Lucy Fryer, a fifty-three year old white woman. Washington would later confess to raping and killing Fryer. Wanting to avoid an attack on Washington while in custody in Waco, authorities in McLennan County sent Washington to a Dallas jail to await his trial. When his trial took place on May 15, 1916, Washington arrived back in Waco to a packed court room. Twelve white men formed his jury, and they found him guilty of murder after only four minutes of deliberation.

A mob had gathered around the courthouse prior to the trial and waited for their chance to capture Washington. After his conviction, the jailers took Washington down the back stairs of the courthouse, where the mob had been waiting. The mob of white citizens wrapped a chain around Washington’s neck and dragged him to city hall grounds, brutally stabbing and beating him as they went along.

A separate mob prepared a pile of dry-good boxes, which they ignited after they poured coal oil over Washington’s body. A crowd estimated to be between 15,000 to 20,000 people watched as the belligerents hung Washington from a tree and slowly lowered him up and down over the burning boxes.

After two hours of monstrously lynching Washington, the mob took his body and placed it in a bag and dragged it to Robinson, Texas, which was the hometown of Fryer and a large African-American population. The charred and mangled body of Washington hung from a utility pole in front of a blacksmith's shop until a McLennan County Constable took his remains down and buried them. Washington's unclaimed remains were later buried in a local potters field.

Waco had seen another lynching previous to that of Washington. A mob had lynched an African American man by the name of Sank Majors in 1905. After a jury deliberated only three minutes in his trial, Majors was found guilty and two hundred men seized and dragged him to the town square, where they hung him from the Washington Street Bridge.

The lynchings took place during the time of the Jim Crow Laws in the South. These laws legally separated blacks and whites in numerous institutions such as schools, restrooms, and various types of transportation. “Separate but equal” had been affirmed by a 7-1 margin in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The aftermath of the “Waco Horror” included a push to end lynching around the country. People began to see lynching as a barbaric act and started condemning those who participated in them. The NAACP led the charge in getting anti-lynching laws passed in light of the Washington lynching, which led to the decline of lynching after the 1920s and into the early 1960s. Lynching also had an effect on the arts. Billie Holiday released her song "Strange Fruit," and in 1935, two art exhibitions were displayed in New York City, one of which the NAACP sponsored.

In 2001, the lynching of Jesse Washington became national and local news again when ABC News Nightline aired an eighty-fifth anniversary special. Four years later, Patricia Bernstein released her book, "The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP," and it inspired the Waco community to call for local governments to apologize for the lynching. The Community Race Relations Coalition framed a resolution of apology, read it on the McLennan County Courthouse steps, and encouraged both the McLennan County Commissioners and Waco City Council to pass the resolution. After much debate over the word "apology," and the word's eventual removal, the McLennan County Commissioners passed a resolution condemning the lynching culture and mob violence of the past on May 23, 2006. The Waco City Council passed a similar resolution a little over a month later. Neither resolution included Jesse Washington by name.


Images

A National Conversation

A National Conversation

Headlines across the nation varied in tone. Many papers in northern states were critical of the action that happened in Waco. Papers in the South tended to denounce northern papers' attacks on southerners. | Source: Image courtesy of the Cameron Herald, Cameron Texas View File Details Page

An Act of Unspeakable Evil

An Act of Unspeakable Evil

The charred remains of Jesse Washington. News of the incident shocked many people around the country. Photographs of Washington show the depravity of the lynching. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Gruesome Murder

Gruesome Murder

The lynching of Jesse Washington spurned disgust across the country. Afterwards, Americans began to view such mobs as barbaric, and the number of lynchings started to decline in the late 1920s. This photograph sheds light on the attitude of the onlookers. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Mob Mentality

Mob Mentality

It is estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 people were present for the lynching of Jesse Washington. They looked on and screamed, encouraging the stabbing, beating, and eventual burning of his body. View File Details Page

Indictment (1916)

Indictment (1916)

The indictment of Jesse Washington’s trial signed by District Judge of the Criminal Court, R. I. Monroe. | Source: McLennan County District Clerk's Office View File Details Page

Verdict (1916)

Verdict (1916)

At 11:22 in the morning of the trial, the verdict of Jesse Washington was read by the jury and signed by the foreman, W. B. Brazelton. Moments after the verdict was read aloud, the crowd surged toward Jesse Washington and dragged him out of the courtroom. | Source: McLennan County District Clerk’s Office View File Details Page

Audio

Quickest Trial in McLennan County

Lester L. Gibson tells of Jesse Washington's trial and the horror that happened after he was given the death sentence. | Source: Gibson, Lester L., interviewed by Richard H. Fair, July 7, 2008, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Eyewitness Account

Harold Lester Goodman speaks of the lynching of Jesse Washington that he witnessed at the age of fourteen. | Source: Goodman, Harold Lester, interviewed by Gary Wayne Hull, June 23, 1977, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

No Attempt Made to Stop It

Harold Lester Goodman speaks of how the authorities did not attempt to stop the mob that dragged Jesse Washington, as well as the reaction from another African American in the community. | Source: Goodman, Harold Lester, interviewed by Gary Wayne Hull, June 23, 1977, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Nationally Known

Michael D. Babers tells the story of how he learned about the lynching of Jesse Washington through is college roommate and photos in magazines. | Source: Babers, Michael D., interviewed by Richard H. Fair, July 31 2008, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Two People Denied Justice on that Day

Michael D. Babers gives one explaination of why the Race Relations Coalition was pursuing a resolution for the Jesse Washington lynching. | Source: Babers, Michael D., interviewed by Richard H. Fair, July 31, 2008, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

A Hope for Reconciliation

Mary Darden tells of the injustice that occured on the day of Jesse Washington's lynching. | Source: Darden, Mary, interviewed by Richard H. Fair, August 19, 2008, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Reading the Resolution

Joseph Nesbitt explains the joy of reading the Jesse Washington resolution and seeing all of the community support. | Source: Nesbitt, Joseph interviewed by Richard H. Fair, July 31, 2008, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Undocumented Lynchings

Lester L. Gibson speaks of the undocumented lynchings that happened in Waco as a recreational activity for the white community. | Source: Gibson, Lester L., interviewed by Richard H. Fair, July 7, 2008, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Kurt Terry, “Jesse Washington Lynching,” Waco History, accessed October 1, 2016, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/55.

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