1Behind the Courthouse
Start at the back door of the magnificent stone courthouse, where a wave of white men dragged Jesse Washington into the alley, tearing his clothes off as they went. Walk 65 steps over the red alley bricks to North 5th Street, where the swelling mob paused to cinch a chain around Jesse’s neck. Cross 5th, turn right, and take the short walk to Washington Avenue. Thousands of people massed here to partake in the killing of the 17-year-old farmhand. As Jesse was pulled down the wide street that cruelly shares his last name, they attacked him with knives, bricks, shovels and clubs. Blood covered Jesse’s dark skin.
It was almost noon on May 15, 1916. With the Texas heat climbing into the 80s, the Waco Horror had begun.
I can feel the boiling blood lust of the mob on a cool night in April as I retrace the final steps of Jesse Washington’s life. I’ve come to Waco to explore the meaning of this century-old atrocity, to probe beneath the eerie coincidence of sharing a name with one of the most famous lynching victims in U.S. history.
I first saw a photo of Jesse’s remains nearly 20 years ago and delved into the story from afar. After being convicted of the rape and murder of Lucy Fryer, a white farmer’s wife, he was dismembered, hanged and burned as more than 10,000 people watched, including the police chief and mayor. Then he was dragged behind a horse until his head flew off. No one was prosecuted for those crimes. But international publicity of such public brutality helped galvanize the anti-lynching movement and solidify the influence of the recently formed NAACP.
A decade ago, I watched indignantly as efforts to commemorate Jesse’s lynching were stymied by the white power structure in Waco. More recently, I pondered the parallels with recent killings of unarmed black males that exploded into national prominence. Above all, I yearned to confront the city in person.
Now I stand on the corner of Washington and 5th, nighttime spotlights illuminating the courthouse’s stained white walls, deserted streets cutting through acres of empty parking lots, and I feel the weight of history and hate.
2Monuments and Markers
Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. meets me in a trendy coffee shop near the courthouse. Half of the storefronts flanking the shop are vacant; downtown Waco has been hollowed out by suburban sprawl and misguided 1980s development strategies. Looming over the block is the 22-story ALICO Building, once the tallest structure west of the Mississippi, a relic of when Waco’s culture, commerce, and cotton wealth made it the “Athens of Texas.”
Duncan, 63, is a white former truck dealer whose father and grandfather also were Waco mayors. He has pushed programs to address poverty, jobs for released prisoners, and health care for low-income residents. Waco’s poverty rate is almost 30 percent, much of it concentrated in the black community. About 21 percent of its 128,000 residents are black.
Duncan supports efforts to memorialize the lynching. He wants his children to know about it. He worries that his grandfather, who was in his 20s at the time, may have watched it happen. Other members of Waco’s white elite – Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce President Matthew Meadors and county commissioners Will Jones, Kelly Snell and Ben Perry – didn’t respond to my messages.
I like Duncan. I ask to see the spot where Jesse was killed, but Duncan is uncertain of the exact location. I ask him about the 1905 lynching of Sank Majors from the steel bridge at the end of Washington Avenue, one block from where we stand. Duncan has never heard of Sank Majors.
Throughout downtown Waco there are monuments, memorials and markers filled with names — for slain law enforcement officers, Vietnam veterans, a fatal 1897 duel between a newspaper editor and a judge, the 114 people killed by the tornado of 1953. A wide plaza called Heritage Square features handsome benches, gurgling fountains, two long L-shaped trellises supported by graceful columns, and hundreds of bricks bearing names of donors. I observe aloud that Jesse Washington’s name is nowhere to be found downtown.
“Is that denial?” asks Duncan.
You tell me, I reply.
“I’m just trying to understand it,” Duncan says. “I can’t explain it.”
Scheherazade Perkins can explain it. “We’ve been so focused on trying to cover it up, hide it, ignore it, say it didn’t happen, say it’s not our fault, we didn’t have anything to do with it, that it was them, not us,” she says.
Perkins is a member of the Community Race Relations Coalition, which for more than a decade has been trying to foster some sort of healing around Jesse’s lynching. I meet Perkins, a black woman with a resume ranging from chemist to consultant, at the spacious ranch home of coalition chair Jo Welter in China Springs, a 25-minute drive north of Waco.
Welter, a white mother and homemaker who has dedicated herself to social justice issues, recounts their 2006 efforts to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the lynching through a memorial service and official resolutions from local authorities. White members of the McLennan County Commissioners Court, which runs much of Waco, “acted like we didn’t exist,” Welter says. They refused to respond to messages or meet with her, even when she showed up at their offices.
Lester Gibson, the sole black commissioner, did propose a resolution that included such phrases as “regret,” “atonement” and “travesty of justice.” The white commissioners didn’t say a word in response and moved on to the next order of business.
This year, the coalition planned a ceremony that included an “official apology” from Duncan. They have received encouraging signals from the Texas Historical Commission about an application for a marker, although the process takes up to 18 months.
Driving back downtown from Welter’s home, I wonder if white citizens are as burdened by this history as black folks. I stop along a beaten-down commercial strip of North 19th Street, but none of the people I meet there know about the lynching. When I describe the event to Paula McCommas, a Mexican-American pawn shop proprietor, she’s opposed to the idea of a historical marker. “It’s been so many years ago. All we can do is pray,” she says. “Sometimes you just gotta say, if God is in control of all our lives, we all pay our debts.”
I get back in my rental car and drive to the courthouse where the mob seized Jesse, hoping that God has come to collect.
3The House of Justice
Built in 1901 by renowned architect James Riley Gordon, the McLennan County Courthouse is a grandiose, three-story neoclassical structure of limestone, marble and red Texas granite. Thirty-two wide steps lead to a front entrance flanked by six Corinthian columns. From afar, the stone walls gleam white beneath the cloudless blue sky. Up close, they are yellowed by age, weather, and what I imagine are the sins within.
Atop the central dome of the courthouse stands an 18-foot-tall statue of Themis, the Greek goddess of moral order and justice. Circling the building, I notice something awry with the statue. Two years ago, a 65 mph storm ripped off Themis’ left arm, along with the scales of justice she held aloft. The scales were found hanging in a nearby magnolia tree. What remains of the arm is a bent, blackened rod that reminds me of Jesse’s charred limbs.
Through the entrance and past the metal detector is a circular lobby, three stories high, with wide hallways heading north, south, east and west. High above, the dome beneath Themis’ feet glitters with blue and red stained glass. Six painted murals circle the ground-floor lobby, depicting Waco’s history starting from its 1837 founding as Fort Fisher, a temporary Texas Ranger station. Painted on one panel is a circular piece of rope suspended from a bushy green tree outside the courthouse.
“ ‘Hanging tree’ with noose,” the caption reads, below a list of educational and cultural landmarks and the headline “Athens of Texas.”
I’d been aggravated by the noose for years, since reading about an unsuccessful attempt to have it painted over. But then I see something even more disturbing.
Beneath the mural, mounted on a small wooden stand, is the resolution ultimately passed by the county commissioners after they refused to say a word in response to the proposal by Gibson, the lone black commissioner.
The document begins by saying lynching was “a widely documented and accepted practice in the United States, the State of Texas, and McLennan County from the early 1800’s to the 1920’s.” The second paragraph says “lynching affected people of all colors and races.” The resolution concludes three vague paragraphs later, without mentioning the specific lynching that was so barbaric it immediately made international headlines.
The name Jesse Washington is not there.
Somehow, in years of studying this story, I had missed this brazen refusal to acknowledge even the basic facts of Waco’s horrifically racist crime. To see the document displayed in what’s supposed to be a house of justice feels like a backhand to the face. Reading it again, I’m pulled into other powerless moments. I feel the despair of seeing the Cleveland officers who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice escape responsibility. The anger from the acquittal of the Los Angeles cops who beat Rodney King. The sickness of learning that segregationist South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond fathered a daughter at age 22 with his 16-year-old black maid.
“Hello, judge,” I hear the deputy manning the metal detector say.
The judge, a white man with white hair and a blue blazer, makes small talk with the deputy. The judge enters the elevator. I hurry in after him and the door closes on the two of us.
“My name is Jesse Washington,” I say. “Does that name mean anything to you? Are you familiar with the history of the name here in Waco?”
“No, I’m not,” he responds. He looks uncomfortable – he probably thinks he sent me to prison years ago and I’m back for revenge. The elevator door opens on the third floor. “I have to go,” the judge says. I don’t ask him his name.
Confronting this symbol of the white power structure gives me a small measure of satisfaction, and a large portion of determination. The burial of my name is starting to feel like a twisted sort of validation. If my name and what it stands for weren’t so potent, they wouldn’t be so scared of it. But I’m not going to let them ignore it.
The building contains six courtrooms. I don’t know which one, if any, is where Jesse sat in chains while the jury took four minutes to determine his guilt. Outside several of the courtrooms are dockets of names and cases pinned to bulletin boards. They make me think about the machinery of mass incarceration, the way laws passed and enforced over the past 50 years in a racially biased fashion have wrecked the black community. I think about how Ferguson, Mo., funded the city government by targeting black residents with petty fines and court fees that often led to arrest warrants, jail terms and lost jobs. I think how likely it is that much injustice has been done in this building.
On the second floor, an older white man with a black judge’s robe over his arm is walking down the marble-floored hallway. “My name is Jesse Washington,” I tell Justice Al Scoggins. He’s never heard of the lynching. I tell him the briefest version of the story and ask if he has any thoughts. “No,” he says. “I’m not from McLennan County.”
A wooden door opens on the darkened, empty 10th Court of Appeals. The only light comes through three stained-glass ceiling windows. Marble columns circle the room, giving the sense of prison bars. The walls are lined with 22 photographs of judges going back to 1923. Twenty-two white men.
Back in the lobby, I see a black sheriff’s deputy. We shake hands and I introduce myself. His grip tightens.
“That’s a powerful name,” the cop says.
4Into Black Waco
I exit the courthouse and turn left on Washington Avenue. It’s three blocks to the graceful crescent moon of the Washington Avenue Bridge, built of steel in 1901, and the site of Sank Majors’ lynching, 11 years before Jesse’s. I cross the Brazos River into East Waco. Black Waco.
Eight blocks past the bridge is the Kelly-Napier Justice Center, which handles noncriminal legal matters such as small claims and traffic violations. This small building feels much different from the courthouse across the bridge. Portraits of black officials hang on the walls, including one of Lester Gibson, who was elected to the board of commissioners from this district. Matters are adjudicated by a black justice of the peace, Judge James E. Lee Jr.
Lee knows exactly who Jesse Washington was. His parents told him the story as a child. Lee has told it to his four children, and shown them the frightful pictures. “Future generations need to know what happened,” Lee says.
In a nearby barbershop, the lynching is common knowledge. “Even today, you get caught up in the wrong place in Texas, you gone,” says Keith Pullens, 34, the shop owner. A conversation ensues about towns and counties to be avoided, lest a brother end up dying like James Byrd Jr., dragged behind a pickup truck by white supremacists in Jasper, 220 miles to the east, in 1998.
All of the customers bring up the legend of the tornado of 1953, which killed 114 people and destroyed downtown. The tornado, they say, traveled the exact path along which Jesse’s corpse was dragged.
I drive past a boxy old Chevy Caprice parked in door-high weeds and a large lot planted with neat rows of vegetables to visit the home of Linda Lewis, a longtime activist in local politics. Lewis was valedictorian of Waco’s segregated George Washington Carver High School in 1965 and attended the state’s flagship university, the University of Texas-Austin, which had just admitted black students.
“But I grew up in Waco, so I was ready,” Lewis says.
Her parents told her about Jesse and Sank Majors as a warning. She was not allowed to cross the Washington Avenue Bridge. “When you grow up in the recent shadow of a lynching, you learn that life is not fair, that you have to work twice as hard, be twice as smart, don’t cause any problems, don’t cause any undue attention to yourself, study real hard,” Lewis says.
“I have lived long enough now to know that the things that are written and taught in history are not true,” she says. “I’m not surprised that non-African-descended Wacoans don’t know about Jesse Washington. It’s not significant to them in their lives or world view.”
On Elm is a gift shop filled with kente cloth, books, jewelry, greeting cards, dozens of church hats and dresses, and shirts that say “Real Men Pray Every Day.” When I introduce myself to the proprietor of 26 years, Marilyn Banks, her eyes flicker.
“You have a meaningful name,” Banks says.
Her shop is filled with black memorabilia, but she doesn’t like the idea of a historical marker for Jesse. “It’s painful,” she says. “It brings too much sadness for now. I know it’s part of our history, but I’m not willing to relive it every day and make a big issue out of it. I prayed about it, put closure to it, then put it away.”
5A Name’s Bitter Past
My own name comes from pain and shame.
My great-grandmother, Mary White, was born in Bamberg, S.C., in the early 1900s, in rural conditions not far removed from slavery. Mom White, as she was known to all of us, worked as a sharecropper and gave birth to her first child, a girl named Curlean, when she was in her early teens. Nobody still alive knows who Curlean’s father was.
Mom White moved to North Philadelphia amid the Great Migration. She got married and had four more children. From a very young age, Curlean was sexually assaulted by the brother of Mom White’s husband. The abuse became apparent when, at 14, Curlean turned up pregnant. Mom White, who kept a pistol in her nightstand, swore she would shoot the rapist dead if she ever set eyes on him again. He disappeared.
In 1937, 14-year-old Curlean gave birth to a boy named McCleary. Everyone called him Bunch. Growing up, nobody would tell Bunch who his father was. Curlean eventually moved to another state and left Bunch to be raised by Mom White and Curlean’s younger sisters, who were so close to Bunch’s age he considered them more siblings than aunts. Bunch was a born artist, sensitive and observant, deeply damaged by his family’s dysfunction and the repressive racial atmosphere of Philadelphia. Bunch also was extremely intelligent, so of course he discovered his father’s identity.
As soon as he could, Bunch fled Philly for New York City, where he met Judith, a young white social worker. They had a son in 1969. Bunch named his firstborn after his mother’s rapist. He told family members that he wanted “to turn something horrible into something beautiful.”
I am Bunch’s son. The child molester’s name was Jesse Washington.
Bunch was never told how long his mother was abused, but he knew there was something he did not know. A lifetime of trying to scratch this unreachable itch is part of what eventually pushed Bunch into mental illness, drug abuse, and death as a 71-year-old homeless man on a New York City park bench.
This is my name. To discard it would mean being defeated by the past. To reject it would betray my father’s determination to confront his identity and history, as horrific as they might be.
“We’ve been so focused on trying to cover it up, hide it, ignore it, say it didn’t happen, say it’s not our fault, we didn’t have anything to do with it, that it was them, not us.”
6The Lynching of Jesse Washington
Jesse Washington worked and lived on the farm of George and Lucy Fryer in the town of Robinson, just south of Waco. Jesse was illiterate and possibly mentally disabled, according to an NAACP investigator who visited Waco soon after the lynching. At about sunset on May 8, 1916, 21-year-old Ruby Fryer found her mother, Lucy, 53, with her skull bashed in. Jesse was plowing a nearby cotton field. Three hours later, the 17-year-old farmhand was arrested in his yard while whittling a piece of wood. He had blood on his clothes, a deputy later testified.
A mob was already forming, so Jesse was taken about 100 miles to the Dallas County Jail, where he signed a detailed confession with an “X,” police said. The written document said that Lucy Fryer was “fussing with me about whipping the mules” when Jesse hit Fryer in the head several times with a hammer, raped her, then struck her twice more with the hammer.
The trial was set for Monday, May 15. “All day Sunday and into Monday morning, people poured into Waco” from miles away, Patricia Bernstein wrote in her 2006 book, “The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP.”
Spectators jammed the courtroom for the trial, which began at about 10 a.m. and lasted slightly more than an hour. Witnesses testified that Jesse told authorities where to find the murder weapon. There was no testimony about rape. Jesse’s court-appointed attorneys asked just one question: “Who were present when the hammer was found?”
The verdict and death sentence were barely spoken when the mob surged forward, carried Jesse out the back door of the courthouse and dragged him to the square outside City Hall. The chain around his neck was flung over a tree. He was dangled above a large dry goods box filled with wood, which had been prepared earlier that morning.
While Jesse was still alive, “Fingers, ears, pieces of clothing, toes and other parts of the negro’s body were cut off by members of the mob,” the Waco Times-Herald reported. Someone castrated Jesse, according to the NAACP investigation, and carried his penis around in a handkerchief, showing it off as a souvenir.
The killers yanked Jesse into the air, then lowered him into the woodpile and poured coal oil over him. About 10,000 people crowded the area, according to the Waco Times-Herald, hanging from nearby windows and perched atop buildings and trees. “As the negro’s body commenced to burn,” the paper reported, “shouts of delight went up from the thou¬sands of throats.”
Jesse burned for two hours, leaving just a skull, torso and limb stumps. A horseman lassoed the body and dragged it through town until the head popped off. Some boys extracted Jesse’s teeth and sold them for $5 each. The headless mess was dragged behind a car to Robinson and hung in a sack outside a blacksmith’s shop, until a constable took it away that evening. Jesse was buried in an unmarked grave.
Jesse was one of 2,842 black men known to have been lynched between 1885 and June 1, 1916, according to the NAACP magazine, The Crisis. Yet Jesse’s demise was so extraordinarily barbaric, Crisis editor W.E.B. DuBois documented the crime in an eight-page supplement to the July 1916 issue, which he titled “The Waco Horror.” The NAACP’s focus on Jesse’s lynching gave the new organization prominence as a civil rights advocate, and helped make the fight against lynching a national issue.
The Crisis account includes a photo of Jesse lying on a pile of burning wood. His short hair is still visible, his facial features not yet charcoaled. It’s the most life I’ve ever seen in Jesse.
“Hang there,” reads an anti-lynching poem by activist Leila Amos Pendleton in the June 1916 issue of The Crisis, “until their eyes are unsealed and they behold themselves as they are.”
7100 Years of Grief
Jesse had several siblings. One of them had a daughter named Caldonia Majors. Caldonia had a daughter named Maddie Ervin. Maddie Ervin had children named Mary Pearson, Shirley Bush, Denise Mitchell, Maddie Brawley and Howard Majors Jr.
I’m sitting with Mary, Shirley and Denise, plus Shirley’s daughter Yolanda, listening to them talk about their cousin Jesse.
“My mom was always telling us what had happened, my grandma, my grandfather, my aunties, my uncles, and all of them,” says Pearson, 67. “They always said this here, that one day justice was going to be done. They always said that. They said, we may not be here when it happens, but it will happen.”
For Jesse’s family, justice would be a historical marker at the spot of the lynching and an official apology. Even though both seem within reach, the decades of resistance have made the family bitter.
“It’s something I just can’t shake. I look at the pictures … it just makes me want to go get me a machine gun,” Pearson says. “You lose rest. You can’t sleep.”
I suspect living in Waco hasn’t helped. Waiting to meet the sisters and Yolanda in the lobby of one of Waco’s nicest hotels, I count 63 white patrons, one black, and one white man with a mixed-race daughter. Pearson calls ahead and asks, “Should we come in the front door?” A benign question, or perhaps an unconscious reflex from her younger years, when she would have had to enter through the back.
The four women believe Jesse was innocent. They get riled up during the conversation, their observations piling on top of each other into a mountain of righteous consternation.
“… What really gets 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 out of me. I’ve tried to keep from getting angry, but I can’t help it. That’s the reason why I had to go up under the doctor to get me some medicine…”
The more they grieve, the more my heart swells. I’ve chosen this journey; they were saddled with it. I think of Zora Neale Hurston writing that the black woman is the mule of the earth. Their pain grows into demands for a statue of Jesse like the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in D.C., a movie like “The Ten Commandments,” a documentary, reparations.
Finally, I ask them, “How do you think it would feel not to be angry?”
The possibility doesn’t seem to register. Pearson brings up the historical marker again. She calls it a “monument.”
“This is where we have to accept justice,” Pearson says. “We can’t accept it no other way. We don’t have the ones that did it.”
When the women hug me goodbye, it feels like they’re family.
Bush says, “Thank you, Jesse Washington.”
8A Woman Was Murdered
Ruby Fryer, who found her mother’s bludgeoned body, had a daughter named Mildred Wollitz Saffle. Mildred had a daughter named Charlotte Morris. I’m sitting with Morris in the home of her son Coy Morris, listening to her talk about her great-grandmother Lucy Fryer.
I’ve been dreading this moment. I found Morris through an email she sent to organizers of a Baylor University march in Jesse’s memory. “To have you start this in our hometown is disgusting,” she wrote. “You want to commemorate the last lynching, then fine, but don’t immortalize Mr. Washington in grace and glory. What the mob did to him was wrong, I don’t disagree, but what he did to my great-grandmother was also wrong.”
I have a responsibility to explore their side of the story, but I worry that Morris and her son, like others I encountered in Waco, will be ignorant of and resistant to history. I fear any exploration of Jesse’s guilt will lessen the lesson of his lynching. I fear my heart will close to them.
Morris rocks nervously in a recliner in the living room of her son’s comfortable two-story brick home. Unlike people in black Waco, Morris did not grow up knowing about the lynching. Her Grandma Ruby always said Lucy Fryer was killed, but went no further. Morris only discovered Jesse’s fate as an adult after Ruby, aging and gripped by dementia, ran away from her nursing home because she was scared of her black caretakers.
It’s an article of faith for Morris that Jesse smashed open her great-grandmother’s skull with a hammer. Jesse had blood on his clothes, he confessed, there was a trial, he was convicted by a jury – Jesse was guilty.
“Do they even know what they’re marching for?” Morris says of those who commemorate the lynching. “Do they just think that this man was picked out of the cotton field and hung for no reason?”
Morris is equally certain that “it’s never been about race to us, it’s about a man murdering a woman.” She repeats this theme several times. I think it’s because Morris is a product of her time and place. She recalls swimming in a pool where black people weren’t allowed and her father ran a gas station where black customers used the back door. Yet she says, “I never remember in Robinson there being a difference” between whites and blacks.
I remind myself that her family has suffered. I try to extend the same understanding to her as I did to Jesse’s cousins when they said Jesse deserved a statue like Martin Luther King Jr.’s.
It’s not easy. Not when she says things like, “I don’t understand how people today can apologize for something that happened 100 years ago … that’s like us asking [Jesse’s kin] to apologize for Jesse killing our great-grandmother.”
I might not have been able to extend that understanding if it wasn’t for Coy.
He’s 34, studied history in college. Grew up in Robinson and loves his town, but also spent time in integrated Waco neighborhoods with his dad’s family. Coy shares his mother’s dismay that Lucy Fryer is often referred to as just “a white woman” in accounts of the Waco Horror.
“Look,” Coy says, sitting next to me on the couch, “she has a name. Just say her name.”
He volunteers that the lynching “is something that Waco has tried to sweep under the rug and is still continuing to.”
He states unequivocally that Jesse killed his great-great-grandmother with that hammer, but then doubles back to leave some wiggle room. He questions how an illiterate teen could dictate such a detailed confession. He knows the verdict and the lynching were preordained, “that innocent or guilty, his fate was sealed from the get-go.”
Later, when he mentions that the good thing about American history is you can see the documents for yourself, I interrupt. I have to give Coy my personal litmus test.
Documents written by the secessionist states clearly state the cause of the Civil War was slavery. I’m unbothered by anyone’s opinions about politics, affirmative action or gay marriage, but my heart reflexively slams shut on those who refuse to face plain facts about why the Southern states rebelled.
“What do you think caused the Civil War?” I ask.
“The South didn’t want to give up the slave labor,” Coy replies.
I extend a hand across the couch. Coy shakes it. Our connection makes it easier to confront my biggest fear.
There is a widespread belief in white America that black people are primarily responsible for the ills plaguing the black community, that the problems created by 350 years of slavery, lynching and segregation have somehow been solved in the last few decades. This leads to the claim that the recent killings of unarmed black people were in part the fault of the victims. Each was responsible for his own demise, according to this false narrative.
So I have to ask the great-granddaughter of Lucy Fryer, do you believe Jesse was in any way responsible for his lynching?
“He bears responsibility for the murder,” Morris says. “He does not bear the responsibility for a mob coming in and getting him and burning him and cutting him up and dragging him to another town.
“He doesn’t have to bear responsibility for that at all,” she says. “Nobody does.”
I feel a brief wave of relief, then my optimism is deflated by her final two words. Nobody bears responsibility? What about Waco, the city, the leadership of the hypocritical Athens of Texas, which sent a black boy’s burnt head rolling down its oh-so-civilized streets and has refused to admit guilt for the last hundred years?
Maybe I have to accept that every one of the thousands of culprits, those who yanked the chain or lit the match or watched approvingly, have escaped responsibility in this world. Maybe I need to seek solace in God’s admonition to forgive. This is the modern African-American dilemma, after all, between uplifting ourselves and relying on white people to have a change of heart.
I start looking for a way to show Morris my truth.
I tell her I’m sorry her relative was killed. She’s thankful. I gently tell her that the destruction of Jesse Washington is not more important than the murder of Lucy Fryer; a life is a life. But Jesse’s name has more meaning, especially since the racist roots of the Horror linger on.
She agrees. “More significant in history, but not more important.”
Coy says, “a man confessed, a man was tried and convicted and sentenced to hang and so our family got that justice. The man that murdered her in our eyes was brought to justice, so if anything else we always have that.”
That’s painful to hear. What happened to Jesse, with the consent and approval of Waco’s government, was the definition of injustice. And injustice still strikes black America, through mass incarceration and the killings of Trayvon, Tamir, and all those killed in anonymity before the internet let us say their names.
Jesse’s family – by now, I count myself among them – says justice would be a historical marker. Charlotte and Coy Morris accept that resolution, as long as it includes Lucy Fryer’s name.
I suppose that’s fair. Neither black nor white can solve America’s race problem alone. We all must release some suspicion, bias or bitterness. So when the historical marker is finally bolted to the scene of Waco’s crime, I can accept Lucy Fryer’s name next to Jesse’s.
“I hope,” Coy says, “that it heals whatever they need healed.”
9Say My Name
The spot where Jesse burned is now a little-used parking lot near City Hall, within sight of the courthouse topped by the statue of justice with her broken arm. Birds chirp in nearby trees amid a misty midday rain. Closing my eyes, it’s easy to imagine the mob closing in on Jesse, the agony, the flames.
I’m suddenly flooded with gratitude that I was born in a different century. That I can walk these streets proud and unbothered, question the mayor, sit on the couch with Lucy Fryer’s family, stalk white judges in the courthouse.
As much as the spot of the lynching itself resonates with me, I’m also powerfully drawn to Heritage Square, 40 paces away. It’s all the names on the bricks. Each inscription is another arrow to the heart, evidence of Waco’s refusal to say my name. How many names are there? I must count them.
Ten names, a hundred, two hundred. Ellen North Taylor. Nell & Jim Hawkins. Murray Watson Jr. Three hundred, four hundred, and still no end in sight.
Names are hiding everywhere, names of schools, citizens, mayors, businesses and civic organizations. Lehigh White Cement Company. George Washington. United Daughters of the Confederacy, Waco Chapter 2381. We Are One Family — The Human Family — The Baha’i Faith.
One hour, 90 minutes, two hours. I’m going to miss my flight, but I can’t stop. The thousandth name rolls by. The count finally ends at 1,312.
I feel soiled, vengeful … then triumphant. Empowered. The one name missing from Heritage Square symbolizes Waco’s attempt to deny its full heritage and pave over the sins of the past. Yet here I stand, living proof of the power of that past. Jesse is an ancestor of today’s victims of injustice, the names we never would have known save for the world-changing power of camera phones and social media. A large part of America tried to discredit these names, to say they did not matter. They failed, and unwittingly unleashed their power. By trying to deny these names, they burned them into history: