DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
On Monday, a small interracial organization will meet on the steps of a courthouse in Waco, Texas to read a resolution condemning and apologizing for the lynching of 17-year-old Jesse Washington. Washington's lynching 90 years ago was so astonishingly brutal that the incident became known nationally as the Waco Horror. As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, the planned apology has divided the town.
WADE GOODWYN reporting:
Slavery, white supremacy and racism have been a blight on this country since the moment of its founding. In the last decade, towns like Tulsa, Oklahoma; Philadelphia, Mississippi; and Duluth, Minnesota have begun to grapple with the modern implications of their racist past.
Now Waco is being forced to confront some of its painful history, and there are many in this city of 200,000 who have no interest in apologizing for something that happened 90 years ago.
Commissioner RAY MEADOWS (Waco, Texas): I've lived in McLennan County all my life, and I never heard this story until about four years ago when a fellow commissioner brought it up on the same resolution approved. So this is something that they think is gonna do a lot a healing, but I think it's actually divided the people more. I think it's opened up a lot of old wounds that, you know, that old adage, don't ever kick a sleeping dog, I think that dog's been kicked hard.
GOODWYN: Ray Meadows is a county commissioner whose feelings are shared by many here in Waco, especially in the white community.
Commissioner MEADOWS: It's a very ugly part of history, I will say that, and I regret that it happened. But as far as me coming out and apologize, I didn't have anything to do with it.
GOODWYN: Around sundown of May 8, 1916, Lucy Fryer, the wife of a well-regarded cotton farmer, was found bludgeoned to death in the doorway of her seed house. Jesse Washington, illiterate and slightly retarded, confessed to the murder. According to the sheriff, Washington told deputies where they could find the blacksmith hammer he'd killed Lucy with, hidden in a nearby field.
Ms. PATRICIA BERNSTEIN (Author): This is the actual courtroom where Jesse Washington had a kind of a kangaroo court trial. It was different in those days. There used to be a balcony around like there is in the courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird, but they've converted that to another courtroom upstairs because of the press of business here.
GOODWYN: Patricia Bernstein is the author of The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP. It took the jury four minutes to find Washington guilty, and the crowd of 2,000 men who'd packed the courtroom took possession of him immediately. The local Tribune reporter wrote, And then he became the plaything of the mob.
Washington was taken down the backstairs of the courthouse, which remain unchanged 90 years later. As they descended, the men stripped Washington naked. A chain was put around his neck and tightened.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: And by the time, I think, they got him out in the alley, they already had his clothes off, and on the way to dragging him down to the town hall square, he was beaten by, I think, half the people who could get close enough to do something with, you know, bricks and shovels and pipes and whatever else was at hand. He was stabbed. They said by the time he got to the town hall square, he was completely covered with blood.
GOODWYN: Still alive.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: But still alive, yes, unfortunately for him.
GOODWYN: When Washington arrived at the hanging tree next to City Hall, the mayor and the sheriff were already comfortably situated in the mayor's second floor office with its perfect view. Waco's most successful commercial photographer was set up in another window of the mayor's office, too, ready to shoot. Fifteen thousand people, half Waco's population, were gathered around to watch.
Ms. BERNSTEIN: So they took him to the town square, to a little tree that was right in the middle of the eastside lawn, and they put a chain, another chain around his neck and started a fire beneath him.
GOODWYN: With the chains around his neck, Jesse Washington reportedly said, Don't I have a friend anywhere in this crowd? Every time he was lowered into the flames, the crowd roared as if Baylor had just scored a winning touchdown. His fingers were amputated for souvenirs, and his fingernails taken for keepsakes. Finally, all that was left was a torso, but Washington's body parts were finally put in a bag so they could be dragged through downtown some more.
Commissioner LESTER GIBSON (Waco, Texas): And that particular horror, to me, until it get addressed, we can sit and rationalize with it, we can try to make it go away, but here in McLennan County, it's not gonna go away.
GOODWYN: Lester Gibson is the only African-American county commissioner in Waco. While white County Commissioner Ray Meadows may never have heard of Jesse Washington until now, the black community in Waco has passed the story down orally, a warning from one generation to the next about the place they live.
Commissioner GIBSON: I had been hearing about all of my life, okay, and it's a wound that has not healed in the mindset of the African-American community. It's gonna continue to be passed on from generation to generation. I think that the only thing that can basically bring McLennan County together is some reconciliation of the matter.
GOODWYN: Monday morning at 11 a.m., the precise moment Jesse Washington was seized in the courtroom, the Waco Interracial Coalition will announce their regret for his murder. Later in the week, the county commissioners and the city council will debate whether they should make any official statement. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.
ELLIOTT: The NAACP took a risk and sent a working-class women's suffragist to investigate the Waco lynching. Elisabeth Freeman faced down hostile residents to write a report that helped ignite a nationwide anti-lynching campaign. You can read more about her at npr.org.