City asked to apologize for ‘Waco Horror’
Angela K. Brown
WACO, Texas — On the 90th anniversary of a lynching that became
known as the “Waco Horror,” nearly 100 people gathered
outside the county courthouse for the reading of a community group’s
resolution denouncing lynchings in the 1800s and early 1900s.
The Community Race Relations Coalition, founded in 2000 to improve
racial relations in Waco, wants the city and county governments
to adopt the resolution, which apologizes for the “failure
of past leadership to uphold and defend lynching victims’
most basic rights to life, liberty, and due process under the laws
of our cherished democracy.”
“Reconciliation is one of the greatest things we can do,”
coalition member Ed Bell told the gathering last Monday. “When
you find it in your heart to apologize, then and only then can you
begin the healing process,” said Bell, a former black athlete
who played for the NFL’s New York Jets from 1969-77.
In Nona Baker’s family, the story of her great-uncle’s
1905 lynching was told through the generations in whispers or hushed
voices, never uttered in public for fear of retaliation.
Sank Majors, a 20-year-old black man, was convicted of raping a
white woman and sentenced to death after jurors deliberated for
just three minutes. A judge agreed with the defense attorney’s
claims of improper jury instructions and granted a new trial.
But two days later a mob of several hundred broke into the jail,
dragged Majors away, tied a rope around his neck and forced him
off a horse on top of a bridge. As his body was hanging, the crowd
cut off his fingers and clothes.
“When my grandmother told us the story, I could tell it really
hurt her to talk about it,” said Baker, 60, whose family maintains
Majors’ innocence. “I’m in favor of the resolution
because we’re not trying to blame anybody. We know that nobody
is alive now that did this (lynching), but that’s part of
Waco’s history that needs to be acknowledged. It should be
an official apology from the city and county.”
The City Council and McLennan County Commissioners Court were scheduled
to discuss the resolution at their separate meetings last Tuesday.
Last year, two new books revived discussions about lynchings: William
Carrigan’s “The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence
and Vigilantism in Central Texas 1836-1916” and Patricia Bernstein’s
“The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and
the Rise of the NAACP.”
On May 15, 1916, a crowd of about 15,000 — half of Waco’s
population — cheered as a mob dragged a black 17-year-old
from the courthouse, cut him with knives and dangled him over a
fire. Jesse Washington had been convicted of killing a white woman
who had been raped.
It was one of the few lynchings photographed in progress. Newspapers
referred to it as the “Waco Horror” after the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s magazine
published an article and the rare pictures, now displayed in the
National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn.
Of the more than 4,700 lynchings nationwide in that era, about 500
were in Texas.
Coalition members decided to address the lynchings and what reparation
to seek after Bernstein, whose book also details the 1905 Majors
lynching, held a community forum last summer.
Then the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce’s 2005 strategic
economic development plan recommended commemorating the Washington
lynching to improve the city’s image and soothe tensions between
some community groups.
Other cities’ groups have worked to address similar racial
events. In 2000 a Tulsa, Okla., commission recommended monetary
reparations for survivors and descendants of the 1921 race riot,
in which a white mob burned the prosperous black business district
after clashing with blacks outside the courthouse where a black
man accused of assaulting a white woman was being held.
In 2003 about 150 black survivors and about 300 descendants of those
who lost property or their lives in the riot sued the city of Tulsa,
police and the state. But lower courts ruled the statute of limitations
had run out, and last year the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear
Later this month a commission in Greensboro, N.C., is to release
recommendations on how the community can make amends after five
people were gunned down during a 1979 “Death to the (Ku Klux)
The painful legacy remains because the lynchings were a means of
social control, said Jo Welter, a Community Race Relations Coalition
“When someone lynches a man in front of his son, it does teach
them their place: not to mix, not to upset,” said Welter,
who is white. “What we are addressing is the mob lynching
mentality. How can 15,000 people come to a point where they cheer
every time a 17-year-old boy is lowered into the fire?”
So far the coalition, whose population is about half white and one-fourth
black, has obtained more than 800 signatures from residents supporting
the resolution. Members say leaders should publicly acknowledge
and apologize for the lynchings because lawmen allowed mobs to drag
away the black men from jails or didn’t try to stop them,
thus denying victims their due legal process.
Opponents say leaders shouldn’t apologize for something that
happened before they were born.
Mayor Virginia DuPuy, who is white, said she believes the council
will adopt a resolution condemning the lynchings but isn’t
sure if will have the same words — such as “apologize”
— as the coalition’s document.
“We’re very interested and serious in addressing this
issue,” DuPuy said. “This is too important an issue
to start being careless with the words we use.”
Lester Gibson, the only black county commissioner, has said he doesn’t
expect the county to approve the resolution. In 2002, the group
rejected a similar resolution Gibson drafted after officials restoring
a courthouse mural about Waco’s history refused to paint over
or post an explanatory plaque near the image of a noose hanging
from a tree.
According to a recent Waco Tribune-Herald online poll, 80 percent
of the 3,200 votes were “no,” that a community apology
for lynchings was not necessary.
But Welter said the resolution has broad-based support and that
the 50 coalition members have obtained hundreds of signatures from
people who want the city and county to adopt it.
If the city or county does not adopt the resolution, or adopts a
different one without an apology, many in the community will remain
hurt, Baker said.
“The first step to reconciliation is admitting there was a
problem,” Baker said. “Just the terror of it was something
that hung over the black community, and not talking about it didn’t
make it go away.”
Rabbi Gordon Fuller, one of the 14 people who read a paragraph of
the 800-word resolution this past Monday, said a community apology
“By apologizing we are sorry for what happened; it doesn’t
mean we are guilty of the action itself,” said Fuller, who
is white. “I’m more concerned with education and how
we move forward. Hatred is a taught behavior, and we have a responsibility
to teach tolerance instead.”