This article is the fourth in a series to help Samford students understand the significance of lynching in American history and culture.
I would like to warn readers that the following discussion may be uncomfortable because of the graphic nature of lynching that I will be discussing in this article. I choose to speak about this particular lynching not only because it represents a special kind of racial terror intended to publicly dehumanize its victim, but also because it sparked a massive national protest to disavow the horrors of lynching.
On May 15, 1916, 24 years after the People’s Grocery lynching that I discussed in last week’s article, teenager Jesse Washington was lynched in Waco, Texas, for the rape and murder of Lucy Fryer, his boss’s wife. When Fryer’s dead body was discovered on May 8, a posse formed and found Washington covered in blood. Washington confessed to the murder, and authorities, hoping to prevent a lynching, moved to hold a quick trial. In what can only be described as a “legal lynching,” Washington was found guilty and sentenced to death. That sentence, however, would never be carried out in the legal sense.
Unsatisfied by the guilty verdict that might allow for an appeal, a mob seized Washington before he could reach the prison. This mob dragged Washington to a tree outside of city hall, where they stripped, beat and stabbed him. They then prepared a wood pile and set it on fire as Washington’s oil-covered body hung from the tree. His maimed body was lifted in and out of the fire for about two hours, prolonging an already excruciatingly painful death as a crowd of nearly 15,000 looked on. Washington, finally charred to the point on being unrecognizable, was then dismembered and emasculated by the mob for souvenirs.
Washington’s lynching was a “spectacle lynching,” an all-too-common practice intended to dehumanize black bodies in the process of destroying them while in the presence of whites of all ages in what was often described as a festive atmosphere. White community bonds were strengthened through these “spectacles,” allowing whites to more effectively control the black community through publicly staged violence. Destroying Washington’s body allowed whites to demonstrate their complete control over all black bodies, reminding the black community, who had some representative members at the lynching, that any one of them could take the place of Washington at the slightest social indiscretion.
The negative attention Waco received nationally and abroad brought hope to the black community that social acceptance of lynching was in decline. Lynching went underground, losing its communal aspect. The national tone moved from passive commentary to outright criticism and derision of lynchings and the cities which allowed them. Organizations such as the NAACP and African-American newspapers saw increased funding and support. Although his was not the last lynching by a long shot, reaction to Washington’s murder brought hope to the African-American community.
In my next article, I will continue with a discussion of hope, relating lynching to present day social issues in the hope of provoking positive discussion and change.
As always, I hope to receive responses from the Samford community in the course of this series, and I welcome any remarks, either critical or complimentary.
Will Featherston, Columnist