Of the atrocities levied upon African Americans at the hands of White racist America, the public burning and lynching of teen farmhand Jesse Washington stands as one of the most vivid reminders of this country’s ugly past. The public outcry of the lynching sparked journalists and others to condemn the lynching, with the NAACP hiring suffragist Elizabeth Freeman to investigate the findings. Leading scholar and NAACP journalist W.E.B. Du Bois also reported on the lynching, dubbing the event the “Waco Horror.”
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Jesse Washington worked on a farm owned by George and Lucy Fryer, English immigrants who were well-known in their farming community. On May 8, 1916, Lucy Fryer was murdered in her home and the news spread quickly as locals immediately named Washington as a suspect. Washington was arrested and held for questioning alongside his family — this after authorities discovered blood on his overalls that he attributed to a nosebleed.
Although Washington denied any wrongdoing, some feel that he was pressured into confessing to the rape and murder of Mrs. Fryer. History professor at Baylor University James M. SoRelle suggested that Washington may have been mentally challenged and that he may not have had a good recollection of the events that evening.
A lynch mob stormed the local jail to serve their version of justice, but Washington was moved to another location. After several days, Washington’s trial was held May 15 to a packed courthouse rabid for vengeance. Although his responses were deemed unintelligible, Washington was deemed guilty and ordered to be publicly lynched.
After being dragged through the street by court officials and getting beaten, stabbed, and kicked by the mob, he was covered in oil and hung from a tree with a chain. The mob cut off his genitals, fingers, and toes.
Washington was lit ablaze as executioners kept him alive long enough to continue his suffering.
After he died, bystanders collected memorabilia from the scene. Papers in cities as far away as New York and even overseas in London reported on the lynching of Washington. The New York Times said:
“In no other land even pretending to be civilized could a man be burned to death in the streets of a considerable city amid the savage exultation of its inhabitants.”
W.E.B. Du Bois also remarked on the lynching in part, saying, “Any talk of the triumph of Christianity, or the spread of human culture, is idle twaddle as long as the Waco lynching is possible in the United States.”
Elizabeth Freeman and other researchers in later times concluded that Washington may have killed Dryer due to harsh treatment from her husband but do not think he had the wherewithal to sexually assault her.
The lynching highlighted the racial tensions of the South and how the rise of the Ku Klux Klan coincided with the killings and assaults of Blacks during the early 1900s. The legacy of the Waco Horror gave way to a very public criticism of the practice, with many likening Washington as a sacrifice as many White residents held archaic notions of Black people as evil beings.
The actions of the lynching would mark the Waco area as a haven for White racists, as many African Americans in the area began to show resistance to the oppression felt in their town. As one of the ugly reminders of the racism Black people suffered in through the 20th century, the Waco Horror’s chilling images only need to be seen once to burn their way into one’s minds forever.