Motivations - The Brutal Lynching Of Jesse Washington

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by Tambay A. Obenson
April 10, 2012 5:08 PM
16 Comments
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On an almost daily basis, I look for reminders of where we, black people, once were; how we lived, how we were perceived and treated, how we overcame, etc.

These recollections come in a variety of forms, and are sometimes completely unintentional. They are reminders, but they are also very much motivators. They make me realize not only how far we've come, and what we've been able to achieve, but also how much work we still have to do. They have this ability to put moments into perspective for me.

Some make me realize that many of the difficulties we face as a group, currently, are dwarfed by what those who came before us experienced; and in recognizing that fact, I'm inspired to continue evolving for the better, and never resting on my laurels.

Today's reminder/inspiration comes from the above image, which is accompanied by the story that follows below.

Earlier today, I was performing research for an article I'm writing, and came across the case of Jesse Washington - a black man who was brutally lynched at the hands of a white mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916, facing a particularly grisly demise.

Lynchings were commonplace around this time in our history, as we all know. And I've read accounts of a few, as well as seen scores of images that documented each occurrence. And every time I read about one, or see a photo of one, I can't help but be anything other than enraged! I get angry! How could I not?

However, as I've said on this blog previously, I'm all zen now :) And I try to channel that rage into something that could engender the kind of change that I believe our species so desperately needs. It may be a cliche, but it still carries weight - actions speak louder than words!

Jesse Washington was a 17-year old black farmhand who was arrested in May, 1916, for the rape and murder of Lucy Fryer, the 53-year old white wife of a cotton farmer. It’s unclear whether Washington was guilty - evidence is described as scant, the trial lasted just one hour, and the jury reached its guilty verdict in four measly minutes.

But his guilt or innocence didn't matter to the white mob that eventually lynched him.

Before the 17-year old could be sentenced, and with little or no resistance by any of the officers in the courthouse, several hundred onlookers rushed Washington, and carried him outside, where they were met by a larger crowd, waiting to beat and castrate him. A chain was then thrown around Washington’s neck, and he was literally dragged to the town square, where he met an even larger crowd; estimates say up to 15,000 people watched the horrible events that would then unfold.

Washington was tossed onto a pile of wooden boxes, and coal oil was poured all over him. The other end of the chain was thrown over the hanging tree, and tied, dragging him up by his neck, just high enough, as the fuel-soaked boxes below his feet were set on fire. Immersed in the flames, he attempted to climb the blisteringly hot chain multiple times, each time to be lowered back into the fire.

It’s unclear how long Washington was alive, but the event lasted more than an hour, after which his fingers and teeth were claimed as souvenirs, his body parts were separated from the torso, and the remains of Washington were dumped in a bag so they might be dragged once more through the Waco streets in celebration of his death

It's said that a cameraman who documented this, sold photographs of Washington’s charred corpse as postcards - something we've talked about previously on this blog.

A complete and startlingly brutal account of this murder is given by Patricia Bernstein in her 2005 book The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP.

So, I read this, and I try to imagine being this 17-year old kid, chained to a tree, as a fire burns beneath me, and I'm trying to climb up the chain to escape the fire, keeping in mind that the chain itself is scorching hot, wrapped around my neck, and in my palms, and I can't climb it, instead falling back down into the fire below me, as my own body catches fire, and I continue in agony, for almost an hour, trying to make it all end somehow, but also recognizing the futility in it, knowing that I'm going to die - even though this is not quite how I thought would die.

I read this... I imagine it... and I'm affected by it! Like I said, how could I not be?

So, when I'm in that affected mental space, and I read about some of the relatively silly shit that divides us (black people) in the present day, I'm even more enraged; when I hear us express dissatisfaction with anything that we clearly have the power to change, whether individually, or collectively, as a group of people, I'm frustrated. I think of whatever my "reminder" was for that day, and, as I said, it puts things into perspective for me.

We are in a FAR better position to realize many of the dreams we have, than our predecessors ever were, and I'm not so sure we all fully realize that! But this is why I have these daily reminders that motivate and inspire me. They're like a punch in the gut, or a slap in the face, to shake me out of whatever defeating trance I'm in.

Quite frankly, we all should have these daily "motivation reminders." So, if you don't, may I suggest that you seriously consider the idea.

And by the way, Shadow And Act turns 3 years old this week; the very first post was made on April 14, 2009! The site has come far in that short period of time, but there's still a lot of work to do.

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16 Comments

  • Tracey Hansford | November 4, 2013 6:22 PMReply

    Jesse Washington.
    That poor kid!
    I cried when I read his story. Why do some people have to be so cruel to each other?
    So very heart breaking.

  • Patricia Bernstein | April 11, 2012 2:08 PMReply

    Hello, Tambay,
    I appreciate very much your references to my book and your efforts to make this awful story better known. But I am disheartened to see that this photo is still making the rounds as a photo of Jesse Washington. It is not. This is a photo from a lynching that took place in 1915 in Temple, Texas. It was published in the NAACP magazine, "The Crisis," before the Washington lynching even took place. If you read the description of the Washington lynching in depth, you will see that this poor figure couldn't possibly have been the remains of Jesse Washington. This photo was misidentified as Jesse Washington in the book "Without Sanctuary" and has been wrongly attached to the story of Jesse Washington ever since. There are terrible pictures of the Washington lynching and its aftermath in my book, but this isn't one. Thank you so much.

  • wow | April 11, 2012 10:00 PM

    wow. i think the picture is besides the point being made, but that's just me. great post, tambay.

  • Tambay | April 11, 2012 2:11 PM

    Thank you for the correction Patricia. I saw many photos online claiming to be of Jesse; if there's one that you can point me to that you know is definitely of him, please do so.

  • Jayson Jay | April 11, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    And the insanity is no matter how much barbarism and evil Black folks have/do face many of us still see others as somehow inherently better than us.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | April 11, 2012 9:13 AMReply

    My mother's people are from Waco (Doris Miller was a family friend). My grandmother used to tell us about these kinds of things happening. Funny -- back then they sounded like campfire ghost stories. Today it's more about lynching our image, making the world fear us -- when they shouldn't.

  • Rajua | April 10, 2012 11:41 PMReply

    I really appreciate the work you do. Thank you.

  • Nikki J | April 10, 2012 11:13 PMReply

    This is really powerful. Thank you for the reminder.

  • Mark and Darla | April 10, 2012 9:05 PMReply

    I take the little freedom and civil rights I have in this country seriously.

  • T'Challa | April 10, 2012 7:04 PMReply

    The image makes me sick.. but I honestly wish they would show this type of thing to the kids in high school. Give them a sense of perspective.. Since Barack got elected too many people think everything is all good on the racial equality tip. You now have White girls openly rapping "nigga" in their songs, and Black men rushing to the defend them!

    Sometimes it takes these disturbing images to truly shake a person's conscience.

  • B | April 11, 2012 1:37 AM

    Agreed.

  • Joe Doughrity | April 10, 2012 7:00 PMReply

    Brave post. Chilling. Keep doing the work that needs to be done and fighting the good fight Tambay and Shadow and Act.

  • George Otwori | April 10, 2012 10:11 PM

    Yeah, I second that. I live in Texas. Usually when I think of the dark days of the south. I'm thinking states like Mississippi and Alabama. Just another reminder that dark and unsettling things in every state in this nation's history.

  • ONIT2012 | April 10, 2012 6:26 PMReply

    Thank You for this reminder. Thank you Jesse Washington. Your story keeps your spirit alive, that can't be killed.

  • Jug | April 10, 2012 6:19 PMReply

    Damn. Point taken.

  • urbanauteur | April 10, 2012 6:02 PMReply

    His story is a "potent" reminder, that not much sh_t changed.

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