The Making of a Lynching Culture in Central Texas

By William D. Carrigan, Rowan University

In 1991, I took a class with George C. Wright at the University of Texas at Austin. Wright, a historian of racial violence destined for a career in higher education administration, changed my life. I had entered the University as a mechanical engineering major, but I switched tracks to study history after the transformative experience of taking his class. The single most impactful moment of his teaching was his distribution of lynching photographs, including several of the infamous 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. I had grown up near Waco, but I had never seen such photographs or even heard of the lynching. I could not shake from my mind the images of Washington’s burned corpse and, especially, of the large crowd that had assembled to watch the burning of a human being. As a result of growing up where I did, I knew lots of people that did not like black people very much, but I could not imagine that even the most racist of these individuals would condone or participate in such a torturous murder. As I looked at the faces in the photographs, it was clear that one could not dismiss all those who attended, estimated at the time to be 15,000 individuals, as sadistic and mentally deranged. I knew that the mob contained a wide range of otherwise normal people who attended church, ran small businesses, worked their farms, and raised sons and daughters. The encounter with these photographs, combined with the encouragement of George Wright, led me to dedicate myself to the study of history in general and to the study of this one question in particular, “how and why did ordinary people come to support lynching?” The answer to this question, at least as it relates to the lynching of Jesse Washington, took me over a decade and can be found in my first book, The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916 (University of Illinois Press, 2005). What follows below is a summary of my findings and conclusions.

When I began my research on the lynching of Jesse Washington, I assumed that virulent racism was the primary explanation for the tortuous violence inflicted upon Washington and others in central Texas. My research certainly uncovered much evidence of deep-seated notions of white supremacy. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine what happened to Jesse Washington and other African Americans without an understanding of the depths of white racism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, it also became soon apparent to me that racism would not be a sufficient explanation for what happened in Waco and the surrounding region. Racial antipathy was widespread and existed North and South, East and West, in remote locations and in urban areas, and in both lynch-prone and in lynch-free communities. So, I began to try to understand why some places, such as central Texas, seemed to be more prone to mob violence than others.

There were two quotes that I found early on in my research that had a disproportionate impact on the arc of my research. The first came from J. N. Bennett, the editor of one central Texas’s several local newspapers, the Waco Weekly News. On February 24, 1893, Bennett attempted to explain mob violence: “Lynching becomes chronic and contagious. Boys grow to manhood with the idea, ingrained in them that lynch law is right and proper, and worthy of applause, and they follow the example set them by their fathers.”[1] This insight leapt off the page to me because it clarified my sense that the best way to understand the lynching of Jesse Washington was not to focus on the particular events of 1916 but to look deeply into the underlying and long-term factors supporting vigilantism in the region. I would eventually conclude that historical memory – the way in which communities and individuals shape recollections of the past to shape present needs – was essential to understanding how and why so many central Texans supported extralegal violence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The second quote came from a 1916 clipping preserved by Tuskegee University in their archival files on lynching. The author of the quote, an African American leader from North Carolina named W. D. Weatherford, wrote that the “first lynchings in this country were perpetrated on Indians.”[2] This statement shook away some of my preconceptions about lynching and encouraged me to extend my study of the extralegal violence back much farther than I had originally anticipated. While I never became comfortable labelling much of the violence against Native Americans as “lynching,” I certainly came to believe that the conflict with the Native Americans in Texas had a clear and direct impact on the culture of extralegal violence that was so prevalent in the region for almost a century.

These two quotes helped give shape to my book, but the full argument consists of six related elements. Each component built and supported the others and, together. they were responsible for the making of central Texas’s culture of lynching.

First, those white settlers who moved to central Texas, especially after 1848, came ready and prepared for a culture of violence because, in part, they carried with them pre-conceived notions of the state as a dangerous place. This “Texas of the mind” could be found in a diverse set of people and included not only outlaws escaping lives in the East and veteran heroes of the wars with Mexico but also planters, European immigrants, and yeoman farmers. One of the primary shared connections between these individuals, it seemed clear to me, was the belief that surviving on the central Texas frontier would depend upon the willingness of you and your neighbors to use violence.

Second, the quarter-century conflict in central Texas with Native Americans was a foundational moment for Texas’s culture of violence. Individuals and small groups, not regular army units, did the bulk of the fighting against the region’s Native Americans. In the justifications of their actions and in the ways that the groups formed to meet the threat of “invading Indians,” these early settlers set the standards that later lynch mobs followed. In 1859, vigilantes marched under the banner “Necessity Knows No Law” and successfully forced the closure of the state’s only reserved space for Native Americans, the Brazos Indian Reservation. The success of these vigilantes and of all those who had successfully forced Native Americans to abandon the region emboldened future generations who looked back fondly to the “Indian Fighters” of early Texas.

Simultaneous to much of the fighting with Native Americans was the rise of African slavery in central Texas, a third factor of significance. The ability to grow cotton led to an influx of slaveholders and their slaves from all parts of the South in the quarter century before the Civil War. They brought with them many elements that reinforced mob violence. For one, most “crimes” committed by African Americans were punished not by the courts but by overseers and masters. For a second, locals quickly introduced the slave patrol, a lightly regulated group that nevertheless provided a model for vigilante action. Another important element was the growth of fear of “outside agitators” and fifth columnists whose actions might encourage slave resistance and revolt. All of these elements existed in the earlier settled southern states, but I argued that the violence and tension that underlay slavery was more apparent and unsettling to whites in central Texas because slave resistance, especially slave flight aided by the proximity of both Mexico and independent Native American communities, increased once slaves reached what was then the “edge” of the cotton South. These concerns over slave resistance, possibly stoked by outsiders, exploded into a full panic in 1860 when local committees of public safety lynched an unknown number of suspected abolitionists and alleged slave rebels.

The experience of the Civil War and Reconstruction proved to be a fourth critical moment in the history of central Texas’s culture of extralegal violence. When war and then emancipation came to Texas, memories of slave resisters, their alleged white allies, and all that had transpired under bondage remained and continued to shape the region’s culture of vigilantism. In particular, central Texas mobs targeted those they believed posed a threat to the white majority, beginning with suspected Unionists and continuing during Reconstruction with “carpbetbaggers,” “scalawags,” and black leaders. Unlike the Panic of 1860, however, I argue that the threat to the white majority during Reconstruction was very real, that there was a serious white minority willing to ally with black voters capable of contesting political power in the region. The legitimacy of this threat only strengthened the region’s culture of violence when Reconstruction finally ended. The lessons were clear. Extralegal violence during Reconstruction, as it had been in the struggle with Native Americans, had been essential, and those who orchestrated this violence were to be praised and appreciated.

One of the important questions in the history of lynching is how and why lynching became so racialized in the late 19th century. In central Texas, as elsewhere, African Americans were disproportionately targeted by white mobs in the years before 1890 but not so greatly as would be the case in the years following. Between 1860 and 1922, mobs killed 67 “whites” and 64 African Americans. However, between 1895 and 1922, mobs murdered 26 African Americans and only one white, Curley Hackney. The fifth factor, and in many ways the heart of my argument, is that participation in mob violence emerged in the late 19th century as an important rite of passage for young men. Having grown up in a culture that lavished praise on their fathers and grandfathers for fighting against Mexico, defending homesteads from Native Americans, suffering for the “Lost Cause” during the Civil War and successfully vanquished the abomination of multiracial government during Reconstruction, these men needed to prove that they too were willing to defend their communities when threatened. That the dangers faced by their ancestors no longer existed did not lessen the need for them to demonstrate their manhood. Out of this cauldron emerged a new region-wide panic that required mob action, the black rapist. The charge of rape, even when alleged of a black man against a white woman, did not universally, or even usually, provoke lethal mob violence before the last decade of the 19th century in central Texas. For example, in 1886, an African American barber named Tom Burney allegedly raped a white woman named Maggie Schuster. Even though the local newspaper described Burney as a “brute” with “vile desires,” no mob lynched Burney. In fact, he never even went to prison as his trial ended in a hung jury. Just a few short years later, however, and the culture had changed to the point that the mere charge of rape in such a case would lead to mob action. While there were many factors involved in the racialization of lynching, I argued that the needs of young men to demonstrate their masculinity through acts of violence underlay both the “discovery” of the epidemic of black rapists and the increasingly brutal lynchings that took place in the 1890s and early 20th century in central Texas.[3]

The sixth and final factor in the rise of central Texas’s culture of lynching is also the one that ultimately helped end public extralegal executions in the region as well. For three-quarters of a century, between the arrival of white settlers in the region in the 1830s until the lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916, most white leaders in central Texas either actively supported and encouraged extralegal violence or tolerated it without much condemnation. This lack of censure and punished encouraged more acts of mob violence, which met with yet more indifference, which fed the cycle all over again, leading to larger and more brutal mobs over time. The lynching of Jesse Washington, in my analysis, was the turning point. Because of the work of the undercover sleuth and activist Elisabeth Freeman and her report in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s magazine, The Crisis, as well as national and international newspaper coverage of the lynching, central Texas’s ruling class began to turn against lynching and mob violence. While vigilantism did not end overnight, a combination of local public criticism, especially by religious leaders, and legal action against mob members began to undo the region’s lynching culture. In 1937, the African American newspaper editor of the Waco Messenger wrote that “years ago this community became mob infested” and the cause of the “trouble was in the unhealthy attitude” of “civic and political leaders toward law enforcement.” When the “situation got extremely bad and something had to be done,” he concluded “this element acted and the country has since witnessed an era of total freedom from mobs.”[4]

While “total freedom” may have been an exaggeration, the violence against African Americans that continued after 1916 was fundamentally different. Public support for lynching had declined. No longer did mobs of unmasked men in the middle of the day murder African Americans without fear of punishment. The lives of African Americans in the region remained fraught with great challenges, and the struggle for black freedom continued, but the strange world that I had seen in the Jesse Washington photographs had gone, transformed into the familiar, if still tragic world, that I knew growing up, one that still contained plenty of white supremacists but not nearly as many people willing to watch and let pass the burning of a human being in front of the local courthouse.


[1] Waco Weekly News, February 24, 1893.

[2] “Lynchings 1916 – Discussions,” box 2, Lynching Files, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.

[3] Waco Daily Examiner, May 20, 1884.

[4] The Waco Messenger, May 28, 1937.