Immigration and Lynching

By Charles H. Ford

Textbooks usually portray the massive immigration of Catholic and Eastern Europeans to the United States between the Civil War and World War I as inevitably successful. In this persistent myth, the fresh arrivals left Ellis Island, went to work in the newly industrial America, sent their children to public schools to learn English, and tried to fit in as much as possible. The melting pot ideal epitomized the effectiveness of this seemingly natural assimilation, but it belied both the intense xenophobia that these immigrants frequently faced as well as the moral and cultural compromises to which they had to adhere in order to be considered “free, white, and over 21” -- the racist slogan from the 1930s which set the parameters for full citizenship.

Racial terrorism and violence also defined whiteness in America, and the heyday of lynchings driven by racism coincided with the arrival of immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century. Accordingly, these new strangers from Ireland, Italy, and Austria-Hungary (southern and eastern Europe), among other places, tried their best to adapt to community protocols and standards in reference to race relations; but, unfortunately, as Cynthia Skove Nevels discerned in her case studies in Texas’s Brazos County, this meant that, when given a situation that called for vigilante justice, these immigrants lynched African Americans to belong.

Nevels’s research is valuable because it connects the simultaneous developments of immigration, the economy of the New South, the rise of Jim Crow, and voter suppression. She looks at an especially important place. Brazos County happened to be within the epicenter of racial violence in Texas, which was the third state overall in the number of lynchings. Only Mississippi and Georgia witnessed more of such racial violence. The agricultural economy of Brazos county before the Civil War featured some of the most lucrative cotton plantations in the region, and most of the newly freed African American laborers stayed in the vicinity after emancipation. Finally, Brazos County also attracted a significant number of European immigrants, particularly from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Austria-Hungary. Accordingly, Nevels shows how and why some of these immigrants assimilated by acting out the worst dimensions of the entrenched racial hierarchy reestablished by the former Confederate elites in the so-called “New South.” The precarious demographic balance between black and white remained at 50/50 by 1900, and thus the immigrants from Europe were seen as potential allies in consolidating the gains made by the proponents of white supremacy.

Nevels examines three separate cases – two of them involving alleged rapists and a variety of white female accusers and then a legal lynching by the local authorities after a shooting death of a male Czech immigrant. For instance, a respected doctor’s daughter pointed to two of her father’s African American laborers, Louis Whitehead and George Johnson, as the perpetuators who had tried to drag her out of an open window on a Sunday night in June 1896. They were quickly arrested, and then consigned to the nearest jail, where they were incarcerated with another African American accused of rape, Jim Riddick, who had been waiting on a successful appeal of his charges brought forth by an Italian woman over eighteen months earlier. The gathering mob did not care about the legal processes, and it went about to lynch all three prisoners from different branches of the same big tree. The impromptu inclusion of Riddick seemed to elevate the status of his Italian immigrant accuser, Fannie Palazzo, who was not very fluent in English. The subsequent arrest and release of the mob leaders also seemed to show the eventual victory of white supremacy over any abstract ideals of equality before the law and due process. Voter suppression would take care of the remaining surprising strength of African Americans and their Republican allies in Brazos County, and this lynching was part of that process.

The second case featured the testimony of an itinerant Irishman who happened to identify the African American suspect apprehended by authorities for the attempted rape of a white teenager. The girl initially was not sure of Eugene Washington as the definite rapist, but the Irishman definitely placed him within the vicinity. That testimony galvanized the inevitable lynch mob, which eventually gave the immigrant a monetary reward for stepping forward and providing cover for the ensuing racist violence. Nevels suggests that “perhaps the willingness of the Irish witness to take part in a vicious demonstration of white supremacy – the strangled death of Eugene Washington – helped to erase the last vestiges of racial otherness that still clung to the local Irish community.” (Nevels, p. 115) This assimilation to whiteness was still not complete in the 1890s; the mass killing of Irish railroad workers within Brazos County by a fellow Hibernian immigrant did not yield a lynch mob to avenge their murders because in part the victims were not considered white. By the 1920s, however, the gaining of property and long-time residence got rid of any lingering otherness for the Irish, and the Irish laborer’s testimony in the Eugene Washington tragedy accelerated that acceptance.

The third and final case in Nevels’s study reflected the rise and fall of African American political power in Brazos County and the judicial lynching via quick execution that elevated Bohemian immigrants to white status. African Americans and their Republican allies did remarkably well in Brazos County through the tumultuous Nineties, delaying the onset of Jim Crow ordinances and oppressions for at least a decade after they had taken effect elsewhere in the South. For example, Dennis Ballard, an African American landowner in Brazos County, won a seat on the County Court of Commissioners in 1880 and would go to win successive electoral contests until 1894. Six years later, in 1900, he made a stunning comeback. Tragically, he would not be able to savor this victory. His son, Bob, was a troubled thirty-three-year-old living at home with a criminal record. On the day after Election Day in 1900, he exploded at a Bohemian saloon in the Czech town of Smetana, named after the famous composer. He proceeded to shoot the saloonkeeper, Jacob Shramek, leaving him for dead. He ran from the bar and then shot a passing wagon driver, who also happened to be a prominent immigrant. The wagon driver, Josef Blazek, died, while the saloonkeeper eventually recovered from his wounds. At any rate, the Bohemian community did form a lynch mob, as was expected by Southern custom, only to have it dispersed by the authorities – the Bohemians were just not white enough yet to murder the younger Ballard in the usual, vigilante style. Indeed, the Bohemians had to wait for the wheels of justice, which eventually deemed them white by way of giving the black assailant the death penalty even if the jury had initially wanted a lesser punishment.

The eclipse of African American political power and the simultaneous rise of the naturalized “white” citizens happened very quickly in the early twentieth century and has lasted to this day in Brazos County. As Nevels points out, after the execution of Bob Ballard, the nephew of the slain wagon driver, Josef Blazek, would go on to succeed Dennis Ballard as a county commissioner. Most significantly, in the early twenty-first century, the great-great-grandson of Blazek became the mayor of Bryan, the largest town in Brazos County.

Mexican immigrants would pose a different question for “Anglo” Texans. They were considered in-between white and black, but it was much harder for them to move to white because of their perceived skin colors, language persistence, and potential to challenge “Anglo” authority by reviving historical memories of a Mexican Texas. Yet, the added help of the European immigrants prolonged white supremacy and its divisive politics in Texas until this century, when Latinos will finally make a majority in many Texan counties. Of course, voter suppression and racial violence, however vigilante or official, have once again raised their ugly heads to preserve white supremacy in an increasingly non-white state, as they did so successfully a century before.