After a four-year effort, installation of a state historical marker for the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in downtown Waco is coming into sight, with a dedication possible on the May 15 anniversary of the atrocity next year near City Hall, a local organizer of the effort said.
The Texas Historical Commission is moving forward toward the marker’s completion after about a year’s delay in processing the application and the supporting historical background for the marker, said Jo Welter, board chair of the Community Race Relations Coalition. Varying efforts over the years have pushed unsuccessfully for a public memorial to the lynching, which was by no means an isolated incident but sparked an international reaction in large part because it was photographed while in progress.
Welter talked with a commission official last week and found the commission has the proposed text for the marker ready. After coalition members revise and approve the text, the state marker would be cast and delivered to the city for installation.
“It was really great news,” Welter said. “It’s definitely the closest we’ve been. It’s moving ahead, and the timeline is short.”
Though organizers of the historical marker project could decide on an earlier date for installation, Welter said the next anniversary of the lynching should provide sufficient time for the marker’s casting, installation in front of City Hall near Heritage Square and dedication.
“That’s probably what we’ll be shooting for,” she said.
The Texas Historical Commission had approved the Waco marker last year as an Undertold Marker, a designation meant to address historical gaps, diversity of topics and significant underrepresented subjects.Welter said state officials attributed the delay in part to the temporary loss of the foundry used to cast markers and delays this spring because of COVID-19 shutdowns across the state.
The effort to secure a state historical marker for the 1916 public lynching in front of City Hall started with the coalition and the Waco chapter of the NAACP as part of the event’s centennial recognition.
Washington, an 17-year-old African American farmhand in Robinson, was accused of beating a white woman to death and was sentenced to death after a trial that lasted just minutes. Immediately after the sentence, a mob that had been allowed to overwhelm the courtroom seized Washington and brought him outside City Hall.
A crowd estimated at up to 15,000 people watched as Washington was hanged, tortured, burned and mutilated, captured in photos by Waco photographer Fred Gildersleeve.
News of the lynching spread across the nation, picking up the nickname of the “Waco Horror” and becoming a seminal event in the young NAACP and its early anti-lynching mission.
City leaders tried to backpedal the stain on the city’s image in the years after it, though two more public lynchings would occur in the next six years. As the decades passed, the “Waco Horror” had largely been suppressed in the local public’s memory. In the 1990s, Waco City Councilman Lawrence Johnson called for a public acknowledgement of the event, and a series of books, articles and exhibits on lynching in subsequent years brought Washington’s torturous execution back to national — and local — attention.
The lynching’s centennial brought renewed calls for a public recognition of the event so that it could not so easily be overlooked.
Toni Herbert, a former Waco City Councilwoman and a member of the Jesse Washington centennial committee, wrote a detailed 15-page history of the lynching and its aftermath submitted to the Texas Historical Commission about a year ago.
“I knew it couldn’t be a simplistic treatment, but it was a challenge,” Herbert said. “There was so much information.”
Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said the marker and its placement at City Hall would represent an important step in Waco’s acknowledgement of its past.
“It’s important for us to do this for future generations who will be learning the story,” Deaver said.
For people who travel to Waco to learn about the 1916 lynching, marker near its location would also ground that story and lessons learned from it, he said.
“It’s important for the city to confront racist acts in our past and (which) occur now,” he said.
Peaches Henry, president of the Waco NAACP and a McLennan Community College English professor, agreed that a community must recognize what has happened in its history.
“Knowing that not only African Americans, but Mexican Americans and Native Americans have been lynched in our county is important for our history and is especially important at this time,” Henry said. “It’s always a good thing when a community recognizes the truth.”