2009 will go down as a year marked by milestones – some national in scale, and others of a more distinctly local bent.
This year witnessed our nation's first African-American president take office, and it also saw the appointment of Rockwall County resident Carolyn Wright as the first African-American chief justice of an intermediate appellate court in Texas. 2009 could also justifiably be celebrated for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP.
But on a more somber note, this year is also the centennial of a dark shameful episode right here in my community – the 1909 burning at the stake of black farmhand Anderson Ellis by a Rockwall lynch mob.
I first wrote about this incident in my column in December 2006, at a time when "Legally Speaking" didn't appear in as many newspapers and other media outlets as it now does. At the time, I had been shocked to discover that tiny little Rockwall appeared on Tuskegee University's year-by-year chronicle of the over 4,000 documented lynchings that took place in the United States between 1885 and 1942.
Spurred on by the surprising absence of any mention of this event in official town histories and other sources, I dug deeper, examining contemporary news accounts from papers as far away as Indiana as well as grand jury records and the diary of a prominent local citizen. I also interviewed members of Rockwall's African-American community for the recollections passed down to them by ancestors living in Rockwall at the time of the grisly occurrence.
The story that came together was sadly reminiscent of many such lynchings across Texas and the South in general. Mrs. Arthur McKinney accused Anderson Ellis, a farmhand employed by her husband, of raping her on March 5, 1909. Although members of Rockwall's black community believe even today that it was a forbidden but consensual affair gone bad, the consequences of even the mere accusation were enough to motivate Ellis to flee.
A posse tracked him to a farmhouse owned by another African-American, Andrew Clark. When Clark refused to allow the vigilantes to search his home, violence erupted. Two men fled from the house, and one of them – Mr. Clark's son William – was shot dead.
The other, Ellis, escaped only to be cornered at another farmhouse near Caddo Mills. He resisted, was shot twice, and was captured and brought back to Rockwall. On March 7, 1909 – before he could be tried in a court of law – Anderson was forcibly removed from the county jail by a mob.
What happened next was chronicled by a purported eyewitness correspondent writing for the Dallas Morning News. In "lynch journalism" typical of Southern newspapers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mob is described in heroic terms as a "determined group of men" while Ellis is referred to in characteristically dehumanizing fashion as a "negro fiend." (Just a few years later, a similar approach was taken by the Waco Morning News in narrating an equally horrific lynching in that city. That newspaper stated "Resembling the forefathers who dared anything for their country's sake, the determined band of farmers and neighbors last night declared to the sheriff that they didn't want trouble, but that their blood would not stand for a fiendish brute to trample the chastity and sacredness of life and their women folk.")
Ellis was taken to the town square, where he was chained to an iron stake driven into the ground. A bonfire was erected, and the pile of kerosene-soaked cordwood was set on fire with the twice-wounded Ellis in the midst of it. Within nine minutes, as a crowd of over a thousand watched (Rockwall's entire population at that time hovered around 1,000), Anderson Ellis was dead.
If you're having trouble visualizing a scene like this – more suited to the Middle Ages or the Spanish Inquisition than to 20th century America, then pick up the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. It is a chilling volume, full of contemporary photos that juxtapose the mutilated, broken and sometimes charred bodies of African-American victims with the smiling, proud faces of "upstanding" members of the community, often accompanied by cheering wives and children.
The photos were often turned into souvenir postcards (frequently bearing racist captions or slogans) and sold by the same drugstores and general stores that had peddled sodas and other refreshments to the crowds. More ghoulish souvenirs were also for sale at such lynchings: fingers and toes cut from the corpses of the mobs' victims, and even teeth pried out of their mouths.
The indelible images from these photos cause a gamut of emotions to well up: anger, shame, guilt. But perhaps more than any other emotion, I feel stunned and bewildered at the fact that no one in the crowd seems ashamed of their horrible deed. The contrast between the brutalized bodies of their African-American victims and the proud and smiling faces of local businessmen, farmers, and professionals never fails to bring to mind the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit" (the title refers to the bodies of lynching victims hanging from Southern trees).
The haunting song contrasts the idealized South with the ugly reality of racial violence. When I hear Billie Holiday singing chilling lines like "Pastoral scene of the gallant South/the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh/then the sudden smell of burning flesh," I think of those lynching photos and postcards. I think of Anderson Ellis, burned at the stake in the same town square that today plays host to art fairs, farmers' markets, and strolling families.
In a way, the centennial of Anderson Ellis' death and the NAACP's founding are intertwined. Although the civil rights organization was founded in 1909, it struggled early on and didn't achieve national prominence until after another gruesome Texas lynching.
In what would become infamous as the "Waco Horror," on May 15, 1916, 17-year-old mentally retarded Jesse Washington was seized by a white mob from the very courtroom where an all-white jury had just convicted him (after four minutes of deliberation) of murdering the 53-year-old wife of a white rancher seven days before.
A chain was fastened around his neck and Washington was dragged to City Hall where a bonfire awaited. As many as 15,000 people watched an orgy of torture that lasted over an hour as the young man was lynched while dangled over the flames. It ended with Washington's decapitated body being dragged through town and his charred remains being hung from a pole for public viewing. Photos of the atrocity were memorialized as souvenir postcards (one appears in the book Without Sanctuary).
The fledgling NAACP publicized the lynching internationally and it became a cause celèbre. W. E. B. DuBois wrote "Any talk of the triumph of Christianity, or the spread of human culture, is idle twaddle so long as the Waco lynching is possible in the United States of America."
Known at the time as the "Athens of Texas" for its schools and colleges, and as the "City with a Soul" for its many churches, Waco's reputation would be stained for years by this horror. While efforts at a memorial have been repeatedly voted down by city leaders who argued that "the past is past," in 2006 the Waco City Council approved a resolution condemning the "heinous lynchings and other forms of violence that created a culture of fear and injustice" there.
For those who opposed any form of acknowledgment of the "Waco Horror," the words of African-American retired school administrator Jewel Lockridge are instructive. "You can't afford to pretend it didn't happen," she says. "Let revisiting it be a kind of insurance that keeps us from going down that path again."
I'm proud of the fact that "Our Legacy of Shame," my column about the Anderson Ellis case, won a number of journalism awards and was part of a series that examined the effects of lynchings on small Texas communities. But in a way, I'm prouder of the hate mail I received from people who didn't like my digging up a past that a community had done its best to forget.
The racially-charged vitriol in some of the correspondence I received only further convinced me of the truth of the column's underlying premise – that when we ignore and fail to educate our children about the bigotry-spawned barbarity of our past, we do nothing to step out of the lingering shadow that it casts over our present.
John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, L.L.P. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org