Of Waco, lynchings
and the need for community healing

Q & A with Patrica Bernstein

by Bill Whitaker, Waco Tribune-Herald

June 25, 2006

Houston writer Patricia Bernstein, author of The First Waco Horror: the Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP, talked with the Tribune-Herald last week after the Waco City Council passed its anti-lynching resolution, nearly a month after county commissioners did the same.

The controversial movement to somehow acknowledge Waco's early-day lynching culture arose last year in the wake of Bernstein's book as well as Waco native William D. Carrigan's book, The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916. Both were released more than a year ago.

Bernstein, who holds a degree in American studies from Smith College, spoke with the Tribune-Herald shortly before attending rehearsals of a Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston production, reflecting another of her passions.

Q I was at Seventh and James Baptist Church in April last year when you and others raised the idea of a memorial regarding Waco's lynching past. What's your take on local efforts to formally acknowledge the city's early-day lynching culture?

A I was very impressed when I heard about the (Community Race Relations Coalition) resolution and that they were going to do it in time for the 90th anniversary of Jesse Washington's lynching (May 15). To me, that was very moving when they read the resolution on the steps of the courthouse 90 years after Jesse Washington was seized from the courthouse. And then to have the county commissioners, who had been so resistant to doing anything for so long, and the city council both respond with resolutions — I just thought that was wonderful. That was a big step.

Q Were you surprised by the careful avoidance of the word "apologize" in the final adopted resolutions? The word "condemn" was ultimately embraced by both the Waco City Council and our county commissioners.

A Even if they don't use that exact word and can't quite do that, I still think what they did has real significance. I have resisted all along saying what I think Waco should do in terms of a memorial because I don't live there. It's not my town. I don't feel it's up to me. I think it's something Waco has to work out. It seems there have been some good options and suggestions. I like Bill Carrigan's idea, and he's from Waco, of doing a peace garden. But it's really up to you folks.

Q Some folks think you personally got this whole thing stirred up unnecessarily.

A On the other hand, it's pretty amazing it took this long to get the whole story told and somebody didn't do it sooner. One of the sources I used was a master's thesis written at Baylor University in the 1970s by a gentleman whose aunt actually witnessed the Jesse Washington lynching. He had been interested in it ever since he heard her story, and his professors tried to discourage him from writing the thesis because they thought it was too negative and too inflammatory and they just didn't see the point. But I think this is a story that long needed to be told, not just because it is an atrocity but also because of the heroism involved.

Q In their resolutions, county commissioners and city council members steered clear of the horrific 1916 Jesse Washington lynching on our town square and instead focused on the entire lynching problem of that era. Did that strike you as unfair, considering how infamous the Washington lynching is?

A In view of the whole history of Waco, I think it was very fair. If they had focused only on the Jesse Washington lynching, it would have ignored the pain of the families of other lynching victims where the lynchings were not quite as spectacular but just as horrible in terms of violation of the law and violation of personal rights. Friends send me clippings from your newspaper, and I was especially moved when I saw the picture of Nona Baker speaking in front of the city council. (Baker's great-uncle, Sank Majors, was hanged from the Washington Avenue bridge in 1905 after he was granted a retrial in a rape case.) She is so articulate. Knowing her has meant a lot to me. She gives me the other side of the story that you don't see in the old newspaper clippings . . . what it was like for those families. And it was important for her to say to the city council, "Nobody in this room is guilty and we're not trying to say anybody in this room is guilty, but this gesture is very important in terms of healing for my family."

Q Should county commissioners post their resolution in the McLennan County Courthouse? So far, the majority has fiercely resisted the idea.

A I've always thought that would be a good idea. If you go to the trouble to pass a resolution and it is a significant gesture, why not post it where everybody can see it?

Q What reaction have you had regarding your book? It's been out more than a year.

A It came out in paperback in March.

Q Our Barnes & Noble outlet still stocks it.

A Every time I come to town I have to make a trip over there, just to see if it's still on the shelf. In some ways, I'm surprised local people are still buying it. When I came back right after it came out, I was carrying it — I won't even say where I was but I was in a public place — and a woman pointed at me and said, "You don't want to read that!" And I said, "It's too late!"

Q Did you tell her you were the author?

A I didn't. I didn't see any need to unnecessarily embarrass her. But the fellow with me was a reporter for The New York Times, and he told her.

Q How do you describe Waco to national reporters who interview you about our city?

A I try not to demonize the town or make out that it's the worst place in the world or that it was the worst place in the world even in 1916 because, as you know, there are so many communities that have to face this history of lynching. In a way, I felt it was unfair Waco was tarred with the brush of the Branch Davidian siege, because that could've happened anywhere. But unfortunately, the lynching culture did grow very naturally out of Waco culture at the time. It was part and parcel of the ugly side of the city and the hypocrisy of the city.

Q Are you planning to revise your book? I mean, in a way, there has been another chapter in this saga during the past year.

A It would be wonderful if I got a chance to add that chapter. The way the book ends now, it's pretty much that Waco has yet to deal with it.

Q Tell me about this screenplay you're doing of the book.

A Well, it seemed from the beginning to be a very dramatic story with some real heroes in it. But I'm an amateur at this. Who knows if anything will come of it? The heroine is Elisabeth Freeman (a suffragist who visited Waco shortly after the Washington lynching, fully investigated the incident for the NAACP and helped fuel the organization's historic anti-lynching campaign). It's a strong story, and she's an amazing woman. I feel this whole story is very much about the worst that humanity is capable of but also about the best.

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