Texas marks a racial slaughter over a 100 years later

SLOCUM, Tex. -One day in the 1960s, when young Michael Vickery was hunting in the rolling, pine-shrouded hills near this East Texas village, his grandfather pointed to a bullet-scarred post oak.

“Buckshot,” Vickery recalled the old man saying, adding that there were eight black people “buried in one hole right here.”

For more than a century, that was how one of the nation’s worst racial pogroms in post-Civil War history was kept alive – in quiet conversations across generations, among both whites and blacks. Otherwise, what is now known as the Slocum Massacre of 1910 – when at least eight African Americans, and possibly many more, were slaughtered by marauding white residents – was conspicuously absent from official history.

That changed Saturday, when the descendants of the black victims helped unveil a roadside marker that offers a brief account of the July 29, 1910, massacre.

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“This most definitely helps restore it to its proper place,” said Constance Hollie-Jawaid, who applied for the historical marker. She is a Dallas school district administrator whose great-grandfather, Alex Holley, was among the dead. (After the massacre, the family changed the spelling of their surname.) “It was being ignored, and by ignoring it, you’re spitting in the face of those who died during that tragic event. You’re basically saying either it didn’t happen or it was not important, and it’s very, very important.”

The efforts of Hollie-Jawaid and others to bring the massacre to public attention began in 1992, with an article in a Dallas Minority Opportunity News.

“It means so much to me and my family that you finally hear us,” she said. “You recognize us and our story. To deny a people’s story is to deny those people.”

The marker was awarded by the Texas Historical Commission last year, despite the opposition of local officials who said the application for it was based on conflicting newspaper accounts of the time. They also expressed concern that the marker could tarnish current residents.

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“The citizens of Slocum today had absolutely nothing to do with what happened over a hundred years ago,” Jimmy Odom, chairman of the Anderson County Historical Commission, wrote in response to Hollie-Jawaid’s marker application. “This is a nice quiet community with a wonderful school system. It would be a shame to mark them as racist from now until the end of time.”

But researchers of the Texas Historical Commission found ample documentation that the massacre took place, a spokesman for the agency said this week. “I think the marker does help clarify what happened and it’s to the benefit of the state and the community,” said Chris Florance of the Texas Historical Commission. “There is difficult history in the state and this shows there has been a lot of change.”

Slocum today is cluster of aging homes, a donut shop and rural school at the intersection of quiet country roads, about 20 miles from the Anderson County seat of Palestine. In 1910 it was a thriving village that was home to several prosperous businesses and farms owned by former slaves.

At the time, racial violence was common in Texas and across the nation, particularly in the South. Between 1885 and 1942, 465 lynchings were recorded in Texas, 339 of them of blacks, the third-highest number of lynchings of any state, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

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In the summer of 1910, according to family stories and news accounts from that time, racial tensions in the Slocum area were said to be running even higher because of the recent lynching of a black man in nearby Cherokee County. Rumors circulated that black residents were gathering to plan armed retribution. Passions were further stoked in July of that year when a white man tried to collect a debt from an African American and a scuffle ensued.

White mobs quickly formed armed with shotguns and rifles, according to the accounts. Word spread to Palestine, and whites rushed to Slocum, swelling the size of an angry crowd to an estimated 1,000 people.

On Friday morning, July 29, three young black men – Charley Wilson, Cleve Larkin and Lusk Holley – walked unknowingly into the maelstrom.

“We were going to feed our calves and attend to our livestock,” Wilson later told a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter. “We had gotten 500 or 600 yards from my grandmother’s house when we were fired upon by several men, two of whom I recognized. They did not say a word when they fired on us. They used shotguns and Winchesters. There were six or seven men in the mob.”

Larkin was killed and Wilson wounded, but Holley escaped. Later that night, Holley, his brother Alex and a friend were fleeing on foot toward Palestine when they encountered 20 men coming down the road in the opposite direction. Lusk Holley was wounded and his brother killed when the white men opened fire.

In separate attacks, a 30-year-old black man was found shot to death in another roadway. Four others, including a 70-year-old man, were slain in a house near Slocum. Reporters counted eight bodies, several of them buried in a common grave dug on the property of one of the dead. Authorities suspected that many more had died.

“Men were going about killing Negroes as fast as they could find them, and, so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause,” Anderson County Sheriff W.H. Black, a white man, said in the Aug. 1, 1910, edition of the New York Times. The Washington Post also covered the massacre extensively. “I don’t know how many there were in the mob, but there may have been 200 or 300. They hunted the Negroes down like sheep.”

“It’s going to be difficult to find out just how many were killed because they got them scattered all over the woods,” Black said. “There will be some of them that won’t be found until the buzzards find them.”

In Palestine, State Judge B.H. Gardner ordered saloons closed and forbade hardware stores from selling guns or ammunition. A few days later, Gardner convened an Anderson County grand jury:

“All of you are white men, and all of you are Southern men, and it is your duty now to investigate the killing and murder of a large number of Negroes, say at least eight and possibly 10 or 12 or more, who have been killed in the southeastern part of your county by men of your color, ” Gardner said.

Nearly every Slocum resident was subpoenaed to testify. Prominent men who refused were arrested, Gardner later wrote in his memoirs. Seven men were indicted on 22 counts of murder, but the cases were dropped after Gardner ordered them moved to Houston.

“In those days, the district or county attorney of Harris County felt that he could not put his time in prosecuting white men for killing Negroes in another county,” Gardner later wrote.

The massacre was quickly consigned to the local shadows.

The official silence lingered through the 1990s, as Hollie-Jawaid and her relatives sought out newspaper reporters and Hollywood producers. Their calls went unreturned until February 2011, when the massacre was the subject of stories in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The coverage led to the resolution by the Texas legislature a month later acknowledging that the massacre happened.

In 2014, Hollie-Jawaid and author E.R. Bills submitted an application for a historical marker, but were not hopeful, given the county’s response.

At a hearing last January, Hollie-Jawaid was stunned when the state historical commission voted to grant the marker.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” she said last week.

Anderson County officials now say they are reconciled. Anderson County Historical Commission’s Odom, who opposed the marker, planned to be present during Saturday’s unveiling.

The marker was also welcomed by one of Anderson County’s most prominent residents, longtime State Judge Bascom Bentley. Bentley, who is white, remembered a long ago conversation about the massacre with an elderly black man.

“He said he stood in water up to his neck for two or three days and there were times he wouldn’t even scratch his nose because he was afraid somebody might see him,” Bentley, 64, said last week. “I’m glad the marker is there. It’s part of our history, an ugly part. But the purpose of history is to teach us how to do better in the present and future.”

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Madigan is a freelance writer.