TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Remembering Slocum, Texas, Massacre

 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.

“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 those killed. (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 Texas Historical Commission approved the marker last year over the opposition of local officials, who said the application was based on conflicting newspaper accounts of the time. They also expressed concern that the marker could tarnish current residents.

“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 with the Texas Historical Commission found ample documentation that there was a massacre, a spokesman for the agency said.

“I think the marker does help clarify what happened, and it’s to the benefit of the state and the community,” said spokesman Chris Florance. “There is difficult history in the state, and this shows there has been a lot of change.”

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

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

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 trying to collect a debt scuffled with an African American.

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

On Friday morning, July 29, three young black men — Charlie Wilson, Cleve Larkin and Lusk Holley ­— unknowingly walked 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 was 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 was killed when the white men opened fire.

In separate attacks, a 30-year-old black man was found shot to death on another road. 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.”

In Palestine, State Judge B.H. Gardner ordered saloons closed and forbade hardware stores from selling guns and ammunition. A few days later, Gardner convened a 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, calling the massacre “a disgrace.”

Nearly every Slocum resident was subpoenaed to testify. Prominent men who refused were arrested, Gardner wrote in his memoirs. Seven men were indicted on 22 counts of murder, but the charges were dropped after Gardner ordered the cases 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 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 2011, when articles in the Star-Telegram led to a resolution by the Texas legislature acknowledging that the massacre happened.

In 2014, Hollie-Jawaid and E.R. Bills, author of “The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas,” 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 recently.

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

One of the county’s most prominent residents, longtime State Judge Bascom Bentley, also welcomed the marker. 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.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — It’s Time To Look Back, Really Look Back

Watching the images from Baltimore and remembering, and certainly not for the first time in these troubled last few years, a spring night in Tulsa, Okla., more than a decade ago, when Oklahoma State Rep. Don Ross and I shared dinner at a quiet Chinese restaurant.

I was in Tulsa to research a newspaper story about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and earlier in the day had interviewed Ross at his office. He was the African-American legislator most responsible for restoring that horrible event (300 blacks slaughtered by a white mob, an entire black community burned to the ground) to its place in history, in Oklahoma at least. Most everywhere else the atrocity remains unknown.

But at dinner, I thought my work was done for the day. Don and I were making small talk when I asked what I thought was an innocent question.

“So what was it like for blacks after the Civil War?”

Tulsa in 1921.
Tulsa in 1921.

Ross was stunned. He slammed the table so loudly that others in the restaurant turned to look.

“And you’re one of the educated whites,” he said that night. “If we can’t count on you to know our story, who can we count on?”

From then on, he called me “ignorant white boy.”

I was ashamed. I had been raised in small town in the Upper Midwest, and for the first 20 years of my life, the only black people I ever really saw were on television. I didn’t watch “Roots.” Race was pretty much irrelevant to me, even after I moved to Texas and started living and working among people of color. But then came the terrible secret of Tulsa and that night with Ross.

I managed to rectify my ignorance in the years to come, research that resulted in my book on the massacre, “The Burning,” which was published in 2001. What I learned was that Tulsa was perfectly consistent with horrors of racism in our nation at the time.

For the first time, I learned of the true horrors of slavery and the century after emancipation that for blacks was nearly as awful. In the 1920s, theKlu Klux Klan was as popular in Chicago as it was in Tennessee. President Woodrow Wilson and the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the movie “Birth of a Nation,” the epic that celebrated the Klan and invoked the most odious stereotypes to portray blacks.

Duluth in 1920.
Duluth in 1920.

Back of the bus. Separate water fountains, schools, restaurants. Lynchings reported in U.S. newspapers like box scores. Tulsa was hardly an aberration, in fact. Around that same time, blacks were slaughtered not far from Ferguson in East St. Louis, Chicago and Duluth, Minn.

After my education, I was never able to look at a black person the same way again, knowing that each bore the scars of the past to one degree or another. I started to come to terms with the racism within myself.

In 1996, I spent four days living in a nursing home to research a story. Part of my daily ritual was to go from room to room to say good morning to my fellow residents. On the third day, I realized I had been bypassing the room of two elderly African-American women. Why? I was afraid of them. They were different.

When I caught myself, and stopped by their room, their faces glowed from the attention, just like white folks in rooms to either side.

Baltimore in 2015.
Baltimore in 2015.

I began to understand the profound chasm separating the races when O.J. Simpson was acquitted. I understood the outrage when Trayvon Martin was killed. And I understand what happened in Ferguson and now in Baltimore.

The looters and those who perpetrate the violence in Baltimore are a fraction of their community. But don’t be deluded into thinking that they aren’t in some way reflective of the deep wounds and frustrations that endure in a land that has not come to terms with its past.

What has happened in America these last few years is a symptom of something much deeper. As such, problems with race in America can only be addressed with real soul-searching.

Years ago, I had a conversation about this with James Cash, who in the 1960s was the first black basketball player at Texas Christian University. He went on to become a revered professor at Harvard Business School. Cash told me of the times at Fenway Park when white women clutched their handbags more tightly when he approached. He also told me of a visit to South Africa after apartheid.

In that country, there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where blanket amnesty was granted, and people thus forced to come forward to tell the truth. History was unveiled, unflinchingly.

I keep waiting for something similar to happen here. How many of these episodes must we endure? Who will lead our version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Fred Rogers said that it was impossible not to love someone if you knew their story. It’s time we learned the story of our neighbors, no matter how painful that might be.