How should a 1910 East Texas massacre be remembered?


Slocum is a speck on the map — an East Texas crossroads in Anderson County about a dozen miles southeast of Palestine. It is home to a couple of hundred people, about what it’s always been. According to the Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Association, Slocum’s defining struggle to get its own post office back in the 19th century was a “slow come,” and it’s now long gone. In 1929, Slocum was flattened by a tornado that killed eight people, injured as many as 150 others and left a mule stuck high in a tree.

There is no mention anywhere in the handbook of the 1910 Slocum Massacre, in which a marauding mob of local whites went on a rampage, killing blacks pell-mell, and sending much of the local African-American population fleeing for their lives, abandoning homes and property, never to return.

“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. There was just a hot-headed gang hunting them down and killing them,” Anderson County Sheriff William H. Black told The New York Times the day after the July slaughter. “I don’t know how many there were in the mob, but I think there must have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut the telephone wires. They hunted the Negroes down like sheep.”

Even in an era when raw racial violence was common, what came to be called the Slocum Massacre was noteworthy, both for its scope and for the aggressive if ultimately futile efforts by white officials to bring the perpetrators to justice. But it quickly slipped from national headlines and, in the century that followed, largely disappeared from historical memory.

That could change come January when the Texas Historical Commission will decide whether to approve an application for a historical marker in Slocum submitted by Constance Hollie-Jawaid, a Dallas educator and descendant of the most prominent black family victimized in 1910, and E.R. Bills, a freelance writer from Aledo and the author of a recent book, “The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas.”

The application has its detractors, notably the Anderson County Historical Commission, which judged it overwrought and underproven, and worried that it would forever brand little Slocum for the long-ago sins of some of its forefathers.

In their dueling pleadings to the state, the applicants seeking the marker and their critics provide a compelling case study of just how fraught and personal memorializing terrible episodes from America’s racist past can be, even more than a century after the fact.

“This gets at the heart of what’s going on in America and particularly in the South in coming to terms with the history of racial violence and trauma,” said Derek Alderman, a cultural and historical geographer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who writes about the public commemoration of America’s racial past. “How do you recognize that publicly in a way that’s fair to the victims and fair to the community?”

“I do feel like (Hollie-Jawaid) had great intentions of having this recognized as to what happened, but you can’t take all these newspaper accounts and give an accurate description of what happened,” said Jimmy Odom, who chairs the county Historical Commission.

Despite his misgivings, Odom passed the application on to Bob Brinkman, director of the Historical Markers Program for the state Historical Commission in Austin, who, with his staff of one, must review and make a recommendation on this and 173 other marker applications, submitted by the Nov. 15 deadline, to the 12-member state Historical Commission meeting at the end of January in Austin.

Odom didn’t check the box indicating approval by the local historical commission, and he included with the submission his commission’s critical commentary: “The Massacre of 1910 was an atrocity committed by a group of ignorant white men. Those men should have paid for their crimes. This event should never be forgotten in the history of Anderson County. However, it is the general view of the Historical Commission that historical markers should represent people, places and events that had a positive influence on our community. This event absolutely did not have a positive influence on anyone and it is a scar to the community of Slocum.”

“History is history,” said Hollie-Jawaid. “It’s the lens that you look at it that determines whether it is positive or negative.”

Her application concludes: “Descendants of the perpetrators of the massacre may not want to remember the crime, but the descendants of the victims can’t forget and shouldn’t be encouraged to forget. A local, commemorative historical marker acknowledges the truth of the matter for all time. The lack thereof encourages a lie (of omission) and a long-running regimen of selective amnesia that persist to the present day.”

That premise, wrote Odom, is “offensive to the citizens of Anderson County” and “almost like blackmail by shame.”

“The citizens of Slocum had absolutely nothing to do with what happened over a hundred years ago. This is a nice quiet community with a wonderful school system. It would be a shame to mark them as a racist community from now until the end of time,” Odom wrote. “Slocum has not buried their head in the sand and forgotten — they have moved forward and progressed.”

‘I feel like we’re all past it’

Theories abound about what triggered the massacre — a dispute over a debt, advances by a black man toward a white woman, a white man’s indignation about being called to work on a road crew by a black man, white fears of an impending black uprising after a nearby lynching, whites coveting black-owned land.

Odom sent the application and supporting documents to Greg Chapin, the county commissioner whose precinct includes Slocum.

“I had stacks and stacks of newspapers. I read article after article after article. There was nothing consistent to it. I don’t know if there was two stories alike,” said Chapin, who runs a deer processing operation in nearby Elkhart.

“I don’t deny any justice to anyone,” Chapin said. “If they can get it and find it and prove it, that’s great.”

But, he added, “If I say, ‘OK, we’re going to recognize that this did happen, somebody of interest is going to take it further, and they are going to say, ‘The county even recognized it, and we want our land back.’ ”

“It’s a sad situation, but I feel like we’re all past it and other ones carry the burden on their shoulders,” Chapin said. “Their ancestors dealt with it years and years ago, but some of them don’t let it go.”

On Chapin’s recommendation, the Anderson County Commissioners Court, three whites and one black, unanimously agreed that “without further evidence … Anderson County cannot support the marker.”

Odom also included with the application a statement of opposition from David Franklin, a Dallas police officer and pastor at Elkhart Congregational Methodist Church, whose family has been in Slocum since the 1830s.

A history buff, Franklin stumbled upon newspaper accounts of the massacre more than two decades ago. He was intrigued.

“It was national news. In 1910 it was front page news in New York and Chicago,” Franklin said. But by the time he was born in 1957, “the story is lost, and that’s amazing. You knew something happened, but you just didn’t know what.”

Even after years of research and interviewing locals, Franklin said, what exactly happened is still too much of a muddle to make for a fair and factually coherent marker in Slocum.

“We can’t be completely objective about it because it’s our past. It’s not a pleasant thing that happened; you don’t like it; you wish it didn’t happen; you don’t want to ignore it,” Franklin said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to a marker on the courthouse square. But what would be on there?”

Joe Feagin, a sociologist of race at Texas A&M University, said the Southern landscape is scarred with suppressed and forgotten stories.

“There were hundreds of these massacres that were covered up and ignored, even by historians,” over and above what he estimates were about 6,000 lynchings, mostly in Southern and border states, since the Civil War. “Whites are not prepared to face our history of slavery and Jim Crow.”

‘This is just the beginning’

The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, in which perhaps the most prosperous black business district in the nation was burned to the ground, destroying 40 city blocks and leaving as many as 300 people dead and more than 8,000 people homeless, disappeared from public memory for generations.

The same decades of obscurity shrouded the fate of Rosewood, Fla., razed in 1923 by whites from a neighboring community. The state of Florida ultimately compensated some survivors, the site was designated a state landmark, and Rosewood became the subject of a feature film.

In both Tulsa and Rosewood, the precipitating factor was a dubious claim of a black man attacking a white woman.

In his book, Bills calculates that, based on the black oral history, hundreds of African-Americans were killed in Slocum.

“The truth is,” he writes, “a harrowing number of African-Americans were slaughtered in the counties of Anderson and Houston in the mid-summer of 1910, easily eclipsing the body count of the Rosewood Massacre in Florida and surely surpassing that of the Tulsa Riots in Oklahoma, probably establishing the Slocum Massacre as the single largest pogrom of blacks in modern American history.”

“I’m skeptical that hundreds of people even lived in that part of the county,” Franklin said.

“They say there was this big, huge prominent black community that was squashed by all this. There is no evidence of any of that,” said Franklin’s wife, Sheri, who also hails from a longtime Slocum family.

“Bills is doing like some picture people do – make it look good,” Odom said.

In 2011, after the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Tim Madigan wrote about the Slocum Massacre, the Texas House unanimously approved a resolution for the first time formally acknowledging the event — “the murder of eight people was confirmed, and reports indicate that many more may have died in what became known as the Slocum Massacre.”

When Madigan asked Hollie-Jawaid’s then 96-year-old grandfather about the lingering pain, Myrt Hollie replied, “It’s gone now. With this exercise, other people know about it. I can throw it away.”

But Hollie-Jawaid told Madigan, “This isn’t the end; this is just the beginning.”

On a recent Saturday, Hollie-Jawaid and her daughter, Imani Nia Ramirez, and Bills drove along the quiet state highway in Slocum where they would like the marker to go. She recalled her father bringing her there when she was 9 years old and recounting the family history.

“I remember having the windows down, and he had a blue Pontiac, and just looking — it’s beautiful — and then wondering what it had to be like, running and fleeing for your life,” she said.

“I, more than anything, want the land back, to come back to what was home,” Hollie-Jawaid said. She said the family patriarch, her great-great-grandfather Jack Holley (after the massacre, the family changed the spelling of its name to avoid reprisals), born a slave, had a dairy, a granary, a store frequented by both blacks and whites, and more than 700 acres of prime land. “We had our legacy stolen from us.”

“There’s innocent people who probably brought the land; they don’t deserve to lose it; they didn’t know it was somebody else’s land,” Bills said. “It’s changed hands too many times. There’s no way you’ll get the land back.”

Perhaps there could be some other form of reparations, Bills said, like a scholarship fund for descendants.

‘White people have gone crazy’

Amid the mayhem in 1910, the militia and Texas Rangers were dispatched to Slocum. Sheriff Black made plain that his sympathies were with the victims, and Palestine Judge Benjamin Howard Gardner immediately oversaw a grand jury that indicted seven white men. That the defendants should gain a change of venue and never come to trial was less surprising than that they were indicted in the first place.

“That’s different; that’s very unusual,” Feagin said.

No whites were ever prosecuted after Rosewood; in Tulsa, a grand jury laid blame for the riot on the black community.

One of the most vivid accounts of the massacre comes from the memoir of Jerry Sadler, a brawling East Texas politician who served as both railroad and land commissioner. Sadler opens the book with his very first memory, when he was not quite 3, of terrified black people seeking refuge in July 1910, “a date that is still known among the black population of Anderson County as ‘Bad Saturday.’ ”

“The image that stands out most clearly in my mind is of bare black feet scratched and cut, below trousers and skirts that were torn and soiled from their 14-mile flight across fields and through woods to seek papa’s help,” he wrote.

“There are all kinds of stories of why and how the trouble started,” Sadler wrote. “The truth is simply that the whites wanted the land that the blacks owned, and they had decided finally that there was only one way to get it. The blacks had some of the most desirable farmland in the county, and for that my great-grandpa W.T. Sadler can be blamed. When the Civil War freed his slaves, he gave them some of the best land he owned, and he did everything he could to help the other freed slaves of the area to obtain good land.”

Perhaps to cover their tracks, Sadler wrote that three years later, in 1913, “the Anderson County courthouse was burned by an arsonist, and the records were destroyed.”

Maxine Session, who lost ancestors in the massacre, publishes the Cherokee County Informer, which in 1996 ran a story that revived local interest in what had been a forbidden topic. She said that when she was 9 her father, who was an infant in 1910, told the story of that July day as it had been passed on to him: “People had come in from the fields and were resting in the noon hour, and somebody came through and said, ‘You’ve got to get out of here; white people have gone crazy; they’re killing everybody black that they can see, so you’ve got to go.’ So, he said, the adults grabbed what they could and got in wagons; some of them got in barrels down the Ioni Creek there; some ended up here in Cherokee County, some in Palestine, some in Hemphill; they just went where they could get away from Slocum.”

‘We just want our history’

On a recent Sunday, Franklin and his wife, Sheri, and their family were having lunch at Little Mexico, a popular Palestine restaurant, after church. Sunday school had focused on the verse from the Gospel of John in which Jesus said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Sheri sang a sweet rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Franklin said his great-grandfather turned away the vigilantes when they came to the farm to enlist his oldest boys, just as Chapin, without local roots, said his wife’s grandparents hid a black family to keep them safe.

“The whites that were indicted, I don’t recognize any of those names,” Franklin said.

Asked about the mass graves in which the massacre’s victims were reportedly buried, Franklin said, with a nod to Sheri, “I heard stories of that. Your daddy told me that. He said he could tell me where they were. I never asked him to.”

Hollie-Jawaid wants the graves pinpointed and the bodies exhumed and given a proper burial. Bills wants a comprehensive state investigation to unearth the truth.

“I think what’s most irritating about seeing all of this in the public eye is because if you’re in Slocum, there’s no issue here and there never has been any racial animosity,” said Sheri Franklin. Not in her lifetime.

“There’s things we’ve all done we’re not proud of. I think this would qualify as something that happened in Slocum that I’m certainly not proud of, but that doesn’t make me or my family bad people, and we still live here,” said Sheri Franklin. “I don’t deny the fact that it happened. I don’t know the situation, but yeah, if it were my family and the roles were reversed, I would be upset too. But just bringing it all back up again is not going to change anything.”

Maxine Session thinks it would.

“It’s part of history, and maybe that’s why they hid it so well and African-Americans were really afraid to talk about it. They knew what happened, but they were afraid to talk about it,” Session said. “I don’t think we get to the point where any reparations of any kind would be forthcoming. I don’t know who would pay and why.”

“Nobody is angry about anything,” Session said. “We just want our history. This is confirming that this took place. That’s what a marker would do. It would be here when we’re all gone.”


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