East Austin plaque unveiled to remember lynching victims

Dec 16, 2017
The Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative plans to install similar plaques in other communities that had lynchings between the Reconstruction period and 1950.

The details of the Travis County lynching in 1894, based on news accounts from the time, are discouragingly sparse. Even the victims’ names are lost to history.

An African-American woman working as a nurse for a white family was jailed after one of the children in her care died. Two African-American men, for reasons no longer known, were arrested as well. A white mob formed on Aug. 14, 1894, and abducted the woman and the two men from a jail about 30 miles from Austin, taking them a field. There, they were tied to stakes and riddled with bullets.

No one was jailed for the killings. News reports at the time indicated that the three victims “very likely” were innocent of any crimes.

About 250 gathered Saturday afternoon in an East Austin church to remember those anonymous deaths. Later, under a steady, cold rain, most of those people huddled outside as Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder, Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett unveiled a blue-and-gold plaque in front of Wesley United Methodist Church. The plaque, headlined “Lynching in Travis County,” is the seventh such remembrance installed by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative nationwide and the first from that group in Texas.

“A community demonstrates its values by the plaques it puts up, by what it chooses to memorialize, what it chooses to honor,” Adler said at the event.

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The Equal Justice Initiative hopes to install such plaques across the country in counties where lynchings occurred, an effort to highlight a part of history consigned to the shadows. The Travis County lynching was among almost 4,400 such deaths between Reconstruction and 1950, violence that was often little noted by the press at the time and long remembered by the communities terrorized by the killings.

The African-American victims included 335 in Texas between 1877 and 1950, based on research by the Equal Justice Initiative.

The Rev. Sylvester Chase, Wesley United’s pastor, said his 152-year-old church was privileged to be the site of the memorial.

“No one really knows their names,” he said of the three who were killed in Travis County in 1894. “But, oh, God knows their names. On this property, we say value them, because they were children of God.”

The initiative, in a report on lynchings, says that almost 4,100 such killings occurred in 12 Southern states in those 73 years between the reassertion of white hegemony after Reconstruction and the real beginnings of the civil rights movement. The other 300 or so occurred outside the South in various states.

That toll is about 800 more lynchings than previously thought, according to the report, which was based on new research with original sources such as newspapers and other writings.

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The most lynchings, defined as a murder through mob action, occurred in Mississippi: 654. Georgia, with 589, and Louisiana, with 549, were next. In Texas, sixth on that ghastly list, Anderson County in East Texas — Palestine is the county seat — had the most, with 22, followed by McLennan County (home to Waco) with 15 and Harrison County with 14. Three died in Caldwell County lynchings, two in Williamson County and two in Bastrop County, according to the report.

There were none reported in Hays County, according to the report.

Roland Hayes, who has taught history at Austin Community College for four decades, grew up in Harrison County, in Marshall.

“This,” he told the crowd, “is a history that needs to be told.”

The Equal Justice Initiative would tell that history in a museum it hopes to build in Montgomery, Ala. Artist renderings, shown to the Austin crowd in a chilling three-minute video, depict a square, low-slung building with floor-to-ceiling windows, in effect a long walkway around a grassy plaza in the center.

Those who visit, the video shows, would pass under thousands of columns of black stone. Each stone would be suspended from the ceiling by a metal cord.