In the mid-1800s, the fertile land surrounding Waco in Central Texas attracted countless settlers from the Deep South who introduced slavery into the area. The 1860 Census was the last time the federal government took a count of the South’s vast slave population, and the greatest rate of increase in a state’s slave population appears to have been in Texas where the number of slaves more than tripled from 58,000 in 1850 to 182,566 in 1860. By 1860, slaves made up almost forty percent of the population of Waco and surrounding McLennan County. There was a white population of 3,799 and a slave population of 2,404, which was worth more than a million dollars in currency of that time. In 1950s South Waco, our neighborhood adjoined a large but overlooked black community that remained as a racial and cultural island where plantations with slaves had once existed. The children who lived there attended segregated, all black schools in East Waco. By comparison, East Waco made South Waco appear upscale. East Waco was a virtual no-man’s land secluded on the other side of the Brazos River, which early Spanish explorers had named the Rio de los Brazos de Díos,“the River of the Arms of God.”
On May 15,1916, an almost unspeakable act of violence occurred in Waco that would forever link it to the tragic annals of the racial divide that later consumed the South. Jesse Washington, a seventeen-year-old African American farmhand who may have been mentally retarded, was convicted of raping and murdering a white woman in the outskirts of Waco. His trial lasted all of four minutes, and a jury of twelve white men found him guilty and sentenced him to death. But just minutes after his conviction, an angry mob seized the young man without resistance from the authorities. Members of the mob put a chain around his neck and dragged him to the downtown square surrounding City Hall. There, at the base of a tree, the mob castrated an already physically brutalized Washington, threw him onto a pile of wooden boxes, doused it with coal oil, and set it ablaze.
With the chain secured over a tree limb, Washington was hoisted above the flame to the delight of the angry crowd. When Washington tried to climb the hot chain, other mob members yanked at his hands and cut off his fingers to keep him from resisting. According to reports, a mob of some 16,000 cheered and roared as the writhing youth was repeatedly lowered into the flame for over an hour. When he was dead, the mob tore his body apart, keeping fingers and teeth as souvenirs and dragging other body parts around the streets of Waco. The killing drew national outrage with the Nation, the New Republic and the New York Times condemning the lynching. But no charges were ever brought against those involved, even though lynching had long been outlawed. Instead, the lynching was celebrated on postcards.
Growing up in Waco almost half a century later, the only Washington I knew of was the father of our country. It may not have been so much that Jesse Washington had been forgotten as that new generations in his hometown had never heard of him. I’m certain we would all have been mortified by the horrific accounts of his death, but it wasn’t something that was in our history books, nor taught in our schools. Maybe the people of Waco, those who might have known of it, would have wanted to forget about this act of savagery or wanted to erase it from their memories. But what couldn’t be removed from the mindset were lynchings, which along with hangings had been a fact of life in Texas. Between 1882 and 1968, there were 352 lynchings of African American men in the state. It is also estimated that at least 597 Mexicans were hanged between 1848 and 1928 in the Southwest. It was no wonder then that lynchings were as much a part of the popular American culture of the West as was Texas. Rare was the Hollywood western of that time that didn’t include a hanging of some cattle rustler or outlaw who hadn’t outrun the posse. I remember one cowboy film in particular, in which the big advertisements in the newspaper had featured actor Randolph Scott’s Stetson-covered head about to go into a broad noose. It was one of his most popular cowboy movies, and other kids my age must have seen it was well.
And although they may not have been found in our local histories, stories of lynchings and hangings were part of the local lore, even among young children. When I was five, my parents enrolled me in kindergarten at the First Baptist Church of Waco where they assumed I would be taught to speak English. Until then, I spoke only Spanish. It was the language my parents spoke at home, the language I spoke with my relatives, and the language I would have spoken with my friends had I had any, which I didn’t, outside a small group of cousins, who all spoke Spanish as well. Looking back, it was strange that I had not been exposed to English beyond the specialized language of baseball, cowboy westerns, and the country music that my parents listened to on the radio. However, none of those were really the language of children, certainly when there weren’t other children to speak to or play with on a daily basis. I don’t know exactly why that was. Perhaps it was because I had been sick so often from as early as I can remember and had been hospitalized numerous times for an assortment of illnesses. From our windows, I would watch other children, including our neighbors’ young sons and daughters playing outside, and I wished I could join them. My parents, however, kept reminding me of how sick I could easily become and how awful it was in the hospital with all the shots that I dreaded. So kindergarten was my first true exposure to the world of other children and the world of learning. Every day I sat in wonderment listening to the teacher and the stories she read. I didn’t understand them, but it was easy to pretend I did. All the other children would giggle and laugh at the stories, and so would I.
Our teacher, I suppose, might have easily assumed that I was simply another shy child because I do not ever recall saying a word in class. I also did not participate in any of the activities except drawing, finger-painting, and the games we played at recess. At some point at recess, our games invariably drifted to playing cowboys and Indians and cowboys and cattle rustlers. We used imaginary six-shooters formed by pointing our forefingers, and we galloped around pretending to ride our horses. An old oak tree dominated one corner of the playground with a large sandbox underneath it. Two long, thick ropes hung from a tree branch and could be reached easily from the sandbox. I think the ropes were meant for rope climbing, but we put them to better uses for our games of cowboys and rustlers. We had shaped a noose from the ends of the ropes, and whoever happened to be the rustlers would be hanged the way they did it in the movies. They wouldn’t really be hanged, of course, though the nooses would be placed around their necks. It was all make-believe. No one was ever hurt, and it all seemed innocent enough until the week that my cousin Gloria from Houston came to visit and spent the day with me in kindergarten.
Gloria was the daughter of my Uncle Lupe, one of my father’s brothers, and she and I were inseparable when our families visited each other several times a year. The day she joined me at kindergarten was no different, and maybe that is why the dynamics changed on the playground. We were playing alone in the huge sandbox under the shady tree when my classmates ran toward us. They were whooping and hollering the way we always did when we played cowboys. I don’t think they understood that we didn’t want to play because they grabbed us as if Gloria and I were pretending to be the cattle rustlers. They next thing I knew they were strapping the nooses around our necks. I was accustomed to playing hang-the-rustler, but Gloria wasn’t. And she panicked. She screamed and fought trying to escape, and her fear was infectious. Suddenly I was frightened, more because she was than any other reason. She was hysterical, breaking into tears as I tried in vain to assure her that there was nothing to fear.
“It’s okay, Gloria,” I said in Spanish. “They’re just playing.”
“No! It’s real! They’re going to hang us!” she screamed. “Don’t you hear what they’re saying?”
I strained to listen to what my classmates were hollering.
“Hang the Mexicans!” They shouted. “Hang the Mexicans!”
It sounded just like all other times we played. “Hang the rustlers!” we would yell. Or: “Hang the murderers!”
But this was new. I didn’t know who the Mexicans were.
“That’s us!” cried Gloria. “We’re the Mexicans!”
Excerpted from The Prince of South Waco: American Dreams and Great Expectations by Tony Castro.