SLOCUM, Texas (AP) - She is a 7-year-old girl in the back of a ‘76 Pontiac, lost in the landscape whizzing past her window. Anderson County unfolds in a gentle panorama of rolling hills, marshland and scraggly oaks in cauliflower contortions.
This is where it happened, her father tells his passengers. This is where they were killed.
She is too young to grasp the impact of what he is saying. The land is bewitching, with no evidence of the darkest chapter of its past.
It would be years before Constance Hollie-Jawaid would absorb the punch of her father’s words or his fury at the unpunished crimes. It was there in Anderson County that a white mob hunted down and murdered perhaps dozens, if not hundreds, of African-Americans in July 1910 - including many of Hollie-Jawaid’s ancestors.
For more than a century, the act has gone officially unacknowledged in Slocum, a small, incorporated community 17 miles southeast of Palestine, the seat of Anderson County.
Last weekend, that changed when Texas State Historical Marker No. 18212 was unveiled near Killgo Cemetery. The marker is the first in Texas to recognize 20th-century racial violence against African-Americans. It represents the realization of repeated efforts by Hollie-Jawaid and her elders to commemorate “the Slocum Massacre,” despite the resistance of county officials.
“They’re not ready to acknowledge this atrocity,” Hollie-Jawaid, who co-authored the marker application, told The Dallas Morning News (bit.ly/1P4ewRP). “I know it can be hurtful or shameful to admit your ancestors were involved in something like this, but an atrocity is an atrocity.”
Officially, eight blacks were killed in the two-day rampage by a mob of rage-filled whites. But news accounts of the time reported 18 to 25 dead, and oral histories passed down through generations of African-American families suggest many, many more.
Hollie-Jawaid, who works for the Dallas school district, recalls hearing her dad, uncles and grandfather talking about the killings when she was a child. But otherwise, there was scant information.
“It’s been essentially buried,” said Texas Tech history professor Karlos K. Hill, who studies lynchings and other racial violence. “You can’t find it in Texas history books. It’s been a case that’s been forgotten.”
Hill places the Slocum rampage in the same league as Florida’s Rosewood Massacre of 1923, the Tulsa race riot of 1922, and the horrific Elaine Massacre of 1919 in Arkansas, the event to which Slocum’s tragedy bears most resemblance. Those attacks all occurred after World War I, when racial tensions were high, with black veterans agitating for civil rights. All were eventually recognized by local officials.
Slocum’s marker, Hollie-Jawaid hopes, will be the first step in a journey to bring peace to the victims’ descendants, who never received justice or financial recompense.
“Racial tensions in America in the early 20th century were sometimes punctuated by violent outbursts,” the marker reads. “One such occasion began near Slocum and spread across a wide area near the Anderson-Houston county line beginning on the morning of July 29, 1910.”
E.R. Bills stands on the bank of Sadler Creek where it passes under Highway 294, a mile from central Slocum. It was somewhere along the marshy creek, closer to town, that a band of whites opened fire on three black men. One was killed, another injured as he took flight. It was the start of two days of slaughter whose details have mostly been lost to time - and to deliberate obfuscation.
“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,” William Black, the sheriff at the time, told The New York Times. “I don’t know how many were in the mob, but there may have been 200 or 300. … They hunted the Negroes down like sheep.”
Almost all of those killed were unarmed. The violence subsided when judges ordered saloons closed, along with stores that sold guns and ammunition, and the Texas Rangers were dispatched to the area.
Local residents, meanwhile, were said to have piled bodies into mass graves.
Seven white men were indicted for the murder, but the cases were moved to Harris County and never prosecuted. Sheriff Black and Anderson County District Judge B.H. Gardner were voted out of office.
Bills, a Fort Worth-area journalist, wrote The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas, published in 2014. He said that while the origins of the attack remain in dispute, references to it exist in the memoirs of area residents. One recalled bloodstained blacks showing up at the door to ask for help when he was a young boy. Another described a site where at least 16 bodies were buried.
In part, the bloodshed may have been triggered by a prizefight 1,700 miles away. On July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nev., Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight champion, defeated James J. Jeffries, dubbed “The Great White Hope,” to retain his title. Johnson’s triumph filled black communities with pride but set off racial violence across the country.
At the time, the heavyweight championship was “the most important title in sports,” Hill said. “For a black man to hold it ran not only counter to the history of that title but to the racial and social norms of the time.”
Before the massacre, Bills said, Slocum was 40 percent black. Afterward, that figure dropped below 10 percent, where it remains today.
Entire African-American families left, never to return. Their homes and belongings were seized with impunity.
“Just think about the loss of black wealth,” said Leigh Cravin, an attorney and former chair of the Anderson County Historical Commission who now lives in Amarillo. “The Slocum Massacre was an example of domestic terrorism. . However, America still refuses to use those two words to describe the abhorrent treatment of African-Americans, then and now.”
Among those who fled was Jack Holley, Hollie-Jawaid’s great-grandfather. “Papa Jack” was a prominent businessman who owned Slocum’s general store, a dairy and a granary. He went to Palestine, where he asked to be jailed for his protection.
Holley lost his son Alex - one of the eight “official” dead, killed near Ioni Creek - as well as a grandson and son-in-law in the massacre.
Jack would eventually settle in Oakwood, where he died a pauper without a headstone. Other relatives stayed in Palestine and changed the spelling of the family name.
On March 30, 2011, a month after reporter Tim Madigan wrote a two-part series about the massacre for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the 82nd Texas Legislature adopted a resolution officially acknowledging the massacre. “Only by shining a light on previous injustices can we learn from them and move toward a future of greater healing and reconciliation,” the resolution said.
Bills and Hollie-Jawaid still wanted Anderson County to own up to its past. Hollie-Jawaid’s dad and uncles had unsuccessfully petitioned for a marker beginning in the 1980s, back when research meant combing through reels of microfiche. They compiled their case from newspaper articles, transcripts and letters and presented it to Jimmy Ray Odom, then the chair of the county’s historical commission. They were rebuffed.
Odom said there were many unanswered questions. Many of those believed to have died were never accounted for. And no one was ever convicted a crime. “Something happened,” he was quoted as saying. “It was mislabeled a massacre. A massacre is when you kill hundreds of people.”
An October 2014 letter to Odom from Anderson County Commissioner Greg Chapin said that after a review of the group’s application, “without further evidence of legal documentation, or the facts of guilty parties taken (sic) responsibility for the incident, Anderson County cannot support the marker.”
Frustrated, Hollie-Jawaid and Bills took their case directly to the Texas State Historical Association in Austin. Their application was approved last January. Of a possible 100 points, it scored a 98. (Association officials say the average score is about 80.)
Neither Odom, Chapin nor current historical commission officials responded to interview requests.
Hollie-Jawaid is not done.
“What bothers me the most,” she said, “is that there are people missing not only from my family but from others, and they need a proper interment and burial. They need to be able to rest in peace and not just be piled on each other.”
One mass gravesite is said to be on land where there’s now a ranch house. Its owner won’t let Hollie-Jawaid visit with an archaeologist, she said.
“It’s not like this was ancient history,” she said. “We are talking about things that happened in the lifetime of people I knew. … In order to move forward in this country, you have to acknowledge the past.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com
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