Texas Matters: The Slocum Massacre - An Update
July 29, 1910 in Slocum, Texas started off like any other Friday in this rural East Texas community – but before the day was over one of the worst racial atrocities in Texas history would happen.
It wasn’t long after sunrise that the shooting started – and continued throughout the day.
It’s been called the Slocum Massacre – the day when the local white community, whipped up into hysteria, attacked the black community – killing many and forcing the rest to flee for their lives. Their homes were put to the torch.
If you haven’t heard of the Slocum Massacre, don’t fault yourself. The state of Texas has been silent about what happened there. There’s no state historic marker at Slocum explaining the tragic event for travelers who might stop. It’s not taught in Texas history classes and it’s not even mentioned in the Texas State Historical Association’s handbook of Texas. Some even say it didn’t really happen.
And others allege there was a cover up of the Slocum Massacre that continues even today.
Sadler Creek still runs in Anderson County, Texas near where Slocum once stood. It was modest farming community, just 20 miles southeast of Palestine, about 100 miles east of Waco. Sadler creek runs through the thickly wooded and swampy area just as it did over one hundred years ago on the day when the African-American community was attacked.
It was here at daybreak near the creek that the first shots were fired. Three teenaged African-Americans, Charlie Wilson, Cleve Larkin and Lusk Holley, were walking down the road and crossed paths with a group of half a dozen white men. Without warning, they opened fire. Larkin was killed. Wilson was wounded in the leg and chest. Holley escaped injury and fled with Wilson into the swamp.
Soon there were more packs of armed white men combing the area and shooting black people on sight. Going from cabin to cabin – working their way through the woods and continued their methodical executions for the next 48 hours.
Jack Holley, survived the Slocum Massacre but some of his family members did not.
The local sheriff of Anderson County at that time, William H. Black, reported - "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. All known victims were unarmed and most were shot in the back. No whites were injured.”
Newspaper reports tallied between 8 and 22 were killed that day. All were African-Americans. But the real number of fatalities is unknown. There is evidence to suggest African-American casualties could be as high as 200.
Constance Hollie-Jawaid is a descendant of one of the survivors of the Slocum Massacre.
“I am the great great-granddaughter of Jack Holley and the great granddaughter of Marsh Hollie.”
Jack Holley was born a slave but after emancipation he was able to become a prosperous land owner and businessman in Slocum. He managed to survive the attack and with his family went on the run. In fear of reprisals, they changed the spelling of their last name and lost all their property.
Hollie Jawaid has worked for years trying to make sure that the victims of the Slocum Massacre are not forgotten. And she says she and her family have been hitting brick walls from the local and state historic commissions to gain recognition that Slocum happened.
“No one wants to hear it – because no one wants the story to get out – I truly believe that,” Jawaid says.
During the interview, sitting next to Hollie-Jawaid is her cousin Colecia Hollie-Williams and on her lap is her toddler son, Ray Anthony Williams. Hollie Williams is working with her cousin to bring attention to the 1910 Massacre that almost wiped out their blood line.
“We’re not trying to stir the pot. All we’re trying to do is bring awareness to what happened and justice - as my grandfather would say – for justice’s sake. It’s a story that needs to be told. It’s my heritage, my family’s heritage, my son’s heritage. And people need to know what happened.”
But what did happen on that day in 1910? And in the critical days leading up to the Massacre? It’s unclear, but there are stories.
Newspaper reports are a means to get some idea of the mood and events during the attack, but they are a deeply flawed record with inaccuracies warped by lens of prejudice, pressures of the day and the thirst for sensationalism.
The first press reports coming from Slocum declared that a race riot had erupted. The Associated Press reported on July 30th that 12 were killed in a race riot. Two were white and 10 black. Also inaccurately, the AP story reported that 200 black men were arming and more bloodshed was expected. According to the report printed on newspapers front pages across Texas – the armed Negroes were “intent on cleaning out the entire white population.”
The front page of the New York Times printed the next day was a much more truthful reflection of the reality in East Texas. The Times reporter, without a byline, wrote that as many as 25 black residents of Slocum were killed and they were unarmed and shot down like sheep without reason by a mob of 200 white men.
Sheriff Black was quoted in the Times: “Men were going round killing Negroes as fast as they could find them and so far as I was able to ascertain without any real cause. These Negroes have done no wrong that I could discover. There was just a hot headed gang hunting them down and killing them.”
After the initial headlines, the follow-up stories of Slocum fell to the paper’s back pages. There was no printed explanation for what happened to the race riot or if there really was an armed mob of 200 black men looking to wipe out white families in East Texas. But there was some follow-up reporting that there was a Texas Rangers investigation and indictments of the white men who led the Slocum pogrom. And it wasn’t long before the story fell out of the newspapers entirely. And then this painful and embarrassing chapter in Texas' past was skipped over in classrooms when it came to teaching Texas history. It didn't take long for it to become a virutally forgotten account.
But cousins Hollie-Jawaid and Hollie-Williams knew well the story of the Slocum Massacre because it was kept alive by their family’s oral tradition.
“I heard the stories of Slocum at family gatherings. Just sitting around the table and talking about where we came from.”
“I remember my dad taking us to Slocum. My brother and I and my mom. And showing us where his grandfather had lived and then just telling us the story of Slocum – as much as he could that was age appropriate that we could understand. I just remember looking at all the land and my daddy being so proud and saying my grandfather owned all of that – our great grandfather. Coming out of slavery to own the only granary, the dairy, the general store. Jack and Marsh did pull themselves up by their boot straps but they did it too well which caused envy in the white community.”
“Slocum Massacre – late July 1910 – basically a bunch of white folks – mobs of white folks in groups ranging from 12 to a hundred to two hundred – started going around Anderson County – Southeast Anderson County primarily and killing black folks - killing as many African Americans as they could find – as many as they could chase down – over a 24 to 48 hour period.”
“There is no official number. The newspaper reports originally suggested two dozen. Eventually when indictments were handed down it was for seven, but the sheriff of the day – of the time – said most of the bodies would be found by the buzzards. There were too many. They were everywhere. And strangely no more where found after he said that. It appears that some of the perpetrators of the massacre went around covering the evidence and in fact some of the black families were retrieving their deceased loved ones and burying them and prevent further abuse so it’s not clear but oral tradition suggests that there were at least two hundred killed.”
“And it also led to a racial expulsion, probably thousands fled. A racial expulsion basically… it’s when people flee an area because they are being persecuted because of their race or because of their ethnicity. It’s happening in parts of the world now. But in that period when the white folks started killing all the black folks they could find obviously the surviving African Americans fled. They fled their homes, their property, their jobs. Some of them fled with nothing more than the clothes on their back.”
“One of the descendants describes her ancestors telling her – you know they had just heard that the white folks had gone crazy killing black folks and so they just started fleeing and in fact many of the victims in the end were shot in the back. I mean it wasn’t enough that they were fleeing. They were going to kill them regardless.”
“The Slocum Massacre – the newspaper accounts – when you put them all together and read every one of them – they differ on everything that happened.”
Jimmy Ray Odem is the Chairman of the Anderson County Historical Commission. He is opposed to the placement of a state historical marker at Slocum acknowledging the massacre.
There was no race riot to start with. It was just personal things between the blacks and the whites. --Jimmy Ray Odem
“There was no race riot to start with. It was just personal things between the blacks and the whites. It didn’t fall in the line that just because you’re black I’m against you and all that. They just want a marker that shows something happened there and they killed blacks and got away with it.”
Also opposed to an official state historic market for the Slocum Massacre is the Anderson County Commissioner for the area, Greg Chapin.
“It’s just lack of evidence. It’s all hearsay – no factual. You know everything that the commission works off of is all basically – proven – as far as documented by some of our peers – judged – you know what I mean – as not just hearsay. So we’ve looked at all the information – as far as all the ones that have been supplied to us. Everything has contradicted itself totally – as far as how many were killed – how many weren’t killed. How many blacks? How many whites? What it was – y'know. So there’s no – everything from the New York Times to the local prints - y'know – nothing was consistent – and then no one was prosecuted on it. No one was convicted.”
Commissioner Chapin is correct – no one was prosecuted and no one was convicted. But there were 11 arrests and 7 indictments.
“There was indictments and all that – but it never went through. You know there’s all that you’re guilty – you’re innocent till proven guilty – it never went to that part – you know what I mean. There was a lot of indictments and speculations and fingers pointed.”
And many fingers were pointed at one Slocum resident-- Jim Spurger. He has come to be known as the main instigator of the Slocum Massacre.
This brings us to what sparked the attack on Slocum. And the short answer is – we do not know with certainty what led up to the fateful morning of July 29th 1910. There are stories and many of them have Jim Spurger in the middle of them. Spurger was a local tenement farmer who has come to be known as the main instigator of the Slocum Massacre.
“I don’t know what his malfunction was. Just full of hate – evil. And I’ve heard from my grandfather that he referred to my great grandfather Marsh as just an uppity nigger.”
Constance Hollie-Jawaid says she’s heard stories about Spurger her entire life and how he was the mastermind behind he Slocum Massacre.
“He was spreading rumors that the blacks were going to up-rise in some form or fashion in whatever that looks like.”
Whether it was Spurger or not spreading rumors somehow the local white community had come to believe that trouble was afoot - that the blacks were arming themselves and getting ready to attack them. The community was in a state of hysteria and panic.
Author E.R. Bills:
“Many of the white folks were convinced that was happening. Many of them put their wives and children in churches while they went around killing these black folks. Put them in the churches and schools – hold them up with guards for their own protection. So some of the white folks believed that an uprising was in the works but in the end it was discovered just to be rumors.”
Another story about Spurger leading up to the attack has to do with the custom at the time of men being essentially drafted from time to time to do manual labor to maintain the roads. The men could also pay a tax but hard currency was difficult to come by and rarely paid. According to the legend Spurger had heard that a black man, Abe Wilson, was given the task by the county official to pass the word to Spurger and other white men in the area that would be needed for road work duty. To Spurger’s mind this was the ultimate insult and would not stand.
Author E.R. Bills, again:
“The guy who was appointed to summon people for road work, Abe Wilson, there’s no evidence that he ever actually talked to Spurger and said “you need to report for county road work.” James Spurger just heard that he’d been appointed. And he was offended and when county road work started he showed up with a shot gun – said he was going to use it to shoot some squirrels on the way home. And refused to do any work and took like a coin and flipped it at the white county road work supervisor and said he wasn’t going to work.”
Weeks later Slocum came under attack by Spurger and others.
Jim Spurger may seem like a perfect villain when looking for an explanation as to why Slocum was attacked. But it really wasn’t so unusual of an act for East Texas and across the South in that post reconstruction era. Slocum stood out only because of the scale of the racial injustice. But acts like the lynching of blacks were common. Between 1885 and 1942, 465 lynchings were recorded in Texas, 339 of them of targeted blacks. Texas had the third-highest number of lynchings of any state, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
“Lynching went far beyond punishing alleged criminals. Lynchings were also about and some would say mostly about terrorizing the black community.”
Karlos Hill is a professor of history at Texas Tech University and has focused on American history of lynching:
“It was about instilling fear of whites. It was about the message most lynchings sought to send was stay in your place and by stay in your place that meant don’t challenge Jim Crow segregation – don’t challenge disenfranchisement – don’t challenge in general the status quo of the South which is whites were on top and controlled things and blacks were on the bottom. And so there’s no doubt that the lynchings, the kind of social message that it meant to communicate was about terrorism and about staying in one’s place.”
Lynchings of Black was not only tolerated but also encouraged by the white establishment of Texas.
After the March 3th 1910 Dallas brutal lynching of Allen Brooks the Dallas Morning News covered the story with the headline “Dallas Mob Hangs Negro From Pole at Elks’ Arch.”
Lynching of Allen Brooks Printed postcard of lynching scene, Dallas, TX, March 3, 1910. Allen Brooks was accused of molesting a three-year-old white girl. During the trial, an angry mob stormed the courtroom and took him out and lynched him from a street pole
Brooks had been dragged from the courthouse while his trial was in progress for an assault on a white child.
The paper praised members of the mob for their swift justice and criticized the courts for “delays, reversals and failures.”
“What made lynching such a phenomenon is that from the courts – to the criminal justice system – police – there was a tassel acceptance of it. And that is what made lynching a phenomenon where five thousand Americans were lynched. If there had been local state and federal prosecutions of lynchers it would never have grown to those propositions.”
In East Texas there was a lynching of a black man every month for the six months leading up to the Slocum Massacre. Lynchings were common and they were popular. It was an accepted practice for the members of the mob to fight each other for scraps of the victim’s clothing or pieces of the hanging rope to be treasured as souvenirs.
Another possible factor that led to the Slocum Massacre was an event that happened several weeks before - on July 4th 2010 - and which inspired violence against blacks across the nation. A boxing match featuring the heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries – a man known as the Great White Hope.
On July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson and James Jeffries fought in a world heavyweight championship in what is often referred to as the Great White Hope Fight. Johnson won and sparked lynchings and other racially motivated attacks on African Americans.
In the build up to the “Fight of the Century” Jeffries was quoted in newspapers saying "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro."
Johnson was black and Hill says he represented the worst fears of those invested in the white power structure particularly in the south. Johnson easily won the title defense and in response there was a wave of targeted violence and lynchings against blacks simply because they appeared to be gloating about the fight and having too much admiration for Johnson.
“Whites feared that he would be a symbol of resistance. Because Jack Johnson was so flamboyant and rubbing it in whites’ faces they had to respond in the way that they did or else other African American men and women would have seen him as and that the citadel of white supremacy could be breached. And that was the problem with Jack Johnson.”
July 1910 was a time of great racial anxiety and a volatile climate that someone like Jim Spurger could have easily taken advantage of by inciting a mob to violence.
Author E.R. Bills says there was almost a riot the day after the massacre when Spurger was arrested by an Anderson County Sheriff’s Deputy along with Texas Rangers. A mob had formed to protect Spurger.
“As the rangers were trying to take him to the county jail there were folks who tried to obstruct them. They told one of sheriff’s deputies that he wouldn’t make it to the county jail with Spurger. And at one point there was a group of 75 white folks that lined up and challenged the law enforcement personnel and one of the sheriff’s deputies, his name was Riley Reeves, he said look we’re going to open fire – we’re going to use our guns – we have to – we’re taking him to the county jail. He basically stood them down.”
But Judge B. H. Gardner, the elected district judge for Henderson, Houston and Anderson counties wasn’t going to allow those who perpetrated the massacre escape the justice of the law. He convened a grand Jury in Palestine to investigate the attack. And Spurger and six others, including his brother, were indicted.
It appears it was the first time in Texas that a white man was indicted for the murder of a black man.
But an indictment is far from a conviction and Spurger would never be tried on the charges – because elections have consequences.
“Judge Gardener is trying to prosecute these guys. Sheriff Black has been his ally. Governor Thomas Campbell has sent this special prosecutor. And they are building this case and within seven or eight months there are new elections. Gardener is voted out. Black is voted out. Thomas Campbell is voted out. So the special prosecutor is removed from the case by the new governor - and so nothing happens.”
Eventually Spurger and the others would walk away from the charges.
But that’s not the end of the story for Spurger. He would eventually meet up with Judge Gardner when he was campaigning to try to reclaim his place on the bench.
“James Spurger punched him. Judge Garner was shaking Spurger’s hand and he took his free hand to punch the judge.”
There never has been Justice for victims of Slocum. But Constance Hollie-Jawaid says she dreams of one day seeing that justice come in some form.
“Undoing the cover-up. So everyone at least in Texas knows what happened. To me that’s Justice. And to also get it in the public schools. That’s justice. Justice looks like a formal acknowledgement in the form of a marker. There are some that are buried – we don’t know where. They were not properly funeralized so this would to me be a memorialization of them, their lives and their efforts.”
The closest that the state of Texas has come to recognizing the Slocum Massacre happened at the state legislature. On March 30 2011 the Texas House unanimously approved a resolution for the first time formally acknowledging the event. But this was a mostly symbolic action by the legislature that has no bearing of law or weight in court. And does nothing to actualize a state historic marker for Slocum.
And days later in Palestine over the Anderson County Courthouse the Confederate flag was raised in celebration of the local connection to the Civil War. After some embarrassing national press attention and outcry from the local African American community the Confederate flag was taken down from the courthouse.
“The Slocum Massacre has basically been an event that has been swept under the rug in terms of local history dissemination.”
In addition to being a Slocum Massacre descendant Leigh Craven is also a former Chair of the Anderson County Historic Commission and she says there is a double standard in Anderson County when it comes to recognizing history.
“If you have a Confederate who-ha-ha brouhaha hurray then there’s the other side of it in which people were oppressed and all these awful things happened to them and what about their voices. And that’s the balance that’s been missing in so much of our history. Not just in Texas history but American history.”
Now for an update -
This Texas Matters Documentary on the Slocum Massacre first aired on Friday January 16 2015 – and just two weeks later the Texas state historical commission met to consider the Slocum marker along with 173 other.
The commission voted unanimously in favor of the marker.
In voting in favor of the historic market the commission had to act against wishes of Anderson County officials.
They made it clear in the application packet that they did not support the marker. County Commissioner Greg Chapin wrote a letter in the application that “Anderson County cannot support the marker.”
And Chapin said if it did get approved over his objections it wouldn’t last long.
That vandals would make quick work of it.
“I think it would go up one day and go down the next. And be thrown in the river.”
Well, that prediction turned out to be false.
On December 15th a Texas Department of Transportation work crew installed the historic marker in Anderson County recognizing the Slocum Massacre – and so far no vandals.
There will be an official dedication of the marker on January 16 – as part of the Martin Luther King weekend celebration in Anderson County.
But the story isn’t over – there are still too many unknowns about the Slocum Massacre.
And now it is part of the official history of Texas – will this be a historical footnote – or a marquee historic event that will serve as a critical cautionary tale about injustice, intolerance and what happens when majority rule turns to mob violence against a vulnerable population.
Slocum is not an isolated event – it now takes it’s tragic place alongside other racial atrocities that are remembered in the United States – like the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and the 1923 Rosewood Florida Massacre.
As for the concerns about inconstancies about the accounts of Slocum - that is a problem. And problems should be dealt with and there should be an honest attempt at finding a solution. The state of Texas could authorize and fund an investigation. Experts in archeology could dig where local lore says bodies are buried in a mass unmarked grave. It may not answer the big questions of how many people died at Slocum and who caused the attack? But it would answer one major question – does Texas care enough to try to find out truth and bring some justice to Slocum.