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Jesse Washington, a teenage African-American farmhand, was lynched in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916, in what became a well-known example of racially motivated lynching. Washington was accused of raping and murdering the wife of his white employer in ruralRobinson, Texas. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime, but he was seen near the house around the time of her death. He was quickly arrested and interrogated by the McLennan County Sheriff, and eventually confessed.
Washington was tried for murder in Waco, in a courtroom filled with furious locals. He entered a guilty plea and was quickly sentenced to death. After his sentence was pronounced, he was dragged out of the court by observers and lynched in front of Waco’s city hall. Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch the attack. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the event, and many children attended during their lunch hour. Members of the mob castrated Washington, cut off his fingers, and hung him over a bonfire. He was repeatedly lowered and raised over the fire for about two hours. After the fire was extinguished, his charred torso was dragged through the town and parts of his body were sold as souvenirs. A professional photographer took pictures as the event unfolded, providing rare imagery of a lynching in progress. The pictures were printed and sold as postcards in Waco.
Although the lynching was condemned by newspapers around the United States, it was supported by many Waco residents. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hired Elisabeth Freeman to investigate; she conducted a detailed probe in Waco, despite the reluctance of many residents to speak about the event. After receiving Freeman’s report on the lynching, NAACP co-founder and editor W. E. B. Du Bois published an in-depth report featuring photographs of Washington’s charred body in The Crisis, and the NAACP featured his death in their anti-lynching campaign. Although Waco had been regarded as a modern, progressive city, the lynching demonstrated that it still tolerated racial violence; the event was nicknamed the “Waco horror”. The city subsequently gained a reputation for racism, but city leaders prevented violence on several occasions in subsequent decades. Historians have noted that Washington’s death helped alter the way that lynching was viewed; the publicity it received curbed public support for the practice, which became viewed as barbarism rather than an acceptable form of justice. In the 1990s and 2000s, some Waco residents lobbied for a monument to the lynching, an idea that has failed to garner wide support in the city.