Critical Race History in Palestine Texas

by E.R. BILLS

In late December 2015, Constance Hollie-Jawaid and I were still working on the final plans for the dedication ceremony for a Texas state historical marker commemorating the Slocum Massacre. The fight to get the marker approved had been grueling, and, on that particular day, we had traveled to Palestine, Texas, to meet with the marker effort’s chief antagonist, Anderson County Historical Chairman Jimmy Ray Odom.

Jimmy’s beliefs about the Slocum Massacre were almost completely contradictory to ours, but — in conversation, anyway — he was a straight shooter. Our historical and cultural disagreements notwithstanding, I respected him for that.

Jimmy had taken some heat in the press for his straight-shooting, and he was upset with me. And when we met that day in late December, he let me know this in no uncertain terms. At that point, however, the marker was secured. Constance — a descendant of victims of the atrocity — and I had won the argument, so we could be magnanimous. I let Jimmy air his grievances without response or complaint. In fact, even though the Anderson County Historical Commission had fought the Slocum Massacre historical marker application tooth and nail, I even agreed to write a short piece for the Palestine Daily Herald thanking Jimmy and the commission for cooperation that had been virtually nonexistent.

After the discussion regarding the marker ceremony concluded and the air was a hair more convivial, I asked Jimmy why there was no historical marker for a Black activist named Frank J. Robinson — and his response was as straightforward as it was shocking.

“Oh, they killed him,” Jimmy said.

Constance’s and my jaws smacked the hardwood floor simultaneously.

I had stumbled across Frank J. Robinson when I was writing The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas (2014). He had known Abe Wilson, one of Constance’s forebears on her father’s side, and the man whose appointment to round up Black and white citizens for county road repairs in the area at the time had infuriated a half-renter named James Spurger. Spurger would become the chief instigator of the Slocum Massacre.

Frank J. Robinson was a daunting force for good in Anderson County in the 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s, mentoring Boy Scouts, volunteering for church youth groups, and constantly advocating for equal civil and voting rights for minorities all over East Texas. To these ends, he eventually organized the Anderson County Civic League, which encouraged Blacks in the Palestine area to run for public office.

No African American had ever held public office in Anderson County, so the all-white commissioners court gerrymandered the county’s voting precincts, diluting the Black vote by dividing it into three separate parts. Robinson subsequently created the 16-county East Texas Leadership Forum so African Americans could combine their collective resources to challenge and procure judicial redress. Then, with the support of the ACLU, the AFL-CIO, and other progressive organizations and individuals, Robinson and two other plaintiffs sued the Anderson County Commissioners Court.

On March 15, 1974, a district court sided with Robinson et al., stating that the Anderson County precincts were racially apportioned and ordered the county to redraw the lines. Anderson County appealed the decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the ruling was upheld in December 1974. The changes Anderson County was required to institute led to the election of the first Black public official in East Texas history, and African Americans in several other East Texas communities followed Robinson’s lead.

But Robinson didn’t stop there. In short order, he organized the East Texas Project and initiated litigation aimed at making the City of Palestine address the ways in which its election system disenfranchised minorities, but the work didn’t get very far. On October 13, 1976, Robinson was killed by a shotgun blast that the Palestine authorities ruled was self-inflicted. Expert witnesses, including a Texas Ranger who testified that no gunpowder residue was found on Robinson’s shirt, challenged the official determination, but the ruling of suicide still stood.

And then I matter of factly asked Jimmy Ray Odom about Robinson 40 years later, and his response was unequivocal.

“Oh, they killed him.”

Throughout my research and work on the Slocum Massacre and the Slocum Massacre historical marker, I was repeatedly asked why it was important to bring attention to something that happened over 100 years ago. Why were Constance and I stirring up trouble? Why did what happened then matter now?

Well, Frank J. Robinson — a civil rights champion who basically delivered democracy to East Texas for African Americans — was probably assassinated for his efforts in many of our lifetimes and most of us have never heard of him.

Isn’t this type of history critical?

The Slocum Massacre occurred on July 29-30, 1910 in Slocum, Texas. Only six deaths were officially confirmed, but it is estimated as many as one hundred African Americans lost their lives in this massacre. Historians have provided several explanations for the motives of the all-white perpetrators of the massacre. When the story spread, it was altered to favor the white suspects and the black residents of Slocum were blamed. The whites from the mob did their best to destroy any evidence against them. African Americans reached out to higher levels of government for a fair investigation, but little to nothing was done on their behalf. As a result, the African American population in Slocum, Texas declined drastically.

Slocum massacre

Texas history of violence and intimidation tactics towards African Americans

Long before the Slocum Massacre had occurred, many residents of Texas had been involved in racist acts. There had already been at least 335 lynchings, in 261 the victims were black. Many of these lynchings occurred based on allegations alone, and the victims were rarely, if ever, given a trial before their murder occurred in the public eye. The wrongful deaths of African Americans through lynching was especially prevalent leading up to the Slocum Massacre. [1] African Americans struggled to find social equality, as well as economic equality. An example of this is how the African Americans were given old, overworked soil to try to grow crops. They kept their farming land to smaller sizes to avoid troubles with jealous whites. The combination of unfruitful land and small farms made blacks more susceptible to falling into debt when they didn’t have a good harvest season. Given the turmoil between races, blacks felt threatened to try to advance economically. 

The Slocum Massacre was originally said to have begun by two separate events.

The first event was an argument over a promissory note between a black business man, Marsh Holley, and a white disabled farmer, Reddin Alford. The argument itself did not seem like a big deal to Marsh Holley, but the story was skewed in an attempt to favor whites. The story that whites received was that Holley was trying to cheat a disabled farmer, or Alford lied and said that Holley was threatening.

The second event was when a black farmer, Abe Wilson, was sent to inform people of road maintenance in the area. A white farmer, Jim Spurger, got upset about Wilson’s role because he believed it was a violation of white supremacy to have a black man helping the community. This story got skewed in favor of white supremacy. White people in the area heard Wilson was over a white crew which upset the community. As time passed, people wondered if the massacre occurred because African Americans were beginning to flirt with Spurger’s daughters.[1]

Though these stories most likely contributed to the beginning of the Slocum Massacre, the reason white people in Anderson County believed a massacre was necessary because there were rumors about a black uprising. White people began calling for the help of other white people throughout Anderson County. As a precaution, the white men hid the women and children in the schools and churches as they set out on their hunt. White men stocked up on guns and ammunition and drank alcohol. District Judge Benjamin Howard Gardner realized that the combination of alcohol, guns, and rumors about black uprisings could create a dangerous and potentially deadly outcome. Before the bloodshed began, he tried to counteract it by imposing a court order that closed all saloons, gun stores, and hardware stores, but he was too late. White men involved in the massacre had already obtained their weapons.[1]

Violence began when six white men encountered a group of black teenagers. Most of the teenagers escaped, but one was murdered by the mob. Soon after, mobs of up to 50 men were formed throughout Anderson County which raided black neighborhoods and attempted to kill any black person they encountered. Some mobs shot African Americans as they tried to flee through the forest. The Slocum Massacre lasted for 16 hours. Though only five casualties were confirmed, the casualty amount was likely much higher.[1]

After the bloodshed ended, Sheriff Black and Sheriff Lacy from the surrounding area arrived in Anderson County to address and investigate the killings of African Americans. When they arrived, they said everyone was afraid, and all white males were armed. Sheriff Black and Godfrey Rees Fowler went to the scene to complete a thorough investigation of the incident. He ruled that whites did not have a legitimate reason to kill since whites attacked even when the blacks did not.[1]

Deputy Sheriff Stubblefield was also called to the scene, but the white population of Anderson County warned him of his potential assassination at the hands of an African American. This shows that whites were still fearful and willing to kill. Because of the fear in both the white and black population, Texas Rangers and the State Militia were called to Anderson County. The Texas Rangers began their work by helping the black women and children. On their search, black neighborhoods were completely empty and property subsequently stolen, except for the deaths of an elderly couple, and rangers did confirm that black people genuinely believed that white people were hunting them.[1]

Even with the rumor of a black uprising against whites proven false, Marsh Holley, a witness to murders and one of the reasons that the Slocum Massacre began in the first place, was put in jail as protection and denied that the promissory note was the cause of the massacre.[1]

It was said that the burial site of African Americans was on Abe Wilson’s land. Some say that there were six deaths total, and the deceased were wrapped in blankets, put in pine boxes, and buried in a trench. Others say that bodies were simply just thrown in the ditch. Although the death count is unclear, it is a fact that when the next census was taken at least one half of the black population was no longer in Slocum.[1]

Reactions

Newspapers including Palestine Daily HeraldFort Worth Star-TelegramGreensville Morning HeraldFort Worth RecordThe Galveston DailyNew York Tribune, and Abilene Daily News all mentioned that conflict in Anderson County was started by African Americans or race riots which put partial blame on African Americans. This caused violence towards African Americans to increase significantly. However, The Palestine Daily Herald told some parts of the truth about how white people thought that African Americans were plotting against them. The title of the article in The New York Times was “Score of Negroes Killed by Whites” and discussed the wrongful killings of African Americans and the poor reasons behind the massacre.[1]

Twenty years after the massacre, a man named Hayes owned land in Slocum that the city needed. In exchange for the land, he requested the city establish a historical marker to remember those who were killed. His request was denied, and the city said the land was no longer needed from him. [1]

Despite efforts by African Americans to draw attention to the massacre, the federal government remained largely uninterested in investigating the murders or bringing criminal prosecutions. John A. Siddon, a Volga postmaster, sent a letter to Cecil A. Lyons, chairman of the Texas Republican State Executive Committee in Sherman, asking for his help in securing a federal investigation. Lyons forwarded the letter to the U.S. Attorney General, George W. Wickersam, but it is unknown whether Siddon ever received a response.[1]

A group of local black ministers also appealed for federal help in a letter to President Taft. They wanted a “Doctrine of Fairness” and suffrage granted to them by the government, with no loopholes and under the protection of law. Taft sent this letter to Wickersham, and he responded to the ministers by saying that the federal government could not fulfill their requests or become involved because no constitutional rights were being violated in any of these instances. However, the federal government did become involved when a Mexican American was lynched in Texas.[1]

The only time that the Slocum Massacre was officially addressed by the federal government was by the House of Representatives Resolution 865. This was basically a letter written by those involved in the government which addressed the Slocum Massacre. This address stated the murders were unjust and wrongfully committed, but still did not complete an investigation on the Slocum Massacre.[1]

The Suspects involved in the Massacre

During the early 1900s, indictments and prosecutions tended to side with white mobs when it came to crimes against African Americans. Anderson County District Court Judge Benjamin H. Gardner released a statement that said that law enforcement would start turning away and shooting to kill (if necessary) those who sympathized with the mobs or participated in them. He also said that he would no longer tolerate law enforcement officers that were in favor of mobs. Gardner was the judge that wanted to find and punish those involved in the Slocum Massacre for the crimes that were committed.[1]

After investigations arrests began, Texas Rangers arrested Josh Bishop, Isom Garner, and Walter Ferguson. Reeves arrested Jim Spurger who was involved in one of the initial conflicts that may have started the Slocum Massacre. G. W. Bailey, Morgan Henrey, Frank Bridge, Andrew Kirkwood, and B.J. Jenkins were arrested as well. After the arrests and investigations, it was still impossible to say the number of people these men actually killed.[1]

Judge Gardner knew that whites would have the majority even if a crime was committed, so he asked the jurors to excuse themselves if it was impossible to complete a fair trial. On August 5th, S.C. Jenkins was arrested and Ferguson and Bishop were released. On August 14th, Lusk Holley and Charlie Wilson were summoned as witnesses, and Curtis Spurger (Jim Spurger’s brother) was arrested. On August 17th, the murder charges were released. No indictments were made for the murders of Alex Holley or John H. Hay or the attempted murders of Charlie Wilson and Lusk Holley.[1]

Of the indictments, two cases moved forward, but they did not make it to court. By the time the cases were ready for trial, Judge Gardner was no longer involved, and the new judge released all suspects for $1,500 bail. Gardner still wanted these men behind bars. He knew they were dangerous because he encountered Jim Spurger and Kirkwood in public. Spurger hit him in the face, and Gardner had to pull a pistol on Kirkwood. His wants for justice were never fulfilled, and both men lived free until their deaths.[1]

List of Suspects and if they were charged or released:

  • Josh Bishop- Released
  • Isom Garner- Four first degree murder charges, Released for $1,500 bail
  • Walter Ferguson- Released
  • Jim Spurger- Two first degree murder charges, Released for $1,500 bail
  • G. W. Bailey- Released for $1,500 bail
  • Morgan Henrey- Released for $1,500 bail
  • Frank Bridge – Released for $1,500 bail
  • Andrew Kirkwood- Three first degree murder charges, Released for $1,500 bail
  • B. J. Jenkins- Four first degree murder charges, Released for $1,500 bail
  • S. C. Jenkins – Three first degree murder charges, Released for $1,500 bail
  • Curtis Spurger- Three first degree murder charges, Released for $1,500 bail
  • Lusk Holley- Witness
  • Charlie Wilson- Witness

Stories from the Slocum Massacre

Historian E.R. Bills has collected oral histories of the massacre, among them accounts from Mable Willis and Annie Mae Killgo.

The first story is from Mable Willis, who was a young girl at the time. She remembers her parents helping African Americans by opening their house as a place of refuge to those running from mobs. The second story came from Elvie Ewell, who said that her father, uncles, and cousins were outside at the beginning of the massacre, and were warned that white men were forming mobs and killing any African Americans that they could. Her father successfully escaped, and their family ended up moving out of Anderson County. Lastly, the Sadler’s recall the Barnett family coming to their farm to seek help. The men from the Sadler and Barnett families armed themselves in attempt to fight off the mob. The mob made its way to the Sadler farm and were warned that the best shot in town, “Deaf and Dumb Gus” was stationed in the barn with a gun on them (Gus had many health issues and disabilities but was known to both the blacks and whites of being a great shot who rarely missed). Ultimately, this threat caused the mob to retreat, and the Sadler’s believe that the mob’s retreat from their farm was the end of the Slocum Massacre.

The most prominent story was from Annie Mae Killgo, who said that in the weeks leading up to the massacre there were suspicions about a black uprising. To confirm these suspicions, a group of white men found a black girl near a creek and dunked her head until she admitted there was an uprising being planned. She said African Americans were waiting until all the whites were in church to begin an attack. In an attempt to provoke the attack before it began, white men placed women and children in churches and schools. Killgo’s father, Robert Duke Killgo, was assigned to protect the church. He and the other white men guarding the church shot sixteen to eighteen black people who approached the church. Once the massacre was over Killgo fled to Georgia so he would not be a suspect. 

Works on the Slocum Massacre

The most comprehensive treatment of the Slocum Massacre is the book The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas by E. R. Bills. The massacre and its backstory are the subject of unpublished essays: “Bad Saturday: Revisiting the 1910 Slocum Massacre,” by Norris White Jr., a Stephen F. Austin State University student; and “Racial Disorder in East Texas: The 1910 Slocum Incident” by Linda Sue Stuard, a University of Texas at Tyler student.

Proud Anderson County Confederates 

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