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Texas History: Digital project documents more than 700 Texas lynchings

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
The Lynching in Texas website aims to document historical instances of the brutal crime across the state.
  • According to the website, Texas was the state with the most lynchings
  • Sam Houston State University project includes interactive map and newspaper entries.
  • : The crime of lynching remains underreported in American histories.

Regular Think, Texas readers already know about the Texas Freedom Colony Project, a Texas A&M University effort to collect, collate and share data and memories about hundreds of independent settlements of land-owning Black Texans after Emancipation. Guided by professor Andrea Roberts, it combines fresh scholarship with digital tools, extensive interviews and crowdsourcing to tell the half-lost stories of free African Americans who did not move to the cities, nor did they work their former enslavers’ land as sharecroppers.

Very recently, I ran across another valuable and somewhat similar project, this one about the history of lynching in our state, a project overseen by professor Jeffrey Littlejohn at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Called Lynching in Texas, the project’s website displays data and newspaper stories about the mob torture and killing of primarily African Americans and Hispanics.

Although these terrorist acts, meant to suppress entire communities, are often associated with the period immediately after Emancipation, they stretch back far before the Civil War and persisted well into the late 20th century. 

The reader does not need to be reminded that mob violence is still with us: The recent attack on the national Capitol included the trappings of historical lynchings, including nooses, gallows, racist symbols and chants to hang officials. The fact that the mob was overwhelmingly white did not escape the attention of those of us who lived through the waning days of modern lynching, including the beating and killing of Michael Donald in Mobile, Ala., in 1981.

In its frequently cited history, NAACP documents 4,743 lynchings in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968 alone. Of the victims, 3,446 were Black people. It does not include innumerable crimes that went unrecorded, especially during the volatile years of Reconstruction (1863-1877), nor does it directly address the more recently researched extrajudicial killings of Hispanics in South Texas.

“Mississippi had the highest lynchings from 1882 to 1968 with 581,” reports naacp.com. “Georgia was second with 531, and Texas was third with 493. Seventy-nine percent of lynching happened in the South.”

Yet that does not go far enough. The project Lynching in Texas identifies more than 700 in Texas

A good deal of recent research has been applied to killings of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in South Texas, especially during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Among the best books about this brutal period is “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas” by Monica Muñoz Martinez. Another powerful book that expands on Muñoz Martinez’s subject and links events such as the Porvenir Massacre in West Texas in 1918 with the Sherman Courthouse Riot in North Texas in 1930 is “Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers” by Doug Swanson.

“I set up the Lynching in Texas website because I believe that Texas is the most important state in the country for the study of lynching,” Littlejohn says. “As other scholars, including Bill Carrigan and Monica Muñoz Martinez, have shown, lynching in Texas involved more victims over a longer period than in almost any other state. The traditional story — that there were 493 lynchings in Texas between 1882 and 1968 — accounts for only about two-thirds of the more than 700 lynchings that we have documented at Lynching in Texas. One reason for this is that many authors in the mid-20th century ignored state-supported violence carried out by Texas Rangers and other law enforcement officers, especially when the victims were Hispanic.”

The Lynching in Texas project lists an advisory board that includes author Patricia Bernstein (“Ten Dollars to Hate: The Texas Man Who Fought the Klan” and “The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP”) and Professor Wesley Phelps (“A People’s War on Poverty: Urban Politics and Grassroots Activists in Houston”), as well as eight fact-checkers and a staff of more than 30, mostly students.

Using three main sources, the project is a font of geographical and journalistic evidence on lynchings.

The project uses four benchmarks to define a lynching:

1. There must be legal evidence that a person was killed.

2. That person must have met death illegally.

3. A group of three or more persons must have participated in the killing.

4. The group must have acted under the pretext of service to justice, race or tradition.

The site’s “Entries” page, which presents an interactive map, currently provides evidence for 755 lynchings, along with links to 76 newspaper accounts. The map groups the incidents into regions. Three of the most active areas for these recorded crimes were Southeast Texas (202), the lower Rio Grande Valley (121) and the middle Brazos and Colorado river basins (104). 

Yet no part of Texas was exempt. So far, the project has documented 20 lynchings in the Panhandle and 29 in the Trans-Pecos region. If one combined all the entries that occurred in what could broadly be defined as East Texas, however, it would comprise almost half the total. 

Going through the published stories, often told by reporters as cold, hard facts, is depressing. The degree of violence, sometimes for small or imagined infractions, is revolting. The images are beyond endurance.

Nevertheless, the stories on the site are not uniformly disheartening.

“Our website documents these horrific lynchings, but it also shows that there were many Texans who used their power to challenge mob violence,” Littlejohn says. “We feature an essay by John Gruesser, for example, on ‘Lynching in the Novels of Sutton E. Griggs,’ an African American author from Chatfield, Texas, who wrote five novels between 1899 and 1908 that condemned racial violence.” 

As with all such foundational historical records, it is required reading. Every single one of the locations for these crimes, not just against individuals, but against whole communities of Texans, deserves a somber and serious historical marker at the very least, and that’s just to start.

To find out about documented lynchings in your part of Texas, go to lynchingintexas.org.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com

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