A Forgotten Slaughter of African-Americans in Texas

The Slocum Massacre

Last month marked the 90th anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre in Florida and calls a similar Texas slaughter to mind.

The 1923 Rosewood Massacre saw six blacks and two whites killed. The 1910 Slocum Massacre in East Texas saw 8-22 blacks killed and no whites. The Rosewood Massacre is remembered as a national tragedy, even receiving Hollywood treatment; the Slocum Massacre has become a dirty Lone Star secret, remarkable more for the inattention it’s received than its remembrance.

Unlike most Texas and Anderson County communities in the early 20th century, the unincorporated town of Slocum—like Rosewood—was mostly African-American, with several black citizens considerably propertied, and a few owning stores, businesses, etc. This alone, in parts of the south, might have been enough to foment violence. But in the Slocum area, which included the small towns of Ioni Creek, Priscilla and Denison Springs, there were other issues.

When a white man reportedly tried to collect a disputed debt from a well-regarded black citizen, a confrontation occurred and hard feelings lingered. When a regional road construction foreman put an African-American in charge of some local road improvements, a prominent white citizen named Jim Spurger was infuriated and became a vociferous agitator.

Rumors began to spread, warning of threats against Anglo citizens and plans for race riots. White malcontents manipulated the local Anglo population and, on July 29th, white hysteria transmogrified into bloodshed.

Stoked and goaded by Spurger and others, hundreds of Anglo citizens from all over Anderson County converged on Slocum armed with pistols, shotguns and rifles. That morning, near Saddlers Creek, they fired on three African-Americans headed to feed their cattle, killing 18-year-old Cleveland Larkin and wounding 15-year-old Charlie Wilson. The third, 18-year-old Lusk Holly, escaped, only to be shot at again later in the day while he, his 23-year-old brother Alex and their friend William Foreman, were fleeing to Palestine. Alex was killed and Lusk was wounded. Foreman fled and disappeared. Lusk pretended to be dead so a group of 20 white men would not finish him off.

White mobs marched through the area shooting black folks at will. A 30-year-old African-American named John Hays was found dead in a roadway and 28-year-old Sam Baker was shot to death in front of his house. When three of the Baker’s relatives (Dick Wilson, Jeff Wilson and a 70-year-old man named Ben Dancer) attempted to sit up with his body the following night, they, too, were gunned down in cold blood. According to an August 1 report in the Galveston Daily News, bloodstains at the residence indicated they were shot while relaxing on the front porch and then dragged inside.

In addition to the Anderson County murders, which occurred near the county line, Will Burley was killed in Houston County.

According to the August 1 edition of the Newark Daily Advocate, the mobs traveled from house to house, shooting African-Americans who answered their calls and slaughtering more while they tended their fields.

Every early newspaper report (in the New York Times, Galveston Daily News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, et al.) on the transpiring bloodshed in and around Slocum portrayed the African-Americans as armed insurrectionists that the local Anglo community was simply defending itself against. These accounts were gross mischaracterizations. When district judges in Palestine closed saloons and ordered local gun and ammunition stores to stop selling their wares on July 30, it was not to quell a Black uprising; it was to defuse what the Galveston Daily News called an indescribable, one-sided “reign of terror” characterized by “a fierce manhunt in the woods” and resulting in “riddled bodies found on lonesome roads.”

When reporters gathered on July 31, up to two dozen murders had been reported and more were suspected, but local authorities only had eight bodies. Once the carnage had begun, hundreds of African-American’s had fled to the surrounding piney woods and local marshes. By the time the Texas Rangers and state militia arrived, there was no way to estimate the number of African-American dead.

On August 1, a few Texas Rangers and other white men gathered up six of the African American bodies and buried them (wrapped in blankets and placed in a single large box) in a pit four miles south of Slocum. Farther north, Marsh Holly, owner of a Slocum store and father of Alex and Lusk, was found on a road just outside Palestine. He was terrified and begged the authorities in Palestine for help, requesting that he be locked up in jail for protection. He identified himself as the well-regarded black citizen involved in the promissory note dispute, but denied that the affair comprised a serious provocation.

After the first several murders, much of the African-American community had been in various stages of flight, but this didn’t stop the white mobs. They shot down blacks they discovered in the countryside, even if they were clearing out. Two bodies found near the town of Priscilla still had travel bundles of food and clothing at their sides.

Anderson County Sheriff William H. Black said it would be “difficult to find out just how many were killed” because they were “scattered all over the woods.” He also admitted that buzzards would find many of the victims first, if at all.

It’s reasonable to suspect that after the initial bloodlust had subsided, some of the transgressors returned to the murder scenes to remove the evidence of their crimes. Certainly with the arrival of the press—and after early attempts at spinning the news reports to portray the African-American victims as armed insurrectionists had failed—the guilty Anglo contingents engaged in damage control efforts. But Sheriff Black was inexorable and unflinching.

“Men were going about killing Negroes as fast as they could find them,” Black told the New York Times. “And, so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause.”

“These Negroes have done no wrong that I can discover,” Black continued. “I don’t know how many [whites] were in the mob, but there may have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut telephone wires. They hunted the Negroes down like sheep.”

According to the local law enforcement leaders on hand at the time, eight casualties was a conservative number. Sheriff Black and others insisted there were at least a dozen more and some reports suggest there may have been dozens more. Frank Austin, the president of the First State Bank of Frankston, reported the death of an African-American named Anderson Austin near Slocum, but it was never investigated. Abe Wilson—who Houston County Justice of the Peace Pence Singletary identified as the African-American who had been put in charge of the local road improvements—disappeared and was never heard from again. Some witnesses counted 22 casualties. Elkhart native F. M. Power said there were 30 “missing negroes.” Slocum-area resident Luther Hardeman claimed to have knowledge of 18 African-American casualties, and that’s the original number reported by the Galveston Daily News and the New York Times (on July 31), but the body count seemed to shrink as the massacre’s publicity grew. A reliable fatality count was impossible, especially with the perpetrators likely covering their tracks. And the deceased weren’t the only folks becoming scarce; the surviving African-Americans began to disappear as well.

It was one thing to return to your home or your daily routine after the odd murder or infrequent lynching of one of your friends, neighbors or relatives—black folks in the south were not unused to that. But a localized campaign of genocide, where the executioners surrounded you and cut phone lines to prevent you from getting help? That was not something Slocum-area African-Americans could easily relegate to a list of bygones.

If the proverbial water under the bridge was auburn with African-American blood, home was no longer a place to remain attached or return to. And with a large contingent of the black community running for their lives, some victims went unidentified and some disappearances went unreported.

The arrival of the Texas Rangers and the state militia stabilized the situation or at least made it safe enough for many of the remaining African-Americans to pack their belongings and leave without being fired on. The saloons in Anderson County were re-opened for business at noon on August 1.

When a Galveston Daily News correspondent visited Lusk Holly and Charlie Wilson on July 31st (two days before their Grand Jury testimony), they were both suffering from incredible levels of pain due to the gunshot wounds they had received. The correspondent reported that their injuries would be “relieved only by death unless medical attention is speedily afforded.” Wilson had a fractured thigh, damage to one ankle and “glancing wounds through his chest.” Holly had 8-10 pieces of buckshot in his lower left abdominal area and damage to one arm. Physicians had perfunctorily treated their wounds when they were first discovered two days prior, but not since.

Wilson told the Galveston Daily News correspondent that he had recognized two of the assailants during the first shooting on July 29. Holly said that after he had been wounded in the second shooting later in the day, a different group of white men had come upon him while he pretended to be dead. He said he recognized the voice of a prominent, local farmer named Jeff Wise, who deemed his apparent and his brother’s actual death “a shame” as he passed by.

In the weeks and months following what came to be known as the Slocum Massacre, the African-American population made a mass exodus, leaving homes, properties, businesses and personal connections to the land and the community.

And the whites who perpetrated the massacre as active participants or passive bystanders?

At the initial Grand Jury hearing, nearly every remaining Slocum resident was subpoenaed; some residents refused to testify and were arrested. The Grand Jury judge, B. H. Gardner, of Palestine, told the all-male, all-white jury that the massacre was “a disgrace, not only to the county, but to the state” and it was up to them to do their “full duty.”

According to the August 2 edition of the Palestine Daily Herald, Judge Gardner attempted to clarify the charges and the issues at hand, explaining various statutes to the jury. He said that even if there had been threats or conspiracies “on the part of any number of Negroes to do violence to white persons, it would not justify anybody to take the law into their own hands.”

“The law furnishes ample remedy,” Gardner continued. “There is no justification for shooting men in the back, waylaying or killing them in their houses.”

When the Grand Jury findings were reported on August 17, several hundred witnesses had been examined. Though eleven men were initially arrested, seven were finally indicted, but only six were named—and they were only accused in the murders of five of the identified victims. Defendants Reagon McKenzie, T. W. Bailey and Morgan Henry were released without being charged. Jim Spurger was indicted in two cases, B. J. Jenkins in four cases and Curtis Spurger, Steve Jenkins, Isom Garner and Andrew Kirkwood in three cases. The seventh indicted man was not arrested or named; only Kirkwood was immediately granted bail. No one was ever indicted for the deaths of John Hays or Alex Holly.

After the Grand Jury indictments came down, Judge Gardner decided to move the trial for the indicted, identified perpetrators of the Slocum Massacre to Harris County, distrusting the potential jury of peers the defendants might receive in Anderson County. The indictments received no interest in Harris County.

On May 4, 1911, Judge Ned R. Morris of Palestine petitioned the Travis County Court of Criminal Appeals to grant bail for the remaining defendants and it was granted. Eventually, all those charged were released and none of the indictments were ever prosecuted.

In the meanwhile, the personal holdings of many Slocum area Anglo citizens fortuitously increased.

The abandoned African-American properties were absorbed or repurposed as the now majority white population saw fit. The standard southern Anglo-centric world order was restored, and this order has endured, even to the present day.

According to recent demographic statistics, most of the communities around Slocum have an African-American population that ranges between 20-25%. Grapeland’s is 35%, Rusk’s is 30% and Palestine’s and Alto’s is 25%. Slocum’s African-American population is just under 7%.

Today, Slocum is still an unincorporated community and that’s probably wise. If there was an elected civic leader or assembly in Slocum, they might be asked to apologize for the massacre or explain why there are no placards acknowledging the event or the American citizens who were slaughtered there and covered up in unmarked graves in the woods and creek bottoms.

On April 24, 1929, a tornado rolled through Slocum, leveling the town, killing seven and injuring 20. Organizations from all over East Texas went to great lengths to raise money for the victims and help the town get back on its feet. Though the Slocum Massacre’s casualties were greater and its African-American community’s coerced migration was arguably just as landscape-altering, the twister overshadowed the localized genocide of 1910, and the event is largely forgotten today.

In the Rosewood Massacre, six blacks and two whites were killed and a special, governor-appointed grand jury found no one to prosecute. In the Slocum Massacre, at least eight blacks were killed and no whites were even injured and, though seven men were indicted by a grand jury, none were ever prosecuted. In both cases, thriving African-American populations vacated their own communities to survive a racially-motivated bloodbath.

In the Rosewood Victims v. the State of Florida decision in 1994, Florida became the first U.S. State to compensate the victims and the descendants of victims of racial violence and, ten years later, the site of Rosewood was designated a Florida Heritage Landmark.

In Texas, the Slocum Massacre—which was at least as heinous as the Rosewood Massacre—hasn’t even received a historical marker. And there have been no investigations to determine the toll of the carnage, the extent of the personal losses or the exact number of victims.

On March 30, 2011, after a February 27 story on the Slocum Massacre in the Fort Worth Star Telegram (by Tim Madigan), the 82nd Texas Legislature adopted House of Representatives Resolution 865 (filed by Reps. Marc Veasey and Lon Burnam), acknowledging the Slocum Massacre of 1910. It admitted that a mob comprised of hundreds of armed white men in the Slocum area went on a “bloody rampage” that resulted in eight and perhaps many more African-American deaths, forcing the black community there to abandon their homes and properties and flee. The resolution concluded with flowery language stating that “only by shining a light on previous injustices can we learn from them and move forward,” but the little-publicized gesture hardly accomplishes that.

In testimony presented at the bail hearing on May 10, 1911, defense witness Alvin Oliver criticized the “insolent manner and conduct” of the blacks in that part of Anderson County after the lynching of an African-American in neighboring Cherokee County a couple of years before and brazenly noted that things were different after the massacre.

“The Negroes down there are not disbehaving now,” Oliver observed.

And he was right.

There were hardly any left.

E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo, Texas and the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious (History Press, 2013). He can be reached at: erbillsthinks@gmail.com. Read other articles by E.R..