Time for Tyler

On May 15, I attended the Jesse Washington Memorial in Waco, Texas.

On the hundredth anniversary of the Waco Horror, the mayor of Waco, Malcolm Duncan, Jr., formally apologized for the incident—the burning at the stake of Jesse—who was mentally handicapped and just seventeen years old. Jesse had been accused of killing a 53-year-old white woman named Lucy Fryar, and 10,000-15,000 white folks cheered as his flesh was publicly broiled and his body was reduced to cinder. Onlookers snatched up charred mementoes and the scenes of the atrocity became popular lynching postcards.

It’s too late for the city of Tyler to acknowledge and/or apologize for the burnings at the stake of  African Americans Henry Hillard or Dan Davis in the courthouse square on the 100th anniversaries of these acts of terror. Hillard was put to the torch in 1895 and Davis, 1912. But this coming May 25 will mark the 104th year to the day that Davis met his cruel, unfair and hellish fate. And Tyler should look to Waco’s example.

On May 13, 1912, a 16-year-old white girl named Carrie Johnson was attacked along the railroad tracks just outside of Tyler at approximately 2:30 pm. Her assailants reportedly “criminally assaulted” her, knocked out some of her teeth, partially crushed her skull and then cut her throat and left her for dead.

Johnson survived, her attackers’ knives reportedly narrowly missing her jugular vein. She was discovered the next morning around 6:00 am, apparently clinging to life.

Johnson did not know or recognize her assailants, but an unidentified man apparently saw a black man in the general vicinity at some point before or after the assault. Based on this unsubstantiated, ludicrously imprecise information, a rudimentary circular was created by a Tyler police officer and disseminated around the state. The circular eventually found itself in the hands of Henry Burch, a farmer who lived near Powell, seventy miles to the northwest. Davis had been doing work for Burch and Burch thought he resembled the suspect portrayed in the hardly credible Tyler circular.

On May 24, Burch got a car, solicited the help of three Powell-area citizens and seized Davis. He then relayed the capture to Tyler officials and began driving to Athens. Meanwhile, a seventy-five person Tyler contingent caught the first train to Athens.

The Athens authorities took control of Davis but were confronted by the Tyler concern and two hundred locals who believed Davis should be returned to Tyler for identification. Athens authorities relinquished custody of Davis after the Tyler constituency assured them that Davis would not be “molested” until his guilt was established.

The Tyler contingent (along with eighty residents of Athens) arrived home with the suspect in tow at 1:42 am and Carrie Johnson was sent for to provide identification. A mob one thousand strong met Davis and his escort at the train depot and another crowd formed at the public square.

Tyler law enforcement personnel addressed the growing mob at the railroad station, requesting that no action be taken until the identification of the suspect had been established. The mob acquiesced, but followed the Tyler authorities and the prisoner to the county jail.

As the procession passed the public square the prospect of lynching Davis was straightaway revisited, but, by then the victim’s father had joined the escort and entreated the crowd to stay its hand until his daughter confirmed the suspect’s guilt.

The procession made it to the county jail and while the mob waited for Johnson to arrive, the authorities apparently questioned Davis. According to the Dallas Morning News, Davis “broke down under the constant fire” of his interrogators and implicated an accomplice who was currently being held in a Waco jail. Davis reportedly claimed his confederate was responsible for the attempted throat-slitting but admitted to striking Johnson in the face with a railroad spike, “stunning her so that she could make no resistance.”

The instant that Davis’ confession was recorded, preparations for his lynching accelerated. The anxious mob decided that his coerced admission was enough and that a identification was unnecessary. Tyler law enforcement personnel objected, but to no avail.

At 4:00 am, May 25, Davis was bound to a steel rail in the public square. Then, various combustibles were stacked around him and a torch was applied. The subsequent flames consumed him in twenty minutes, but not before he supposedly begged his executioners to cut his throat with a razor.

Davis’ guilt was never confirmed by Carrie Johnson or substantiated in general—he was likely like most other black men in the South: easily accused, virtually defenseless and perpetually conveniently scapegoated.

It’s time for Tyler—like Waco—to acknowledge its Horror(s). It’s time for Tyler to get on the right side of history and represent the right side of Texas.

Tyler owes its black community acknowledgement of this vile and monstrous deed. And it should be followed by formal apology and official commemoration.

E.R. Bills of Fort Worth is the author of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas and Letters from Texas, 2021-2023. Read other articles by E.R..