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Massacre, Slocum, Texas 1910

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Massacre, Slocum, Texas 1910

Posted: 27 Feb 2011 2:27PM GMT
Classification: Query
Surnames: Black, Ramirez, Williams, Hollie, Holley, Thompson, Spurger, Singletary, Wilson, Larkin, Simms, Gardner
By Tim Madigan -

A century later, Texas race massacre forgotten by all but a few

SLOCUM -- In the waning days of July 1910, racial hatred ignited around this East Texas village. Bands of white residents took up rifles and shotguns and hunted down and slaughtered African-Americans. When it was over, estimates of the black dead ranged from eight to 20 or more. All of the known victims were unarmed and most were shot in the back, authorities said at the time.

Some initial newspaper accounts erroneously reported that whites had also been killed, describing the Slocum incident as a race riot or black uprising. The stories inflamed whites across Texas and nearly led to the lynching of a black man in downtown Fort Worth.

But Slocum was no riot.

"Men were going about killing Negroes as fast as they could find them, and, so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause," Anderson County Sheriff W.H. Black, a white from nearby Palestine, was quoted as saying in the Aug. 1, 1910, edition of The New York Times. "These Negroes have done no wrong that I can discover. I don't know how many there were in the mob, but there may have been 200 or 300. They hunted the Negroes down like sheep."

Seven white men were indicted on murder charges and had their cases transferred to Houston on a change of venue. But none ever came to trial.

In terms of loss of life and property, Slocum rivals a 1921 atrocity in Tulsa and another two years later in Rosewood, Fla., among the worst racial pogroms in the nation's history. But in Slocum, now consisting of a school and smattering of houses 150 miles southeast of Fort Worth, no public monument commemorates what happened. It is not taught in history classes. Eighteen miles away, in larger Palestine, residents look bewildered at the mention of the bloody events of that summer so long ago.

The massacre survives instead in stories told quietly across generations, by whites and blacks alike. That was how cousins Constance Hollie-Ramirez and Colecia Hollie-Williams first heard about it, as girls growing up in North Texas in the 1980s and 1990s. Their ancestors had been the leading landowners in Slocum, among the scores of blacks who fled after the massacre, never to return.

They abandoned stores, homes and the land that the former slaves had accumulated in the decades after the Civil War. They moved to swampy East Texas hollows that the whites didn't want or, in many cases, bigger cities farther away.

Hollie-Ramirez is now principal of a middle school in Cedar Hill, and her cousin is an assistant principal at Morningside Middle School in Fort Worth. Their grandfather, Myrt Hollie, 96, lives in south Fort Worth, the family's chief surviving vessel of remembrance. For the old man and the rest of their family, the cousins want what happened in Slocum restored to history.

"More than the money, more than getting our land back or the store back, it would mean more to me to just have a local government, a state government, recognize that, yes, this did happen. Yes, it was wrong," Hollie-Ramirez said. "That's what we teach our kids every day -- if you do something wrong, acknowledge you were wrong."

'Terrible reign'

Myrt Hollie was born four years after the last shot was fired in Slocum. His own grandfather, Jack Holley, was a former slave who settled his large family in Slocum and eventually came to own a store, a dairy and several hundred acres of prime farmland. (The spelling of the family name was changed after the Slocum Massacre because of the fear of reprisals.)

In the summer of 1910, Jack Holley and his family were at the heart of the grim history.

A financial disagreement between a white man and Myrt's father, Marsh Holley, was said to be one cause of the bloodshed. Another of Jack's sons, Alex, was killed by the mob because he had an eye for white women, according to family stories.

A third son, Lusk, was wounded in the attacks and lived the rest of his life embittered. Jack Holley lost everything and went to live with his daughter in a nearby town.

"It would always be brought up in conversation," said Hollie-Williams, 28. "We'd be watching a movie or see something, or see an interracial couple, and they would say, 'Yeah, you remember Alex? He was killed for that.'"

Her cousin, who is 11 years older, remembers childhood trips to Slocum during which her father would point out where the family store and homes had been.

"They would talk about the events themselves, but mostly they would talk about the injustice and how they felt no one cared," Hollie-Ramirez said. "They wanted us to go away quietly and sweep it under the rug. That's not their nature. There was a lot of anger. My grandfather is older now, and he has mellowed, but he used to be a spitfire. Anger and hurt is what you heard."

For years, the two younger women tried to get the story out, contacting newspapers and even Hollywood producers. Most calls went unreturned. Hollie-Ramirez pored over land records and newspaper accounts, trying to piece together what happened and what had been rightfully theirs, but even among some family members there was resistance to digging up the history.

"I was told by my cousins that sometimes people don't want to dig up the past," Hollie-Williams said. "It stirs some emotions in people or can create racial tensions. It was my hope that in 2011 people are growing up and maturing from that."

Two days before Thanksgiving last year, Myrt Hollie had a stroke. For his sake, the cousins redoubled their efforts. On a sunny afternoon a few weeks ago, Hollie-Williams joined her grandfather in the small Fort Worth home where he lives.

Myrt Hollie wore a plaid shirt, coveralls and a baseball cap. A jolly man, he sucked on peppermints as he talked. But his smile faded as he remembered.

"A misunderstanding come in, and they had a terrible reign of terror down there," he said. "Whites were going through the country killing blacks. They had a terrible, terrible time."

Myrt Hollie paused as he remembered, and moaned.

A time of violence

In the summer of 1910, the Palestine Daily Herald published a short account of a Mississippi lynching beneath the headline "Negro Strung Up." A black named Nick Thompson was accused of assaulting a white teenage girl, taken to the spot of his alleged crime and hanged from a telegraph pole.

"Fully 2,000 people participated in the lynching," the story said. "After accomplishing its purpose, the mob dispersed."

Another Herald headline about that time reported "Fewer Persons Slain by Mobs During This Year."

"Only 57 lynchings were recorded in the United States in 1910, a much smaller number than in almost any previous year in the last 16," the paper said. "All but five of the 57 cases of lynching in 1910 were of Negroes."

Such was the violent and poisonous racial atmosphere of the Jim Crow era, when Jack Holley, his family and other blacks lived next to whites in and around Slocum. (The village consisted of a few hundred people, a church, a school and Jack Holley's store. The majority of Slocum residents were black.) Moreover, in the summer of 1910, racial tensions in the area were said to be running even higher because of the recent lynching of a black in nearby Cherokee County.

Details of the events leading up to the massacre and the killings themselves are contained in myriad newspaper accounts from the time and in transcripts of court testimony that in a few cases survive.

Among whites in southern Anderson County, rumors circulated about blacks gathering to plan armed attacks, perhaps in retribution for the nearby lynching.

In late July, racial animosities were heightened further when a white man tried to collect a debt from Marsh Holley and a scuffle ensued, according to family stories and news accounts.

About that same time, an Anderson County foreman put a black man in charge of road work near Slocum, which a white landowner named Jim Spurger was said to particularly resent.

In later accounts, Spurger's name is the one most often mentioned among those who initiated the bloodshed.

"Jim Spurger said that he had been threatened and outraged until it had become unbearable, or something to that effect," a man named Singletary later testified in court. "I think that they told me that the Negroes had threatened his life."

Spurred on by Spurger, white mobs quickly formed, armed with shotguns and rifles. Word spread to Palestine, and whites from the county seat rushed to Slocum, swelling the size of an angry crowd to an estimated 1,000 people. White mobs also roamed the countryside near Slocum in smaller numbers. On Friday morning, July 29, three young blacks -- Charley Wilson, Cleve Larkin and Lusk Holley -- walked unknowingly into the maelstrom, according to newspaper accounts.

"We were going to feed our calves and attend to our livestock," Wilson later told a Fort Worth reporter. "We had gotten 500 or 600 yards from my grandmother's house when we were fired upon by several men, two of whom I recognized. They did not say a word when they fired on us. They used shotguns and Winchesters. There were six or seven men in the mob."

Larkin was killed and Wilson was wounded, but Holley escaped. Later that night, Lusk Holley, his brother Alex and a friend were fleeing on foot toward Palestine when they encountered a larger group of about 20 men coming down the road in the opposite direction.

The leader was on horseback and the others followed single file.

"When the first man saw us he whistled, which seemed to be the signal for general firing by the men," Lusk Holley told a reporter.

This time, Lusk Holley was wounded and his brother killed.

"The men looked at me as they passed by and seemed to think I was dead," Lusk Holley said. "Later, during the day, some white men came to where I was laying, and I recognized the voice of a prominent farmer in this community, who said it was a shame."

In separate attacks, a 30-year-old black man was found shot to death in another roadway. Four others, including a 70-year-old man, were slain in a house near Slocum.

"One Negro had been killed at this house the night before," Sheriff Black said in a statement. "Three were sitting up with the remains, one of them being old and white-haired. These three were killed right where they were."

Reporters who rushed to Slocum counted eight bodies, several of them buried in a common grave dug on the property of one of the dead. Authorities suspected that many more had died.

"If reports that I had given to me are credited, there must be 15 to 20 dead, all of them Negroes," Black said. "It's going to be difficult to find out just how many were killed because they got them scattered all over the woods. There will be some of them that won't be found until the buzzards find them."

The incident briefly made front-page news across the nation. The New York Times and The Washington Post were among the papers that covered the massacre extensively. On Sunday, July 31, next to its long account of the Slocum incident, there was another headline in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "Populace Inflamed by Story of Race Riot in East Texas. Chases Black."

According to the story, Isaac Simms, an African-American who lived on Fort Worth's north side, was assaulted by a white as he walked down Main Street.

A Fort Worth mob that grew to an estimated 1,000 men and boys chased Simms as he fled toward the police station.

"Two policemen rushed out and rescued him from the mob that surrounded him," the story said. "The crowd dispersed in five minutes."

A question of justice

In Palestine, Judge B.H. Gardner ordered saloons closed and forbade hardware stores from selling guns or ammunition. A company of state militia joined the Texas Rangers, who were sent to Slocum to help restore order. A few days later, Gardner issued this charge to the Anderson County grand jury:

"All of you are white men, and all of you are Southern men, and it is your duty now to investigate the killing and murder of a large number of Negroes, say at least eight and possibly 10 or 12 or more, who have been killed in the southeastern part of your county by men of your color," Gardner said. "I regard this affair as the most damaging that could happen in this county: That it is a disgrace, not only to the county, but to the state, and it is up to this jury to do its full duty."

Nearly every Slocum resident was subpoenaed to testify. Prominent men who refused were arrested, Gardner later wrote in his memoirs. On Aug. 17, Jim Spurger and six others were indicted on 22 counts of murder.

Fearing local prejudices one way or the other, Gardner moved their trials to Harris County, where the defendants were eventually released on bail. Court records end there.

"In those days, the district or county attorney of Harris County felt that he could not put his time in prosecuting white men for killing Negroes in another county," Gardner wrote.

In 1916, Spurger attacked Gardner while the judge was out campaigning. From then on, Gardner carried a pistol to protect himself from "the Slocum murderers," as he called them. Many area blacks came to believe that the only justice came from nature. On April 24, 1929, a tornado flattened Slocum's grocery stores, cotton gin, school, mechanics' garages and homes. Eight were killed.

Wanting recognition

History then mostly ignored the Slocum Massacre, and stories were quietly passed down among families. Constance Hollie-Ramirez remembers being saddened by her childhood trip back to Slocum. Why couldn't the family just go back there, rebuild the store, reclaim its land?

"That's how a child thinks," she said recently. "I didn't understand the dynamics of it all."

Now she is grown, in charge of educating middle school children. The sadness remains.

"What happened back there still impacts me, my grandfather and others today," she said. "It reaches generations and generations into the future. Whether it's a town or state government, I want someone to admit their part in it, to publicly recognize it and apologize. Even if we can't get what was ours back or reparations, they think if you don't talk about it, it will just go away, and that's not right. A public declaration is worth millions to me.

"There is no statute of limitations on gross injustice."

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