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The NAACP Investigation into the Waco Lynching

Elisabeth Freeman was a young working class girl who grew up in New York. Without college or money Freeman's prospects were limited, but she became radicalized during a trip to England. She was arrested for coming to the aid of a woman who was being beaten by a policeman during a suffragette march. Freeman discovered in prison the cause in whose name she'd been arrested and immediately became a militant suffragist.

By the time she left England to return to the United States, she'd been jailed six times. Upon her return, she was offered a paid position as a suffrage organizer.

Freeman's most effective action was to participate in a 225-mile march from New York City to Washington, D.C. in February 1913, the eve of Woodrow Wilson's Inauguration. The 14 women who marched called themselves "The Army of the Hudson."

A New York Times reporter traveled with the group and sent daily dispatches to the paper, reporting on the women's courage and their hardships on the road, as well as their infighting and incidents like Freeman's daring to smoke a cigarette in public, a scandalous act.

At the time of the "Waco Horror," Freeman had been in Texas for several months organizing for the right of women to vote. Because of her experience and contacts in Texas, and her street smarts, she was enlisted by the NAACP to go to Waco at once and investigate.

In an extraordinary act of courage, Freeman spent eight days in Waco interviewing everyone involved in the case, including the judge, Jesse Washington's family, and the family of murder victim Lucy Fryer. Freeman's report to W.E.B DuBois helped the NAACP ignite a nationwide anti-lynching campaign

Patricia Bernstein writes about Freeman's investigation in her book, The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP. Below, excerpts from her book:

The Investigation

While the newspapers and the journals chewed over the grisly story of the Waco Horror, the NAACP took immediate action. On May 16, 1916, one day after the lynching of Jesse Washington, Royal Freeman Nash, the white social worker who was then secretary of the NAACP, wired Elisabeth Freeman in Fort Worth, where she remained following the statewide suffrage convention in Dallas.

Freeman wired back that she was mystified as to the "nature of business" Nash wanted done-at least until she received Nash's follow-up letter, also written on May 16. In the letter Nash tells Freeman that the evening papers had all carried a brief AP story on the Waco lynching: "Such a spectacle in the public square of a town of over 25,000 inhabitants, a young boy condemned to death and then taken from the court-room, affords one of the most spectacular grounds of attack on the whole institution of lynching ever presented." Nash's next remark makes it clear that the NAACP had been lying in wait for a lynch mob to strike again: "Mr. Villard of the Evening Post, our treasurer, asked me when I came back from Georgia to get the inside story of the next horrible lynching so that he can write it up and spread it broadcast through the Southern press over his own name."

Nash advised Freeman that her suffrage work throughout Texas would give her a cover to investigate the lynching and an excuse for being in Waco. He suggested that she "locate liberals or Northerners" and contact the state secretary of the Socialist Party to put her in touch with "trusty radicals." Local priests or ministers, he thought, might also help her get at the truth. "We want all of them," Nash said, "the crime in detail, who the boy was and who his victim, the Judge and jury that tried the case, the court record, and the ghastly story of the burning." He also wanted anything that could be used as "legal evidence" against the mob, since the intent was to try to bring charges against the lynchers. "Photos of the places mentioned," said Nash, "the town, the courthouse, the square, the suspension bridge, the scene of the murder, and any of the actors will make the thing vivid for news purposes." A cashier's check for $100 was enclosed with his letter, against which Freeman was to render an account of her time and expenses.

Nash also sent Freeman a copy of his "findings in Georgia" to use as a model for her investigation. The "findings" Nash refers to in his wire were summarized in a lengthy story published in the March 1916 issue of The Crisis, which describes in detail how poor whites had driven every single black person out of Forsyth and Dawson counties in northern Georgia following the rape and beating of a white girl by three black men.

Even after she received Nash's sample of comprehensive investigative journalism to guide her, Freeman was still puzzled about what, exactly, she was supposed to do in Waco. The first few letters she sent to Nash from Waco's elegant ten-story Raleigh Hotel are full of confused and self-deprecatory remarks: "I am terribly 'green' at this work & scarcely know what you want to know . . . Of course, I am working in the dark-not quite knowing what you want me to get. Mayhaps I am not getting what you want."Her uncertainties, however, did not slow her down. By the end of her second day in Waco, following a "Texas storm" on the first day during which she made phone calls and set up appointments, Freeman had already seen the newspaper editors, the "leading colored men," the black ministers, the head of one of the black colleges...and had also acquired newspaper clippings and photographs of the lynching, despite the fact that the photographer had been forced to "make a sworn affidavit not to sell—give—or show them to anyone." Freeman thanked Nash for giving her the opportunity to do the work, declaring that the project was "terrifically interesting." Because she had visited Waco before in her suffrage work, she said, she already had entrée to people whom she otherwise never would have been able to see.

In the process of acquiring the photos, Freeman reports in her full account of the investigation, she "made about five visits to the mayor." She sweet-talked John Dollins with a line she would use successfully throughout her investigation: "I told them that I had been in Waco before and had been treated very nicely, that I had been in Texas four months and would like to go back North and see if I could not show the people that Waco was not as bad as they would expect."

Freeman soon learned that she had to call on all of her considerable skills to extract the information she wanted from the people of Waco. It seems that, at first, the investigation of the Jesse Washington lynching was almost a game to her. She saw it as a challenging assignment, a departure from her customary work of making speeches and inspiring women to join the suffragist cause-an exciting new project which she attacked with her usual energy and optimism. But before long, the tone of her letters to Nash changed. As she gathered one hideous detail after another-first, the details of Washington's crime, and then the details of the lynching-Freeman was clearly weighed down by what she had learned.

She also began to sense that what she was doing was dangerous. "Am being closely watched," she scribbled upside down at the beginning of a long letter describing her activities in Waco. Elsewhere in the same letter she writes, "The net is tightening. Every one is closing up as tight as a clam."...

Chapter Five: An "Exciting Occurrence"

The first thing one notices about this ugly tale of premeditated violence blended with common daily routine-besides its being published in full in three newspapers where it would certainly be read by every literate potential juror in McLennan County-is the strange combination of the grossest vernacular with rather stilted speech that probably does not represent the way Jesse Washington really talked. But Jesse Washington could not read the confession he was told to sign.

Oddly, while the whole city of Waco had read Jesse's confession and knew that he was supposed to have "criminally assaulted" Lucy Fryer, there was no testimony about the rape at the trial. Even Dr. Maynard, who testified about the wounds to Lucy's skull, was not asked about the rape, which makes one wonder if there was any solid evidence, other than Washington's confession (which was probably coerced), that Lucy was raped at all. But, in the context of the times, it was the rape story more than the murder that inflamed the populace and served as a pretext for the lynching. Elisabeth Freeman initially accepted the story of the rape,45 but, after investigating the Washington lynching exhaustively, came to believe that Lucy Fryer had not been raped. Why did Jesse Washington suddenly attack Lucy Fryer on May 8, 1916?

Apparently, until that day Washington had never given any member of the Fryer family any reason to distrust him. Lucy did not seem to fear Jesse's temper. She did not hesitate to berate him for whipping the mules; she did not anticipate that he might react violently. Maybe Jesse killed Lucy simply on an impulse because he was angry that she had scolded him. Maybe no rape was ever involved.

There is also, of course, the possibility that the attack appeared to be unanticipated and inexplicable, and that Jesse Washington plowed all afternoon after Lucy Fryer's murder because he was, in fact, innocent and knew nothing of what had happened. What if the blood on his clothes really did come from a nosebleed, as he claimed? What if Fleming's men found the hammer or placed it in the brush and then forced Jesse to "tell" where he had put it? What if Jesse only "confessed" because, as he said when asked by his defense attorneys if he was concerned about the possibility of a mob coming after him,

"They promised they would not if I would tell them about it."47 In other words, Washington claimed that the officers of the law who questioned him promised that if he "confessed," they would protect him from being lynched. …

… Elisabeth Freeman, while in Waco, heard a rumor that George Fryer had confessed to the crime, had gone insane, and had been confined in a local hospital. She visited the hospitals and did not find Fryer, but later did meet and speak with him: "He was very quiet and reserved," she reports, "and said little or nothing. He did not talk about his troubles-and a man who does not talk about his troubles is not likely to talk about his crimes." Freeman eventually concluded that Jesse Washington was probably guilty of murdering Lucy Fryer.

She was convinced primarily by the discovery of the hammer precisely where he had allegedly left it and the absence of hard evidence pointing to anyone else. Even those who repeat the tale that George Fryer might have murdered his wife have no knowledge of any friction between husband and wife or of any other motive for murder. Martha Kettler, a lifelong resident of Robinson who was six when Lucy Fryer was killed, characterized Lucy Fryer as "just a normal nice little lady." Kettler described George Fryer, who never married again and lived in Robinson until his death in 1938, as "average, friendly, neighborly."

The violent death of Lucy Fryer and the maelstrom of violence that destroyed Jesse Washington provided rich soil for the sprouting of rumors and suppositions. The darkest crimes never seem to be forgotten. They blight the locale where they occur. Buildings may be torn down and replaced, fields replanted, thousands of sweet, ordinary days may pass after the one day of monumental evil, but the shadow, however faded, lingers.

The methods used by the justice system of the time also encourage endless speculation about Washington's guilt or innocence. In that poisoned climate, it would have been up to Jesse Washington to prove he was innocent, and Jesse had only the dimmest understanding of what was going on. For the purposes of this story, however, it makes little difference in the end whether Jesse Washington was innocent or guilty. Nothing he could have done would have justified what happened to him.

Excerpts reprinted with permission from Texas A&M University Press

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Wade Goodwyn
Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.