A whole town wiped out, and only recently any acknowledgment
Slocum resident Henry Rogers recalls what he knows of the massacre that threatened to rid his town of its black residents more than a century ago. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
Charlie Wilson, Cleveland Larkin, and Willustus “Lusk” Holley were walking down a dirt road in rural Slocum, Texas when they were blindsided by a mob of armed white men. On their way to tend to family livestock on July 29, 1910, the three black teenagers became the first casualties of what would turn out to be a shameful massacre — with groups of white Texans going from road to road, house to house, shooting black citizens. Wilson and Holley survived the attack, but Larkin succumbed to the injuries.
The ensuing bloodshed lasted for at least two days, spilling to the south in Houston County. Black residents hastily gathered what belongings they could and escaped across creeks to wooded areas and marshes. Some families fled to the nearby town of Palestine, while others trekked farther. During the panic, they had no choice but to leave behind loved ones who’d been killed along the roads and in the woods of Slocum.
As the violence intensified, local officials turned to Texas Governor Thomas Campbell, and a company of U.S. cavalry troops and Texas Rangers were brought in to quell the situation.
Newspapers reported the incident as a “race war” or riot, rather than the massacre it was.
No one is certain how many people died. The official count lists eight dead — Cleveland Larkin, Alex Holley, Sam Baker, Dick Wilson, Jeff Wilson, Ben Dancer, John Hays and Will Burly — but even at the time, authorities believed many more were murdered.
“Many of the bodies were in a state of decomposition, and the action was taken as a measure to insure public health,” The Houston Post reported. “A trench twelve feet in depth had been dug during the early hours of the day and in this ditch the bodies were placed and covered. In many cases relatives of the Negroes discovered the whereabouts of a body and dragged it to a secluded spot during the hours of the night. On account of the fact that several bodies have been thus disposed of, the exact number of Negroes killed will never be known. A conservative estimate places the number killed at eighteen, while many men of standing in the community declare not less than forty were killed. No white man was injured during the trouble.”
News traveled remarkably fast. Anderson County Sheriff William H. Black, a white man, was quoted in The New York Times on August 1, 1910. “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,” he told the paper. “These Negroes have done no wrong that I could discover. There was just a hotheaded gang hunting them down and killing them. I don’t know how many were in the mob, but I think there must have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut telephone wires. They hunted the Negroes down like sheep.”
Jack Holley lost his son—and everything he owned—in the massacre.
There are several theories as to what motivated the massacre. According to an account in the Semi-WeeklyCourier Times of Tyler, the incident was attributed to a dispute between black businessman Marsh Holley — father of Lusk and Alex Holley — and a white farmer over an unpaid debt. Marsh’s father, Jack Holley, owned several hundred acres of land and sold goods from his store to both black and white customers. He was among those who escaped the violence, leaving behind all he’d worked for.
Another account involved Jim Spurger, a white man alleged to have instigated the event because he reportedly didn’t want to take orders from a black boss on a road maintenance crew. Some said the killings were simply a land grab, as they believed white residents begrudged the prosperity of their black neighbors.
Another theory, according to newspaper reports, claimed white residents believed black people were planning an attack against them. “The third and the most serious reason which is believed to be directly responsible for the tragedies is the seemingly baseless and unfounded wild reports and rumors which gained currency and which were magnified as they were repeated from mouth to mouth,” read The Dallas Morning News on August 1, 1910. “These were to the effect that the negroes were preparing to rise and kill all of the white people.”
But as news of the violence captured national attention, most newspaper reports framed Slocum as a “race riot” or “race war,” rather than an unprovoked massacre.
A group of black ministers in Washington, D.C. felt it was an opportune time to address an issue they felt had been ignored by the federal government. They pleaded with President William H. Taft to focus on racial violence in America and specifically “the murdering of 20 or more innocent and unarmed colored men near Palestine, Texas.”
Historians speculate that the white mob mentality was fueled by envy and racist attitudes toward black people who were striving despite their treatment in society—a narrative that has been seen repeatedly in American history.
Around the turn of the century, resentment toward black people was intense. Although the first wave of Ku Klux Klan activity had died down by the 1870s, racial violence continued. In Texas, there were 23 lynchings reported in 1908 and 15 in 1909, the same year the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded. On March 3, 1910, thousands of people gathered in Dallas for the lynching of Allen Brooks, a black man accused of sexually assaulting a 2-year-old white girl.
Later that summer, black boxer Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jeffries, a white man, for the heavyweight title in Reno, Nevada. Race riots erupted around the country, including in Fort Worth.
Less than a month later, the bustling black community in Slocum would be erased.
Judge Benjamin Gardner
Sheriff William H. Black
were among the few caucasians advocating for justice for the victims in Slocum.
Eleven men were arrested for the murders, but only seven, including Jim Spurger, would be indicted. However, their cases — which were moved to Harris County — were never prosecuted. The efforts to see justice done ended the political careers of both Sheriff William H. Black and District Judge Benjamin Gardner.
In 2011, the Texas Legislature adopted a resolution acknowledging the Slocum Massacre, but back in East Texas, getting acknowledgment has been a battle. Officials with the county’s historical society dragged their feet on the process for a historical marker, but the Texas Historical Commission granted the marker following a presentation by descendants of Slocum Massacre survivors Jack and Marsh Holley.
More than one hundred years after the slaughter, the incident was detailed in E.R. Bills’ 2014 book, The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas. A “remember Slocum” campaign led to the book becoming available in libraries across the country, and caught the interest of academic institutions, including Columbia University’s History in Action Program.
Most residents never spoke publicly about what happened that bloody summer, but they made sure future generations never forgot what happened. It remains painful. At the dedication of a historical marker in January 2016, elder residents said they grew up fearing the violence would repeat in future generations.