1910 slaughter of African Americans gets historical marker

The village of Slocum in Anderson County, east Texas, was a relatively well-off farming community founded by emancipated slaves after the Civil War. It was small but well-appointed, with a school, two churches, a store and a post office, all black owned and operated. On July 29th, 1910, that all came to an end when a mob of hundreds of white men descended on the town and gunned down every resident they could find. While the official list of the dead is eight people, those are only the ones who can be confirmed today. The real tally will likely never be known. Whoever wasn’t killed ran for their lives to other towns in Texas or up North (hopefully not to Tulsa or East St. Louis or Chicago), forced to leave their property behind to be stolen by the murderers.

Information on the events as they unfolded over the two ensuing days of mayhem was chaotic and confused. Slocum was an isolated town and the mob had cut many of the phone lines before the attack to ensure their targets were as helpless as possible. The stories that were able to make it into the press came from the perpetrators. They claimed a white farmer had shot a black man who owed him money, spurring the black population of Slocum to take up arms and go full Nat Turner on the white people in surrounding communities. Nothing gets a good white mob going better than rumors of a black insurrection, and it doesn’t have to be true to work. Other stories circulating involved an unpaid debt that resulted in the black debtor insulting the white creditor, and a lynching in a nearby town fomenting revolt among the black people of Slocum.

The source of much of this deadly chatter was likely a prominent white man named Jim Spurger who was angry when African American Abe Wilson was put in charge of a road improvement project that Spurger wanted for himself. A witness would later tell a grand jury that Spurger claimed he’d been “threatened and outraged until it had become unbearable”. Whatever the cause, the white avengers assembled and started shooting.

Even within a single article there were vastly differing reports, see this story in the July 31st The Abilene Daily Reporter so charmingly subtitled “Whites Gathered Arms and Went Coon Hunting.” The headline declares “23 Negroes, 4 Whites Dead,” but in the very first paragraph the figures change to “two white men and fifteen negroes have already been killed,” and when the story continues on page six, the numbers change again, dropping to zero in the case of white fatalities.

According to official statements made here tonight 18 negroes are known to be dead as a result of the race riots which occurred during the day and the number will likely be increased to 25, and a dozen more injured. It is not known definitely that any white men have been killed, but several have been injured.

No white men were killed. It wasn’t a “battle” or “race riot.” It was a premeditated massacre. Here’s how Anderson County Sheriff William Black, who was on the scene, described what was going on as quoted in an August 1st, 1910, New York Times article (pdf):

“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. These negroes have done no wrong that I could discover. There was just a hot-headed gang hunting them down and killing them. I don’t know how many there were in the mob, but I think there must have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut the telephone wires. They hunted the negroes down like sheep.”

Texas Rangers and state militia were deployed to restore order. District Judge B.H. Gardner ordered all area saloons closed (the mob was very thoroughly liquored up, to nobody’s surprise) and prohibited the sale of firearms or ammunition. By then most of the black residents were hiding in the swamps or safely out of town, so there weren’t many targets left. At the end of the first week in August, 16 white men, including James Spurger, and six black men were held in jail without bail. At least one of those black men was Jack Holley who had fled to Palestine, the county seat, when the violence engulfed Slocum killing one son and wounding another and asked to be jailed for his own protection.

Gardner convened a grand jury and gave them these extraordinary instructions:

“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. 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.”

He subpoenaed virtually the entire town of Slocum. When some of the so-called leading white citizens refused to testify, Gardner had them arrested. Some black witnesses returned to town to give testimony only to mysteriously disappear again before they could take the stand. On August 17th, seven men, Jim Spurger among them, were indicted on 22 counts of murder. The cases were moved to Harris County for trial and that’s when things fell into the usual Jim Crow template: the defendants were released on bail and nobody was ever tried. Gardner and Black were voted out of office in the next elections.

Black residents never returned to Slocum. Their property was confiscated by various “legal” means (liens, sale of abandoned property for non-payment of taxes) and extralegal (just taking it) and people like Jack Holley, who had owned a store, a dairy and 300 acres of prime farmland, moved to Palestine without a dime and died a pauper. His family changed the spelling of their name to Hollie out of fear of reprisals, a perfectly reasonable fear when you consider that Gardner who was a) white and b) a judge, was violently assaulted by Spurger six years later.

The history of the massacre was covered up, ignored in text books and by the local historical society. People told the old stories in private, however. For years one of Jack Holley’s descendants, Constance Hollie-Ramirez, worked with other descendants of the victims to pull this ugly history out of the shadows into the light. Her father and uncle had tried to get a historical marker in the 1980s, but the chairman of the Anderson County historical commission, Jimmy Ray Odom, rejected their petition saying that “It was mislabeled a massacre. A massacre is when you kill hundreds of people.”

Hollie-Ramirez picked up where her parents left off and in 2011 the Texas Legislature passed a resolution (pdf) officially acknowledging the Slocum Massacre. Prospects for a historical marker picked up steam in 2014 with the publication of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas by Fort Worth journalist E. R. Bills. Hollie-Ramirez and Bills applied to the county for a roadside historical marker to commemorate the victims of the massacre. They were rejected. Anderson County Commissioner Greg Chapin wrote: “Without further evidence of legal documentation, or the facts of guilty parties taken (sic) responsibility for the incident, Anderson County cannot support the marker.”

So they went over the county’s head and applied directly to the Texas State Historical Association in Austin. Again the county historical commissioned was in opposition. Apparently not clear on how historical markers work, Odom wrote to state officials, “The citizens of Slocum today had absolutely nothing to do with what happened over a hundred years ago. This is a nice, quiet community with a wonderful school system. It would be a shame to mark them as racist from now until the end of time.” A wonderful school system with some painfully glaring omissions in their history texts, that is, and evidently by design.

The application for a marker was approved last January after getting an exceptionally high rating of 98 out a possible 100 points. On Saturday, January 16th, 2015, Constance Hollie-Ramirez joined other descendants of the victims, author E. R. Bills and even Jimmy Ray Odom at the unveiling of the roadside marker commemorating the Slocum Massacre.

15 thoughts on “1910 slaughter of African Americans gets historical marker

  1. I will bet that the marker gets vandalized or stolen within a month. That said, I think the text of the marker is appropriate and I like the language about reconciliation.

  2. I’m with George. Damaged within a month. The next one needs to be titanium mounted on a 20-foot pyramid of solid iron.

  3. “glaring omissions in their history texts, that is, and evidently by design.”
    Do you honestly believe that the town of Slocum writes their own history books?

  4. So, you’ve seen all the history books used in Slocum and confirmed that none mention this incident? You’ve then gone further in condemning the current residents of Slocum because of omissions in history texts they didn’t write and have no control over? By default it seems you think there are history text that could be used by the Slocum schools that do mention the Slocum massacre. Do you believe that the current residents of Slocum are the same ones behind the massacre and if not why would you imply that they are bad people because they don’t want to draw attention to a horrible incident that happened there?

    I’ve noticed that the Chinese Massacre Cove in Wallowa , OR where locals killed up to 34 Chinese miners, doesn’t have a marker either. Using your standards the people of Oregan must be racists who still hate Chinese.,

    Just to clarify, I’m in favor of the marker. History is what it is like it or not. I’m not from Slocum, or Texas nor have I been there. I just think you and the other commenters are being unfair to Slocum.

    1. I have not seen any of the history texts used in Slocum, but Constance Hollie-Ramirez, her parents, her cousin and other descendants know whereof they speak since they’ve been on the ground fighting the fight for recognition for decades. E.R. Bills wrote and researched an entire book on the subject and he didn’t find a single reference to the violence in history texts, just in period newspaper accounts. It was deliberately kept silent by the townspeople who directly benefited from the slaughter and theft. They talked about it amongst themselves only.

      I didn’t say or imply they were “bad” people for wanting to ignore hard truths about a history that is barely a hundred years old. That’s a facile construct anyway. People are more complex than “good” and “bad” tout court. I think they were wrong, that’s for sure, and I think some part of them realizes it too, which is why they wouldn’t give a statement to the press and why Odom showed up at the ceremony in the end.

      Wanting to sweep racist history under the carpet may be an understandable impulse, but it just won’t do. And yes, I do think it is racist to tell the grandchildren of victims that the horrors should be silenced forever because it’s a cute town with nice schools. Some people don’t have the luxury of living in a fantasy world where bad things never happened, because suffering like that lives on, all the more acutely when recognition is denied.

      As for Oregon, it has one of the most racist histories of any state in the Union. It was literally founded on white supremacy. The whole state should be bristling with historical markers admitting its monstrous past. Never forget.

  5. It’s no accident that both the Abilene and Shiner papers quoted operated in towns way outside of east Texas.

    Apparently the county historical commission couldn’t be bothered to to look up the entry for the Slocum Massacre in the Handbook of Texas Online:

    “The murders of July 1910, although especially horrible, were but one event in a long train of race-based violence in East Texas during the first half of the twentieth century. Soon the story faded into a past many wanted to forget or ignore.”

  6. My son currently goes to school in Slocum. At his elementary grade level, they have not learned about this. I do not leave everything up to the board of education regarding my children’s history lessons. Parents should educate themselves in regards to events that are left out of the books. That being said, Slocum ISD is outstanding.

    1. Thank you very much for commenting, Tanya. I appreciate having an answer to the question from a position of current knowledge. Was there any local coverage of or conversation about the marker?

  7. Yes, there were several articles in the local newspaper in Palestine. If you search Palestine Herald and Slocum Massacre, you will find them.

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