On Saturday, descendants of African Americans slaughtered in one of the worst acts of post-Civil War racial violence gathered on the side of a desolate East Texas road. A bell sounded eight times while the same number of black balloons floated up toward an overcast sky to commemorate the eight known victims of the Slocum Massacre, a tragedy that went forgotten by official history for more than a century.
“There are more than 16,000 standing historical markers in the state of Texas,” said E.R. Bills, author of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas. It was Bills and Constance Hollie-Jawaid, whose great-grandfather Alex Holley was killed in the massacre, who in 2014 applied to the Texas Historical Commission for a historical marker to commemorate the victims. “The Slocum Massacre historical marker will apparently be the first one to specifically acknowledge racial violence against African Americans,” Bills said, underscoring both the significance of Saturday's unveiling and the racial biases that have made Slocum a little known historical footnote.
The Texas Legislature passed a resolution officially acknowledging the Slocum Massacre in 2011, ending a century of silence about what happened amid the East Texas pines on July 29, 1910. The two-day slaughter began when three black men came across a group of white men walking down a dirt road. Without warning, the white men opened fire, sparking 48 hours of chaos along the banks of Sadler Creek. Groups of armed white men scoured the area shooting black people on sight. While only a relative few victims’ names have survived, contemporaneous accounts suggest many died. For instance, the Dallas Morning News cites this New York Times story that quotes William Black, the sheriff at the time of the massacre:
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“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. I don’t know how many were in the mob, but there may have been 200 or 300. … They hunted the Negroes down like sheep.”
Malachi D. Crawford, a professor of African American studies at the University of Houston who spoke at Saturday’s ceremony to dedicate the historical marker, said the 1910 Slocum Massacre happened during what’s widely recognized as the nadir of African American history. “This was a period where we witnessed a dramatic increase in lynchings, a dramatic increase in race riots,” he said.
However, unlike other events of that time—like race riots in Tulsa, Houston, Longview and Sherman throughout the early 1900s—the Slocum Massacre had long been ignored, at least as far as official history was concerned. Surviving family and researchers say many details of what happened have been lost to time due to obfuscation and an intergenerational cover-up. In fact, local officials at first opposed the application for a roadside marker commemorating the tragedy. Jimmy Odom, the chairman of the Anderson County Historical Commission, initially 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.”
While Odom seems to have come around (he was at Saturday’s unveiling), that sentiment is still hindering efforts to fully acknowledge and understand what happened in July 1910 when many in Slocum’s black community were indiscriminately murdered by their white neighbors. Bills says he and others are determined to find and account for mass graves that are known to be in the area.
Bills says he recently found one on land owned by a white family. When Bills told the owner he expected they'd find a few bodies on his property, the guy, according to Bills, told him, “Hell no — they wouldn’t find a few bodies, they're liable to find fifty.” The man then turned them away from the property, Bills says, wanting to do with the effort.
“They’re still ignominiously piled on top of one another in an anonymous underground pit,” Bills said. “For this I am ashamed, because it’s folks who look just like me who perpetrate this travesty.”