This is not a pretty story. It "skims the joy off the pan of conversation." It asks thistle questions and offers scorpion answers, but it needs to be told.
I lived in Freestone County, Texas, from 1981 to 1990, and heard a seven-word summary of this story the first week I was there. The words were whispered to me by an accountant, a fellow employee of Dow Chemical Company.
Like me, he was an outsider, a move-in, and he did not know any facts, but the story was the kind that needed whispering more than it needed facts. The story was the kind we each thought we understood in about seven words.
The seven words the accountant whispered to me were: "Kirven is where they burned the niggers."
I forgave the accountant his poor choice of words at the time, rather like I might forgive a new acquaintance for having bad breath or dismal table manners. Pointing out the fact that the N-word was offensive might not have been conducive to a future working relationship. Nonetheless, his use of the word told me eloquently that although he and I might be co-workers, we would not be close friends. We were too different.
I grew up in a place where race was rarely an issue. People in our little corner of the Panhandle of Texas seldom used words like "nigger" or "spick" or "kike" in the 1950s and 1960s. There were no separate facilities for "coloreds," because there were none to use them. There were no blacks, and few or no Hispanics, Oriental people, or American Indians.
Folks determined to be prejudiced against an entire category of people had to content themselves with resenting the nurmerous Germans who inhabited the area, but they were distinguishable from the rest of us only by their surnames and accents. Beyond that, the human penchant for discrimination had to be satisfied with more fragmentary antipathies, such as that of Methodists for Baptists, of ranchers for farmers, of haves for have-nots. As a result, I grew up with no preconceived notions about the inferiority of one race in comparison with another.
Instead, perhaps ironically, I grew up possessing a keen interest in the American Civil War, particularly in the heroes of the Confederacy. From an early age, I filled my imagination with tales of Stonewall Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, and Robert E. Lee the way my peers were filling theirs with the deeds of Mickey Mantle, Wilt Chamberlain, and Joe Namath. The fighting prowess of the Southern soldiers, their string of against-all-odds victories, their underdog status, and the near-miss sweetness of their defeat fueled fires in me. I was particularly enchanted by their sense of obligation, duty, and honor. Lee, Jackson, and Stuart were willing to sacrifice all for what they believed. They did not drink, swear, or smoke. They were marble men who valued "unblemished reputations" and "the crowning excellence of exemplary Christian piety" above all other qualities.
My complete and utter fascination with everything involving the Confederacy meant, of course, that I must come to terms with the pesky problem of slavery. I could ignore the subject when I was a child, but as I approached high school, still without abandoning the fascination, I gave the topic more and more thought. The national situation ensured I would, and nothing that was happening in the country at the time made me sympathetic toward the South's spotty record on racial matters.
The civil rights movement was at its pinnacle in my junior high and high school years. Martin Luther King was making his mark, and I was eighteen when he was killed. From my vantage point in the Panhandle, far from any hotbeds of racism, I could neither accept nor condone the racial attitudes and backlash against the civil rights movement that was being exhibited in Mississippi, Alabama, and other Southern states. The hatred and violence being practiced by some white Southerners made me believe they were a different breed of people from those I idolized.
College exposed me to many more types of people and notions, as college is meant to do. I majored in history, and my classes included courses on the Old South, the New South, intellectual history, and the Civil War and Reconstruction, all taught by insightful professors who eliminated much of my Panhandle naiveté. College was followed by law school, and law school by four years of state agency legal practice in Austin before being hired in 1981 to work for Dow Chemical in Freestone County.
Freestone County had a lot of outsiders in 1981. The energy crisis of the 1970s and the search for alternative fuel sources had attracted several large companies that were buying and leasing rights to mine lignite, a brown coal abundant in the region. The commerce and economic opportunity were welcome, but distinctions between natives and outsiders were carefully preserved. Anyone whose family arrived by internal combustion engine tended to be an outsider forever, in fact. There were also subjects the natives preferred outsiders not to probe. This story was at the top of the list.
In 1986, I was elected chairman of the Freestone County Historical Commission, an unexpected elevation for an outsider. The position resulted in my learning some of the county's darker secrets. That is when this story seized me and would not let go.
At first, I wanted only to preserve the recollections of those who had witnessed the events described in this book. Later, I was driven to learn more facts, to try to uncover what catalysts set the events in motion and drove them to their odd conclusions. I wanted also to discover the "why" of this tale from a human perspective. What occurred in the minds of white Southerners that caused them to commit such an outrage? What reasons would fuel the hatred necessary for men to burn other men alive? How could men who idolized Lee and Jackson and Stuart justify what was done in Kirven? What drove people to commit an act so unspeakable that it would still be whispered about after three-quarters of a century?
What I ultimately discovered was that nobody knew all the facts, that much of the truth had been lost or hidden, and that the story was more tragic, more ironic, and possessed more far-reaching impact than anyone had guessed. The truth was more than I could dream to understand in seven words.
My research occurred in two very distinct stages. In 1986, I talked to my first eyewitnesses and obtained a copy of the Kirven Commercial Record for May 7, 1922. The newspaper contained what appeared to be a full and detailed account of the crime and immediate aftermath which are at the heart of this tale. Shortly thereafter I interviewed other eyewitnesses, particularly J. C. Whatley and Bertha Williams. They told complete stories, most of which corresponded with the newspaper account—particularly Whatley, whose version was almost too detailed to be credible. By September 1987, I believed I knew the entire story.
In October, I turned my attention from the story to politics. A group of citizens convinced me to run against a ten-year incumbent district judge who had stepped on a few local toes. Our six-month campaign took on a flavor of native versus newcomer, old versus new, tradition versus change. The two counties in the district were evenly divided, and rife with disagreement. On election night, 9,011 votes were cast, and the incumbent was declared the winner by one vote. I asked for a recount and was declared the victor by three votes.
The incumbent challenged that outcome, and an election contest in district court followed. After a three-day political and evidentiary slugfest, with the two counties' differences no closer to settlement, he and I reached a compromise—we would agree to a new election, would then both withdraw from the race, and would support a mutually agreeable third party.
During the course of the campaign, I met and made friends with hundreds of Freestone County residents, but I detected an undercurrent of distrust and wariness in some corners of the county, even hostility, that I had never known in other regions of the state. I wondered how much of it was simply dislike of outsiders, and how much, if any, was a lingering result of what happened in 1922.
After the election contest, I put the research project aside for a while. I thought I had found all there was to find, and had concluded, in fact, that the incident was not particularly unusual for the time in which it occurred. I doubted I could find more illuminating details. I was mistaken.
After I moved to Austin in 1990, my thoughts continued to return to the events of 1922. Even though racial violence and lynchings might have been common in 1922, there were aspects of this tale that continued to tantalize me, and caused me to keep digging. Then, while transcribing the tapes of my interview of Bertha Williams, I was presented with new information, and a new mystery. Lost among the elderly black lady's mumbled statements was a jewel of information I had not heard during the interview. It prompted me to begin the second stage of my research.
That jewel is described in more detail in the prologue to Part Two. At first, I did not believe that any more could be uncovered about what Bertha Williams said, but I ended up discovering more than I imagined possible.
I do not claim to be uniquely qualified to write about the history of Freestone County, and I am certainly not qualified to pass judgment upon it. Indeed, there are natives living there today who would pronounce me, an outsider who lived there only nine years and who was not reared around black people, particularly unfit to do so. Yet this may be a story only an outsider can write, for a native who knows all the intricate relationships and who must live with the descendants of those who were involved in the tragic events might never feel able to tell the tale fully. The fact that some of the names of living people have been changed, or omitted entirely, speaks of the lingering hesitancy some people in the county still feel about being identified with this tale.
Nor do I present this work as a scholarly analysis of the practice of lynching in America. While that subject may be the shiny white bone poking from beneath America's closet door, our nation's holocaust, the door has been pulled open and the skeleton examined hundreds of times. Numerous scholarly works exist on the subject, and the basic details of the killings in Freestone County are not radically different from those of hundreds of other lynchings.
Still, this particular story, details of which have never been published, deserves particular attention. Although neither the participants in the events nor those who live in Freestone County today were aware of it, the lynchings in Kirven received widespread, even international, publicity. They occurred at a time that was ripe for them to receive a degree of attention they would not have received at any other time, and that attention helped contribute, albeit indirectly and gradually, to the end of the practice of racial lynching in America.
To those who would say the telling of this tale serves only to open up old wounds, stoke the fires of racial debate, or promote feelings of resentment and victimization, I respond that I have thought long and hard about those possibilities. My hope, however, is that the telling of this tale may actually contribute in some small way to the healing of American racial relations. Indeed, the nature of some of the details of this story and the way in which some of the information was delivered into my lap make me wonder if there is not a larger purpose in the story's telling.
Such a claim may seem preposterous, but the idea has given me hope since it was first suggested by a bright young black attorney who heard this story and described how she believes it fits into our nation's racial history and the four stages of human grieving.
Born after the civil rights movement, she grew up in an area where racism was not overt, and in a household where adults did not talk about the old days or the old ways. "Those were hard times," her parents told her, "and there is nothing to be gained by talking about them."
She did not agree with her family's reticence, however, and tried to learn more about the past and present of racial relations. Today she views the subject with an analytical, objective point of view. Comparing America's aching racial past to the death of a loved one, she regards those people, black and white, who prefer that the past remain buried as being in the first stage of the grieving process, that of denial. Others in the country are in the second stage, that of anger, while others occupy the third stage—sorrow. Still others, many in the South, are in the final stage, which is healing. She believes, and I agree with her, that healing requires knowledge, as well as acceptance, neither of which can come until stories such as this one are finally told. When blacks and whites can rationally discuss events such as those which occurred in Kirven, the nation will be closer to acceptance, healing, and recovery.
Finally, the tale is worth telling for its irony and poignancy. Indeed, some of the details, unintended consequences, and coincidences of the story are richer, fuller, and more incongruous than I can capture. I had to try to capture them, however. I have known about the events for seventeen years, and have been researching and writing about them for twelve. Yet I cannot speak of some of the details without emotion catching in my throat.
What follows, what now begins, is the story of Freestone County, Texas, in 1922. Events that year in this rural, previously unexceptional part of Texas—"this cold world of care"—affected, and changed, the nation. The tale is not complete, and never can be, but even if every illuminating truth and solution is not revealed, the story supplies the best that history can offer—a chance to study something that should never be repeated.