April 10, 2005

Following the Madding Crowd

Tuesday is a big day: My eight-page Historiography paper comes due at 6:00 pm. I don't know how much I've written about this paper before now, but the general idea behind the assignment is that each student is to choose a historical topic which they can research for themselves through heavy use of primary sources. Dr. Johnson seemed fairly attached to the idea that someone research the events surrounding the Longview Race Riot of 1919, so I decided to tackle it.

After a bit of preliminary fact-finding, I visited the Longview Public Library to inspect their vertical file on the subject and found a wealth of material . . . far more than I had any desire to take notes on. Returning the following week, Rachel helped me make 74 copies and bring the material home with me. My sources include newspaper articles from Longview, Dallas, and Waco, interviews with eyewitnesses from 1978 (conducted by Dr. Kenneth R. Durham, Dr. Johnson's predecessor in the LeTourneau History department and primary chronicler of the events), and official reports by the Texas Rangers and National Guardsmen who were dispatched to Longview to restore order.

Playing historical detective by getting this close to little-known events as I attempt to reconstruct the truth of what really happened in Longview July 10th-19th, 1919 has been quite an exhilirating experience. Tonight, as I sat in front of my computer screen and began to lay out in my mind exactly how I was going to tell this story, I happened to glance over at my materials and spot a map that was included in the vertical file. This map has 11 locations pinpointed on it where important events transpired before, during, and after the riot.

Pulling it out, I read over the sequence of events once again and traced out, in pencil, the route followed by an angry mob on July 11th. Gallagher declared himself to be generally bereft of things to do right then, so I asked him to accompany me on a journey through Longview to locate and inspect the various sites marked on my map.

Our quest began at the Longview Courthouse, where we located the spot on the lawn where the National Guard posted their command tent while martial law was in effect in Longview (July 13-19). Directly across the street was the place where Samuel L. Jones, a local black schoolteacher, was severely beaten on July 10th by three white men. Two of these men were of a family named King. They were the brothers of a woman they believed to have been insulted by an article in the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper which Jones represented in Longview.

That week's issue had featured an article by an anonymous author telling the story of Lemuel Walters, a black man who had been lynched in Longview the previous month for committing "indecencies" of an undetermined nature towards the Kings' sister. I have been completely unable to discover precisely what the nature of his actions were . . . the rumors range all the way from rape to a dinner invitation. Whichever of these extremes is closer to the truth, I have a copy of the article from the Defender and it states that the woman "declared she loved him, and if she were in the North would obtain a divorce and marry him." And so it was that Jones, suspected of writing the article (although he denied it at all times, both then and thereafter), was beaten by the King brothers in front of the Courthouse before escaping to the house of another local black leader, Dr. Calvin P. Davis, to have his wounds treated.

The angry citizens met for several hours that evening and were "talked down" for several hours by "voices of reason" including the mayor and a well-respected local attorney, and the meeting had dispersed with the calmer types thinking the matter was resolved and would subside. However, a group of about 15 young men wandered off and milled around for awhile before making for Jones's house at about midnight . . . and that was our next stop.

Jones's house was located around 9 or 10 blocks from the Courthouse, and when the group of armed men arrived there all seemed quiet. Coming up the back street a few of them stepped up onto the back porch and called for Jones to come out. Receiving no response, they moved towards the door, only to be fired upon from all sides. Over 100 rounds were fired in the next few minutes and four of the white men were wounded. One of them crawled under a nearby house where he was found and beaten by the blacks. The unscathed men ran for it.

See, while the young men were getting themselves whipped up to attack, Dr. Davis had not been idle. He had gotten the support of 25 local black men to stand guard over Jones and had laid an ambush around the house, instructing the men not to fire until he did. His plan worked perfectly . . . up to that point.

Gallagher and I followed the route of the fleeing white men back towards the Courthouse, turning off a block short to find the former location of the Fire Station (where they ran). Once there, they rang the alarm bell to summon reinforcements numbering somewhere between 100 and 1,000 men (the sources disagree a bit here, as you can see . . . Longview at the time had a total population of just over 5,000 people, so 1,000 men is probably a bit high). Right next to the Fire Station was Bodie Park where the young men had first gathered before setting off for the house.

A car was sent to hurriedly collect the wounded men from around Jones's house, and the rest of the men got themselves agitated into a regular lynch mob. It was around here that they broke into a hardware store to loot it for weapons and ammunition. At around 4 am they headed back to Jones's house, en masse. Having already been along that route, Gallagher and I took a detour to locate the house of Marion Bush, father-in-law of Dr. Davis, who will enter this story later. This was the most difficult of the locations to find as the town has totally changed in this area.

The street on which the house stood no longer even exists, and, in fact, the general area where it would have been is now occupied by a bank, the public library, and the parking lot in between the two. We parked and hopped out of the car to snoop around a bit, and managed to ascertain that the library wasn't even built until 1987. As a result we could only get a very general idea of the lay of the land in 1919.

From there we went three blocks straight south back to Jones's house. Arriving there early in the morning in 1919, the mob found no one at home . . . so they burned the house to the ground along with the house across the street from it. We followed their route south two and a half blocks to the former location of Quick Hall, a dance hall owned by one Charlie Medlock. The whites believed that blacks were storing ammunition in it and had their suspicions confirmed when they lit it on fire and the whole place started popping like an Orville Redenbacher factory.

Proceeding south another block the mob set Dr. Davis's house on fire. He was not at home (having gone to hide out in Bush's house), but his wife and children were. After some fast negotiating, a black man was allowed to go in and rescue them from the blaze. The mob set a nearby automobile on fire as well before turning east and proceeding two blocks to the homes of Charlie Medlock and a man named Ben Sanders. When Medlock and Sanders's 80-year old wife Belle protested the arson, they were both horsewhipped. After this the sun was beginning to come up and the mob finally dispersed.

All of this area is still a residential district, and there are houses at the locations of Jones and Davis's former residences. A small church stands across the street from Davis's house, and a new house is being built on or near the location of Quick Hall. Some sort of business now exists where Medlock's house was, and, directly across the street, There is nothing but a grassy, tree-filled lot at the former location of Sanders's house. It was nighttime, and this was still south Longview, so we didn't linger . . . I returned to LeTourneau, well satisfied with the trip.

To finish the story, however, the county judge and sheriff called the governor of Texas that very morning to ask for assistance and eight Texas Rangers plus about 200 National Guardsmen were eventually dispatched to deal with the situation. Davis, who was hiding in Bush's house all that day, narrowly escaped discovery when the house was searched twice before finally escaping to Mexico dressed in a soldier's uniform.

Meanwhile, on July 13th, the sheriff came to visit Marion Bush with a friend, asking him to submit to imprisonment for his own protection due to rumors that were circulating which indicated that he might be murdered. Bush agreed and re-entered his house "to blow out the lamp." Thinking, no doubt, of the lynching of Lemuel Walters (who had been held "safely" in the jail), Bush returned with a .45 caliber revolver and opened fire on the two white men. Missing from very close range, he dashed back inside and ran out the back door. The sheriff emptied a revolver at his retreating back, but didn't hit him. Calling a farmer five miles west of Bush's house, he asked him to stop the fugitive.

Shortly afterwards, he received a call that Bush had been stopped, and he loaded up two cars with National Guardsmen and rattled out of town to take custody. He arrived at the spot to find Bush dead . . . the farmer claimed he had ordered Bush to stop, and had gunned him down when he failed to comply.

Later that day, several dozen arrests were made (from among both the white and black populations) and this had a sobering effect on the townspeople. There was no more trouble for nearly a week until martial law was lifted and all of those arrested were freed with the charges dropped. Davis and Jones never returned to Longview, and Bush was, amazingly, the lone casualty of the entire incident.

This is, of course, the short version of the events, and there's a lot more to the story as a whole . . . but that's the basic gist. I had a good time sniffing around Longview finding all these places, and I think that I have a better handle on the events for my paper from having gotten a feel of the general layout. Now to write the dang-blasted thing . . .

Posted by Jared at April 10, 2005 10:45 PM | TrackBack