Sister in The Struggle

Sister in The Struggle

Remembering anti-lynching activist Elisabeth Freeman

By Matt Hormann 08/21/2014

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Afew years ago, I was browsing the American History section at the LA Central Library when a title jumped out at me: “The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP.” The cover was an eye-catching solid black with tendrils of flame licking around the text, giving the impression that perhaps the book was about some great fire that happened long ago. But the title suggested something more ominous. At the time, I had recently finished a book about the 1921 race riots in Tulsa, Okla., an incident in which the black district of the city was burned to the ground by white mobs. As I was to learn, fire played a role in this story too.


I’ve always been drawn to what the historian Adam Hochschild calls “times and places when people felt a moral imperative to confront evil,” and as I pulled the book from the shelf and began to peruse it, the story drew me in with an almost magnetic pull.


In May 1916, in the city of Waco, Texas, a 17-year-old black teenager named Jesse Washington was accused of raping and murdering a white farmer’s wife. The evidence against him was flimsy, but Washington was nevertheless arrested, given a hurried trial and sentenced to death.


“It was completely rigged and pathetic,” says the book’s author, Houston historian Patricia Bernstein. “They assigned him six very young attorneys in his defense, and they were all the sons of very prominent families. They didn’t even meet him until the night before the trial, and then their only useful suggestion was that he should pray.”


Before the judge could finish reading the sentence, a crowd of hundreds stormed the courtroom, seized Washington and carried him from the building. Washington was tortured, mutilated and then taken to a tree in front of the city hall where he was hung by a chain, doused in coal oil and burned alive in front of a crowd of as many as 15,000 people, who laughed and cheered as the spectacle took place. “It was almost like a holiday,” says Bernstein. Afterwards, in macabre fashion, Washington’s body parts were sold as souvenirs and photographs of the lynching were circulated by a local photographer.


The story might have remained a bleak, dispiriting glimpse into our racist American past, but from it emerged a ray of light. Her name was Elisabeth Freeman, and as it turned out, she had spent the last years of her life in Pasadena.


Born in England in 1876, and raised in New York, Freeman came from a poor family and spent her childhood in and out of orphanages, while developing a sharp distaste for injustice. 


She found her calling as a teenager working with the Salvation Army, and as an adult, joined the radical Women’s Social and Political Union in England and was arrested nine times at various suffrage demonstrations.


“She was very plucky and a risk-taker and very impassioned about justice,” says Freeman’s grand-niece, Peg Johnston, 65, of Binghamton, NY. “She was quite an on-the-ground rabble rouser.”


Upon her return to the US in 1911, Freeman became a professional organizer and suffrage speaker who in 1913 participated in a 225-mile “suffrage hike” to President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in Washington, DC.


In 1916, Freeman embarked on a mission few would be brave enough to undertake. It entailed all the risks of a spy sent behind enemy lines.


Freeman was working as organizer for the Texas Woman’s Suffrage Association when she received word from Royal Freeman Nash, secretary of the NAACP, about the Jesse Washington lynching. Nash implored her: “Will you not get the facts for us? […] We want all of them: the crime in detail, who the boy was and who was his victim, the judge and jury that tried the case, the court record, and the ghastly story of the burning. If you can get anything in the way of legal evidence against the mob, our lawyers will be that much ahead.”


Using her Texas connections, Freeman went undercover in the city for a week, employing the clever tactics of a detective to gather crucial details about the crime.


Freeman told people she was reporting for a New York newspaper and wanted “to tell people in New York and back east that Waco really wasn’t as bad as everybody was saying,” according to Bernstein. “The city fathers and the mayor talked to her, the sheriff talked to her, everybody talked to her. They were sort of fascinated and charmed.”


Nevertheless, it was a dangerous job. After Freeman was in the city a few days, people started to get suspicious. “Her room was searched and she was stopped when she was out at night,” says Bernstein, “because well-bred white women didn’t wander around alone at night.”


Freeman was eventually instructed to “get out of town before you are hanging on that tree.”


Nonetheless, she remained dogged in her pursuit of the facts, determined to bring the perpetrators to justice. Using accents and disguises, she obtained information from the judge in the trial, flirted with the court stenographer to acquire court records and convinced the photographer to give her the photos of the lynching.


She also interviewed Washington’s family, as well as the family of his purported victim, and, according to Johnston, “visited black churches in town and apologized for the behavior of whites.”


At the end of her stay in Waco, Freeman had succeeded in identifying the probable leaders of the lynch mob and left in a hurry on a ship to New York, carrying the evidence with her. 


Freeman’s investigation resulted in the first-ever special supplement to The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP.


Crisis editor W.E.B. DuBois wrote an eight-page summary of Freeman’s findings in which he warned that “the civilization of America is at stake. The sincerity of Christianity is challenged.” He published it along with graphic photos of the lynching.


News of Jesse Washington’s brutal murder spread across the country and even to Europe, prompting sharp criticism of Waco and widespread condemnation of lynching. One columnist in Palo Alto wrote that, “No outrage reported from European battlefields equals in horror the crime committed recently in Waco, Texas.”


Freeman tried desperately to find an attorney who would help bring the perpetrators to justice, but even liberal lawyers turned her down, fearing for their safety.


Nevertheless, as Bernstein explains, Freeman’s investigation helped to slowly bring lynching to an end — albeit not for moral reasons. “It was kind of a long continuum,” she says. “Gradually these towns began to get wise that this was terrible publicity for them. They decided these horrible public spectacles had to end, because they were attracting so much unwanted attention.”


Freeman did go on a speaking tour through the Midwest and East Coast, publicizing the lynching and raising money for the NAACP, but her efforts to bring justice in the case were unsuccessful.


Freeman disappeared from the public eye after World War I and eventually retired to Pasadena in 1937, where she remained “feisty and political,” according to Johnston, who cites her grand-aunt’s legacy as “one of many in my family that focused me on injustice and empowerment.”


In Pasadena, Freeman befriended Amy C. Ransome, western regional chairwoman for the National Woman’s Party and involved herself with the struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which sought to guarantee constitutional rights for women. In later years, she rarely spoke of the lynching.


Wealthy Pasadenan Kate Crane Gartz gave Freeman a small apartment on Lovila Lane in Altadena designed by famed architect Wallace Neff, and here Freeman died of pleurisy in February 1942.


A little digging at the Pasadena Central Library led me to her obituary in the Pasadena Star-News. “Miss Freeman lived the last five years of her life in Pasadena, during which time she made hosts of friends,” it read. “Her contention was that men and women are separated by unequal laws, that they share unequally in rights and privileges and have thus brought the world to a tragic and unbalanced pass.” 


Reflecting on Freeman’s work with the Jesse Washington lynching, I couldn’t help but think of the recent killing of Michael Brown — a young, unarmed black teenager in Missouri. It’s hard not to think that even now lynching persists in a more subtle form.


Perhaps we need another Elisabeth Freeman today.


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