Burning a living, breathing human being at the stake is never simply a matter of murder or lynching. It’s an act of terror, monstrosity and madness, and the resultant damage, in terms of moral, cultural and sociological ruin are hardly quantifiable. When the citizens of Paris, Texas burned an African American named Henry Smith at the stake in 1893, the Boston Post was unequivocal: “Civilization Seemingly Dead in Texas.” When the citizens of Waco burned a mentally-handicapped African American named Jesse Washington at the stake in 1916, the San Francisco Bulletin summed it up plainly: “Waco did more than burn a Negro; she burned her own courage, decency and character, outraged the imaginations of her young people, and smeared a foul disgrace across her civic life.”The first instances of these barbarities in Texas occurred in the 1860s and continued until 1933. These human conflagrations pocked our geography and, far from being ashamed, we seemed to take great pride in them. We defied the rule of law, defied our elected officials and defended our loathsome behavior to anyone who would hear us. We did not tremble or cower.
These atrocities were staged like they were the events of the season in the communities that perpetrated them, like county fairs or 4th of July picnics. And later, of course, they were often characterized as jovial “roasts” or “barbecues” and commemorated with popular, graphic postcards.So coveted and culturally entrenched were these insane rituals that the citizens of Sherman actually burned down their own courthouse to get to an African American suspect in 1930, and then attacked the Texas Rangers, severed the hoses of fire departments (who came to put out the flames), turned back their own state militia and then put the torch to the suspect. The sitting governor was left with no choice but to declare martial law in that city for two weeks, specifically stipulating that white citizens were forbidden to congregate in groups of more than three persons on or near the courthouse square.
Most of the audience will not be aware that, from a period roughly extending from the Civil War to the Great Depression, white Texans—as historian Walter I. Buenger put it— “specialized in burning blacks alive.” Dozens met their demise by a Texas torch and very few Texans much less Americans realize how prevalent and popular the practice was across the country. In fact, just after the 1905 burning at the stake of an African American named Steve Davis near Waxahachie, writer and historian John H. Spears sarcastically noted in the New York Times that Thomas Edison’s new Kinetoscope should be utilized to record one of these incidents, because it would make someone a fortune in the movie houses of the day. The aim of Event of the Seasonwill be to introduce audiences to this heretofore little- explored pattern of inhumanity and present the details, circumstances and consequences that make this history continue to reverberate in our collective conscience today.
EVENT OF THE SEASON is a fiscally sponsored project of the Austin Film Society. You can make a donation to this project using the form below. You will receive a letter acknowledging your gift to the Austin Film Society on behalf on the project. Since AFS is a non-profit organization, your donation may be deducted from your taxes as a charitable contribution under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service code.
About the Directors
Director Paul Beck was an animator for Keith Maitland’s award-winning 2016 documentary Tower, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) and the head of animation on Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (2006). Beck has worked with David Byrne, the Black Eyed Peas, Molotov, etc., winning one Grammy and one MTV Video of the Year Award.
Writer E. R. Bills recent book, The Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas (2014) led to a much-contested but successful campaign to place the first historical marker in Texas that specifically acknowledges racial violence against African Americans.