Filmmaker examines the visual legacy of a public lynching in Waco, Texas
In late spring of 1916, 15,000 residents of Waco, Texas, gathered to publicly and brutally lynch Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black youth. After a trial lasting only an hour, Washington was found guilty by an all-white jury in just four minutes for the rape and murder of the wife of a wealthy cotton farmer. Nearly a century later, Carvin Eison, an associate professor at the College at Brockport, tells the story of the events of what would become known as the “Waco Horror” in the documentary film Shadows of the Lynching Tree.
Eison told The Texas Independent how he received inspiration to make the film while attending a conference. “In 2005 I went to a conference about collective memory in Poland, where a lot of discussion was about the Holocaust and … how people remember the past,” Eison said. “There was a presentation on lynching photography, and I realized that I didn’t know anything about lynching. From that day to this day, I have been caught up in the extraordinary history of its relationship and complexity to American culture. I wanted to know for myself why as a black American man I didn’t know anything about it.”
In part, Eison’s motivation to make the film was how little the history of lynching and violence against blacks during the Jim Crow era is taught in classrooms. “I think it is somewhat of a myth that we learn a lot about civil rights and slavery and those issues in high school,” Eison said. “I didn’t know about it because we were never taught about it – what we were taught was that it happened in the Wild West, and was a passionate response to a crime to exact justice at the moment. We never learned about it in its relationship to its most important manifestation in civil rights. We never learn how extensive it was, and how important it was for controlling people. We never learn about how deeply the media, the church, and the government were involved.”
In making the film, Eison said he learned many things during his research and interviews. “One of the things I learned is that it is a very difficult subject, because we don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “People are very good at discussing civil rights and human rights in other cultures. It’s a very painful subject to talk about because the photographs show a very clear glimpse into the psychology of the community. In these photographs, the most interesting aspect is not the central subjects, but the people who wanted to be seen in the photographs. I became so overwhelmed by that.”
In the film, Eison uses stunning and graphic photographs of lynchings collected by James Allen in the book Without Sanctuary. These photographs tell the story of the brutal practice, and attempt to transport the viewer to where the lynchings took place. “Allen allowed me to use those images,” he said. “Those images form the visual evidence of the film. In studying those photographs and reading the accounts, I feel that the key to race relations in America has very much to do with lynching, which people don’t want to talk about. I can still become very emotional about it. It is an emotional experience. The way I have tried to construct the film is to bring the viewer to a lynching.”
In making the film to examine lynchings in a historical context, Eison found parallels between the rhetoric used then and today. “One of the issues that I wanted to explore was the historical significance of specific lynchings,” Eison said. “What became really interesting to me while I was exploring that was that it was during the Obama campaign I started hearing the same language being appropriated to address then Senator Obama that was used in the books I was reading. That he’s not like us, he’s not one of us.”
However, Eisen acknowledges that while some of the language is similar, most Americans’ attitudes on race have changed. “I think the vast majority of Americans have really matured and evolved,” he said. “I think the election of the president shows that, and I think the majority of the people are level-headed and can discern between incendiary rhetoric and hate speech. But there is still coded language used to marginalize people.” However, despite the progress, Eison believes that an inability to have public dialogue on race issues remains. “We haven’t taken responsibility for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow,” he said. “People are sorry and embarrassed about what happened, but they don’t know how to talk about lynching, or the the racial divide and other legacies of Jim Crow.”
The difficult subject matter and inability to acknowledge America’s troubled past may have led to Eisen’s trouble finding funding for the project until backers from another country with a troubled human rights history came forward. “The money for the project came from Germany,” he said. “Once PBS and Sundance saw what it was about they didn’t want to support it. The Germans came through because they dealt with some of the worst atrocities that humans have perpetuated against other human beings and they are much more willing to confront those issues.”
During a time when there are movements to remove elements of America’s troubled past from textbooks from Texas to Tennessee, Eison believes it is important to learn from the country’s troubled past. “We are an exceptional nation – always promoting the positive virtues of our country,” Eison said. “Unfortunately the ideas that are in my film speak of American heritage, this is not black heritage. It reminds us of a past that we’d rather forget. I was overwhelmed that there is a movement to take the word slavery out of a textbook. You can edit history all you want, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. If we forget this we are certainly doomed to repeat it. The lynching and the terrorism that happened in the name of racial supremacy happened. And they need to be addressed. We could go to very unhealthy places in this country if we are not careful.”
A screening of Shadows of the Lynching Tree will take place in the Kayser Auditorium in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business on Tuesday, March 27 from 7-9pm.