Mr. W and Forgotten History Fridays

I would like to introduce you to Mr. W and his AP US History class. I invite you to accompany him and his students on their journey to learn about history outside of their textbooks.

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“Who can tell me about the Slocum Massacre?” Mr. W asked to an eager classroom. His 11th grade students were now sitting up in their seats in anticipation of another “Forgotten History Friday”. The last few minutes of class each week had become a weekly tradition- a chance for the students to learn another piece of history that was not found in their textbooks. Some weeks the lessons were funny, other weeks inspiring. Today though, the students had a sense of dread as Mr. W asked the question, his ominous tone giving a hint of the lesson to come.

“Something bad?” Jenny asked, hesitantly. This garnered a low rumble of laughter from the class, though this was more reserved than normal and it was obvious no one had heard of this event. This did not surprise Mr. W. Unfortunately, he was used to this event being unknown or purposely forgotten over the years. He took a deep breath and started slowly, as this was one lesson he did not want his pupils to take lightly.

“Yes, Jennifer. You are correct. In the first decade of the 20th century, there grew a community of African-Americans in a city in East Texas, named Slocum.” At this last statement, a groan passed through the classroom, the loudest one coming from Max. He was the class president, class clown, and secretly one of Mr. W’s favorite students. His intelligence was matched by his heart and desire to learn. But, he had just interrupted Mr. W’s lesson which warranted him one of Mr. W’s notoriously harsh inquiries. “Care to explain, Maximus?”

“No Sir, I’ll let you tell it. My apologies.” Max tried to hide his growing frustration by being overly polite.

“Well, don’t hold it in. If you have something to say, share it with the class.” Mr. W. replied, in a more encouraging tone.

“I don’t want to ruin your lesson but early 1900’s in Texas, a majority black community, and the title of the story is the town’s name, Slocum, Massacre. I mean, if I had to guess, I’d say something happened between the black people of Slocum and white people from another town and the black people- either all or most- were slaughtered by the white people. And because we’ve never heard of it, no one was probably ever actually punished for it. It was swept under the rug of atrocities that are no longer spoken of. And those families…” Max’s speech had quickened and at this, his voice was starting to rise. Rather than stop him, Mr. W decided to let him finish his thought. “…Those families probably left their homes, lost their belongings; lost their fathers, brothers, sisters, and mothers. Nobody ever paid reparations and I am willing to bet that no one can or will really say how many people were ACTUALLY killed during this horrendous event.”

The other students in Mr. W’s 11th grade AP US History class were in stunned silence, looking from Max to Mr. W and back to Max. This wasn’t the first time Mr. W had decided on a tough topic for “Forgotten History Friday” and over the course of the year, the students had become more willing to tackle the tough topics head on. This deduction from Max was yet another reason why Mr. W enjoyed having the young leader in his class.

Mr. W wanted Max’s words to sink in with his classmates, yet he knew those same students were waiting on his validation. With a sad, yet relieved look on his face, Mr. W. finally broke the silence. “Yes class, Maximus is correct on all accounts.” Chatter started immediately, as the students tried to process what they had just heard. Knowing that more questions would follow, Mr. W. tried to calm everyone down. “Alright class, would you like to know the full story?” A unanimous “yes” arose in response. Mr. W proceeded to explain the events that led up to July 29, 1910 in Slocum, Texas.

He described the largely African-American town 100 miles east of Waco, which even had some black-owned businesses. The opposing sentiments of adulation amongst the black community and disbelieving anger amongst the white community after Jack Johnson (an African-American) had defeated James Jeffries (a white man) in the heavy weight world championship. He told the class that that fight was a topic worthy of its own Friday. The lingering bad feelings after a white man tried to collect a disputed debt from a well-respected black citizen. The tipping point for a prominent white citizen coming when a black man was put in charge of gathering people for a road improvement project.

To ensure this stuck with his class, Mr. W quoted from an article discussing the incident, “Rumors spread, warning of threats against Anglo citizens and plans for race riots. White malcontents manipulated the local Anglo population and, on July 29, white hysteria transmogrified into bloodshed.” As he paused for a moment, he noticed the color had been drained from some of his students’ faces.

“Transmogrify?” Benjamin asked quietly, breaking the silence that had swept over the classroom.

“To transform in a surprising or magical matter.” Ade answered, even her normally chipper voice subdued.

“Nothing magical about this.” Geoffrey retorted, his carefree attitude evaporated like water on a hot summer day in West Texas.

Mr. W knew these were tough stories- egregious events- for teenagers to hear. But they were old enough and deserved to know that not everything about this beautiful country was pure and perfect. He went on to tell them about the two-day event in which, according to William Black, Sheriff at the time, “Men were going about killing Negroes as fast as they could find them, and so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause. I don’t know how many were in the mob, but there may have been as many as 200 or 300.”

He discussed the 150 African-American ministers that penned a letter to President Taft imploring him to act, and the response from the attorney general. He finished with the trial- no one was ever prosecuted or held accountable. Understanding he may have taken it a bit too far- some students looking sick to their stomachs- Mr. W. wanted to bring everything together before the dismissal bell released his students for the extended weekend.

“You may be wondering why I decided on telling you about this event in history this week. One, it’s history that has been buried and forgotten; unfortunately, some of the recent events have caused me to appreciate the famous quote, ‘those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.’ Two, I want you to understand the significance of this event. In other towns in that region black people make up on average 20 percent of the population; in Slocum, it’s around 7 percent. And lastly, I agree with what is inscribed on the bottom of the historical marker commemorating the event and those lives lost: ‘Only by shining a light on previous injustices can we learn from them and move toward a future of greater healing and reconciliation’. “

He paused, making eye contact with each one of his students. “We need to be aware of the horrendous events that have happened in our country over the years or we will be lulled into a false sense of security instead of continuing to work together to make this a more perfect union, obtaining true equality for all people.”

As if the school bell had decided to let Mr. W impart some final wisdom on his pupils, it rang right as the last syllable sounded. “Have a wonderful weekend, class! Do your own research. And don’t forget your history.” For once, Mr. W was sure this last statement would hold true.

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I hope that from this first episode you understand my purpose behind Forgotten History Fridays. Though the characters are my own creation, the Slocum Massacre is an actual historical event. Any thoughts or constructive feedback is welcome.

-David A. Brown-Dawson, 11 March 2017

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