The Riot at Longview, Texas (1919)

The Riot at Longview, Texas (1919)

Comparatively few people know of the race riot which was a precursor of the more serious outbreaks in Washington, Chicago and Knoxville. Last June, at Longview, in the state of Texas of ill-fame, a colored man, Lemuel Walters, was arrested and jailed on the charge of having been found in a white woman’s room. On the 22nd of June, Professor Jones, one of the leading colored citizens of Longview, stopped at the jail to deliver the colored papers, for which he was agent, and was told by three colored and one white inmate that Walters had been spirited away by a mob of white men. Subsequently the Longview Leader spoke of an unidentified Negro who had been found shot to death near the railroad. This Negro, Professor Jones believed to have been Lemuel Walters.

Thereupon Professor Jones and Dr. Davis with nine other colored citizens approached Erskine H. Bramlette, County Judge of Gregg County, and as representatives of the colored people asked for an investigation. The judge merely asked the names of the four prison inmates and counselled profound secrecy. After a brief d>2lay the committee visited the judge again. On this occasion he professed his utter powerlessness, but promised to refer the matter to the District Attorney. He also sought more information as to the names and descriptions of the prisoners who had supplied the information. Later on the reason for this interest was made clear, for when three days later Professor Jones went back to the jail, he found the prisoners had been taken away.

Thus much for the prologue.

At this point the Chicago Defender stepped in and on July 5 published a statement that the white woman whose name had been originally connected with Walters was really in love with him, would have been glad to become his wife and was deeply stricken by his death. The Defender also declared that the sheriff had seen the mob pass into the jail and was, therefore, an accessory before the fact.

The sequel was immediate. On July 10, Professor Jones was accosted and horribly beaten, struck and cut over the head with a wrench and otherwise badly injured. Even then he defended himself and managed to break away from his assailants—three white men—but he tripped, fell headlong and while still on the ground was beaten even more violently. His crime, he was told, was that of being responsible for the statement which had occurred in the Defender. Vigorously denying this charge he broke away, got some relief from his friend, Dr. Davis, and then repeated his denial in person to J. J. Ross, Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce.

But the mischief had started. Deputy Sheriff Harrison told an old colored man that Jones would be lynched before midnight unless he had already left town. Davis was told of this and consulted several prominent white men in the town, including Mayor G. A. Bodenheim. Not even the official would promise any help, but simply advised both Jones and Davis to leave town. Instead of following this advice, Dr. Davis got together a group of men and laid the matter before them. They decided to defend themselves by defending Professor Jones and Dr. Davis.

Even then Dr. Davis hoped for a change in the attitude of the whites. But when he found that, although the mayor, other officials and some leading citizens had convened, still no help was promised, he prepared for the worst. He instructed his guard to surround Jones’ house and hold themselves in readiness for an attack, but on no account was any one to shoot into the houses of white people or to fire until he himself had done so.

Close on midnight the mob came down the street. Four white men mounted the back porch and called for Jones to come out. Not until he was sure that their plan was to rush the house did Dr. Davis open fire. In the violent scrimmage which followed no colored men were killed, but it is reported that the manager of the Kelly Plow Works admitted the death of eleven white men,

The mob withdrew. Professor Davis cautiously went back to the town. There was some talk on the part of the whites of a return attack, but they seemed to lack leaders. All about were signs of confusion and distress. White women were heard lamenting the foolhardiness which had prompted their men to such an attack. Automobiles rushed back and forth, their inmates picking up the dead and wounded and carrying them back to their homes. Thus the night wore on. But at daybreak, as Dr. Davis had suspected, the mob foregathered again. This time arson was the weapon. Professor Jones’ house—from which he had already escaped—and that of Dr. Davis were burned to the ground. The family of Dr. Davis was permitted to escape. But an innocent householder and his wife who lived opposite Professor Jones lost not only their house, but were themselves shot and seriously injured.

Both Professor Jones and Dr. Davis reached a place of safety. Professor Jones hid in Longview until the following night and then got away. Dr. Davis disguised himself as a soldier, boarded a train, rode a short distance and dismounted. But his really difficult moments passed when through a misunderstanding he arrived at the station two hours too early for the train by which he hoped to continue his flight. He dared not risk returning to the friends who had been protecting him. It was equally inadvisable for him to show anxiety or fear. So he bought popcorn, soft drinks and the like, and hung about the station—laughing, singing, eating and shooting “crap” in most approved “darky” style. Finally the train came up with colored soldiers in it. He made his plight known to them and was supplied with an overseas cap and gas mask which made his disguise complete.

The riot at Longview has two aspects. First, simply and solely it is a fair sample of the lawlessness which at present is stalking restlessly through the nation, Secondly, it is indicative of the attitude which Negroes are determined to adopt for the future. As the Associated Press report (it appeared, by the way, in a Longview paper), has it: “Negroes are not planning anything, but will defend themselves if attacked.”

Citation: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 1919. “The Riot at Longview, Texas.” The Crisis. 18(6):291–292.