One hundred years ago this week, a series of racially motivated events placed Longview under martial law and garnered national media attention.
Accounts of what happened in the Longview race riot of July 10 to 14, 1919, varied depending largely on the storyteller’s skin color, leaving in doubt some facts, such as whether there were more deaths than what historical records show.
Over time, journalists and researchers took the mantle to piece together what happened during those five days. They include Kenneth R. Durham of the East Texas Historical Journal and author William Tuttle, who in 1972 wrote “Violence in a ‘Heathen’ Land: the Longview Race Riot of 1919.”
In 2005, LeTourneau University student Jared Wheeler relied on those accounts, newspaper articles and library records to write a research paper about the Longview riots.
“It was clear that it was something that was not talked about let alone taught around town, which was surprising but also not surprising,” said Wheeler, now a public schoolteacher living in Waco.
Wheeler leaned heavily on research from Durham and Tuttle, and he noticed that the amount of information available on the riots was limited and often was biased.
“The two main sources had a lot of discrepancies because there were two sides that were being told about who was at fault,” Wheeler said.
“There were two very, very different narratives,” he said noting that one narrative displayed a “positive light that didn’t make sense with what I knew of the time period .”
Mandel Stoker is a Longview resident whose years of on-the-ground digging inspired him to write a historical fiction book called “Foote Switch” that is based on a romantic relationship believed to have sparked the riots.
“We’ve come a long ways, but for some reason, it’s still being ignored by our politicians, our leaders — our white leaders in particular,” Stoker said of race relations. “It’s a wound.”
A Red Summer
Longview’s riot happened during what was know as the “Red Summer,” a period between May and October in 1919 when 25 major racial conflicts occurred across the United States, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
An article in the July 10, 1919, issue of the Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper for primarily black readers, described the death of a young black man, Lemuel Walters, in Longview. Walters and an unnamed white woman from Kilgore had a romantic relationship, according to the article. Walters was locked in the Gregg County Jail, but then-Sheriff D.M. Meredith released him to a white mob that murdered him June 17, 1919.
“The sheriff’s story,” Wheeler said, “was that he put this guy on a train to get him out of town because he knew people were coming for him, and then the mob found him and pulled him off the train and lynched him.”
Accounts from black residents differed from the sheriff’s.
“The claim of the local black community was that the sheriff turned him over to the mob, or told the mob where he was going to be or one of those two things,” Wheeler said.
Between July 10 and early July 11, a prominent black schoolteacher believed to have written the Chicago Defender newspaper article was beaten by two brothers of the white woman from Kilgore, and a gunfight at the teacher’s house resulted in injuries to at least four white men, according to Durham.
A larger white mob later would set fire to the teacher’s home, black physician Calvin P. Davis’ home, homes of other black residents and a black dance hall, leading local officials to call on Gov. William P. Hobby for help. The governor ordered as many as 250 guardsmen and eight Texas Rangers to Longview by July 13, placing the city under martial law and requiring all of its residents and peace officers to surrender their firearms at the courthouse.
Davis’ father-in-law, Marion Bush, was killed July 12 after he fled from the sheriff, marking the only reported death of the four-day ordeal.
Stoker believes there were more casualties.
“People were being killed. A lot of it wasn’t put in the papers,” Stoker said. “We’ll never know everything that happened, but I talked to some older people who had fathers walking around during that time who said it was one of the saddest times in Longview.”
The descendants of the white woman romantically involved with Walters still live in Gregg County, Stoker said, but he’s withholding their identities while he prepares for filming of his screenplay about the Longview riot.
“One day, it will come out,” he said. “I just don’t want to use it now from a business standpoint.”
The events leading to Bush’s death are foremost in Wheeler’s research of the riot, he said.
After the altercation involving his son-in-law Davis, Bush received a visit from the sheriff, who offered to place him in protective custody.
“The community was on edge and didn’t have any great reason to trust the sheriff very much,” Wheeler said. Bush told the sheriff that he was going back into his house to grab something, but then he “turned off all of the lights in the house, and he comes back out with a gun and starts shooting at the sheriff, so the sheriff drops down and ... rolls under the porch.”
Meredith, the sheriff, only recently started carrying a gun and hadn’t grown accustomed to it, so he fumbled trying to grab his pistol while rolling under the porch, Wheeler said. Bush ran through his house and out the back door.
The sheriff finally gets his gun out “and fires after the guy and misses every single shot,” Wheeler said.
“The stories kind of make (Meredith) sound like an Andy Griffith type of guy where he was just kind of a good ole boy and didn’t carry a gun,” he continued. “The way it makes the sheriff look, I think it gives you the best idea of what kind of law enforcer he was and how ungood he was at his job. ... But yeah, that’s my favorite bit.”
Reports suggest Bush tried to escape to Camp Switch near White Oak where he could escape by train, but he was killed by a white farmer en route.
The Rangers arrested 17 white men, charging them with attempted murder. Each was released on $1,000 bond, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Nine white men were charged with arson.
The Rangers also arrested and charged 21 black men and sent them to Austin “for their own safety,” according to the historical association. No one ever went to trial, but many of the black men were told upon their release in Austin to avoid returning to Longview.
“They said, ‘You can’t go back to your property. You’ve got to leave Longview forever,’ ” Stoker said.
Riots and even mass killings of black people weren’t a new thing in 1919. Almost nine years before, a massacre in Slocum near Palestine left between eight and 22 black residents dead , according to historical reports.
During World War I, labor shortages in urban factories often were fulfilled by black men as white men enlisted in the military, but working class white workers resented the competition, according to thoughtco.com .
The war ended in November 1918. Stoker and other researchers said black soldiers who fought for the victorious Allies realized the impact they made and could continue to make on the world, but many of them returned to a segregated South controlled by Jim Crow laws and white supremacy.
Black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” said Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of “Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I” in The Smithsonian Magazine.
“The blacks were trying to prove that, ‘Hey, we’re human beings. We’re men. We want to fight. Let us go fight,’ and they did,” Stoker said of black soldiers .
‘Doesn’t surprise me’
The race riot of 1919 is but one of many racially charged events in Longview’s history.
Longview also made national headlines over the 1970 bus bombings.
Despite that, Stoker sees a lot of good in his hometown, now and during the riot. He noted that white people hid and fed black people until they were finally arrested by the Rangers.
“We have good white people in Longview. We’ve always had good white people in Longview ... and always probably will,” Stoker said, “but there is a section. There is a part of it that’s ugly in Longview — the racism. That’s why we’ve had those incidents that have happened, because there is some ugly, evil, racial people here in Longview — not all of them, but some of them.”
Wheeler remembers being a bit astonished but not really surprised that few people in Longview knew about or would talk about the race riot of 1919, given the town’s tensions and how people at that time didn’t want to let the outside world know what was going on.
“It surprises me that it doesn’t show up in the research,” he said, “but it doesn’t surprise me that it happened. Surely there were more repercussions for the black community given what I saw.”