When Fort Worth writer E.R. Bills began researching a century-old massacre of African-Americans in East Texas a few years back, he found a community still deeply divided by race.
“When you enter Anderson County, you have to set your watch back several decades,” he said.
Despite denials and obstruction from local officials, Bills finished his book, The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas. As the book recounts, the exact cause of the mass killing of unarmed black men, women, and children over three days has never been clear. Because many of the bodies were left in the woods or buried in mass graves, the exact number of dead is also unknown. Newspapers at the time put the numbers anywhere from 8 to 22, but other researchers have suggested the death toll was as high as 200. Seven white suspects were indicted, none convicted.
Bills’ work led him to join an effort by several of the massacre victims’ descendants to have a historical marker placed in Slocum to commemorate the tragedy. As with the book, Bills said, local officials have fought the effort. State officials found the marker request to be a well-documented and deserving piece of history, and the Texas Historical Commission went outside its usual procedures to approve the marker without local officials’ concurrence.
However, local opposition continues. County officials may be able to delay the marker for another year, and one county commissioner predicted that, if it were erected, the marker would be torn down.
Constance Hollie-Jawaid, a Dallas schools administrator, lost ancestors in the slaughter. Her family has been working for decades to get the marker. Her great-great-grandfather Jack Hollie was a freed slave who moved to Slocum and amassed 700 acres of farmland there. His son Marsh developed the farm into one of the largest in the area.
“They were very prosperous,” Hollie-Jawaid said. “Some [back then] would say too prosperous.”
Marsh escaped the massacre but lost a brother, a nephew, and several cousins. The killings were devastating for the family, Hollie-Jawaid said, both in loved ones murdered and in the loss of everything they had worked to build. Marsh eventually resettled in nearby Palestine, where Constance was born several decades later.
After hearing Hollie-Jawaid on a Dallas radio program, Bills reached out to her. It was then that she learned of his book, and he learned about her family’s efforts to get the historical marker.
Applications for such markers are initially handled by county historical commissions before being sent to the Texas Historical Commission. At first, Hollie-Jawaid said, state and Anderson County officials denied outright that the massacre had happened.
“They acted like this was a fairy tale that we were making up,” she recalled. “We’d be laughed at and not helped with requests for certain things. With the advent of the internet, things really started to move.”
Bills learned that attempts in the 1980s to get a similar marker erected in neighboring Houston County, where black citizens fleeing the massacre had sought refuge, had also been stymied. G.J. Hays, a physician sympathetic to the massacre victims, had corresponded with Eliza Bishop, then chairwoman of that county’s historical commission, about getting a marker.
Barbara Wooten, who more recently chaired that commission, said a cache of letters between Hayes and Bishop was discovered in Bishop’s home after she died in 2011.
“I’m not going to say [Bishop] deliberately hid the application,” Wooten said. “The community was hostile toward [this marker] then, and they are still hostile toward it now. She knew it was going to upset white folks.”
With the recent media exposure, Wooten said, her commission would support creation of such a marker but that someone outside the commission would have to request it.
Bills and Hollie-Jawaid’s first big break came in 2011 when then-State Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth sponsored a resolution, which the Texas Legislature approved, acknowledging the atrocity.
“Racial tensions ran high in Slocum,” Veasey said at the time. “It was an unfortunate occurrence that went unnoticed in Texas history for many years.”
A week after the resolution passed, the Anderson County Commissioners Court raised the Confederate flag over their courthouse for the first time since 2001, citing a recently proclaimed countywide Confederate History and Heritage Month. The timing was unsettling for Bills and Hollie-Jawaid. Some residents made it clear that the two might be in physical danger when they visited the area.