Wednesday at the Allen Chapel AME Church in Taylor, community leaders, public officials and family members of Caldwell Washington, Sr., gathered to honor his life … 85 years after they say he was lynched.
They told Washington’s story and collected a jar of soil from the spot under which Washington was found hanging.
Washington, who was black, was from Taylor where he worked in the Taylor Bedding Manufacturing Company.
News reports in 1933 said that he stabbed a white co-worker with a pocket knife, and that coworker claimed Washington gave him a “flesh wound” to his neck.
But law enforcement couldn’t find Washington after the incident, until two months later when his decomposing body was found hanging from a tree eight miles away from Taylor. Local law enforcement investigated and after two days ruled his death a suicide. He was 23 years old.
But Washington’s family never believed he died by suicide, said Johnnye Mae Washington-Patterson, Washington’s daughter who is now just shy of 85 years old.
Washington-Patterson never knew her father, but she told KXAN that her father’s death weighed heavily on her mother her entire life. Her mother told her what it was like to see her father’s body hanging, she was only able to recognize him by his wedding ring.
Washington-Patterson told the attendees at Wednesday’s event that she has learned not to hold hate in her heart and instead to focus on forgiveness.
“I will forgive because I’m hoping my story will reach somebody else,” she said.
She believes her father’s story is still relevant to the world today.
For some in attendance Wednesday like Allen Chapel AME Church Pastor Bunnie Stark, the mix of people of different ages, races, and backgrounds coming together to talk about Washington’s death seemed to be a reason to have hope for the future.
“It represents, I think, what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned that slowly — it was not gonna happen overnight. But it was gonna take years and generations to make the change. But we have to be willing to make the change. And when we see the rainbow, we begin to see the hope and the promise that we can have peace,” Stark said.
Donald Hill, Sr., the former Mayor of Taylor who has been involved with the Allen Chapel AME Church his whole life, explained that Washington’s wife used to take care of his kids and make pear preserves for his family. After 30 years serving on city council as a black man, Hill said he’s seen many instances that show him racism is still alive and well in Texas.
“There’s a lot of still hatred,” Hill said. “I can’t understand how it continues to grow, I would think it would die out, it don’t always die out.”
“Still, we have to keep moving forward,” he said.
The current mayor of Taylor, Brandt Rydell, was also in attendance Wednesday. Rydell made it clear: He believes Washington died by lynching, not suicide. In fact, he explained that the official ruling of death by suicide has been called into question because Washington’s hands were bound behind him and because he was found eight miles away from his home.
“It’s important to recognize these events in our past that we are not proud of,” Rydell said. “There are elements of darkness, and certainly the saga of Mr. Washington is one of those. It’s one of those things we can’t sweep under the rug. We need to talk about it.”
Rydell said it’s important to discuss that Taylor and Texas were not immune to the injustice that occurred during the Jim Crow era.
He added that he was touched to see Washington’s daughter speak with such forgiveness and hope for the future.
“On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, we remember that we can’t combat these sort of forces with similar forces. We can’t fight hate with hate,” Rydell said.
The community is still looking for a spot to place a permanent place to install a marker memorializing Washington’s life.
The Equal Justice Initiative is collecting the soil from the spot where Washington was found as part of the Community Remembrance Project to honor the lives of lynching victims. The soil will go in a display at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery Alabama, which will open to the public on April 28, 2018.
EJI has found through their research that “terror lynchings” and “racial terror” peaked between 1880 and 1940. They have documented 4,000 of these lynchings and say they believe that number is an undercount.