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I found a website called Lynching in Texas. It’s a project of Sam Houston State University. It documents lynchings that occurred in Texas between 1882 and 1945. The database includes 600 Texas lynchings that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Chicago Tribune, and other newspapers catalogued. I searched this site for corroboration of stories that my mother and grandmother used to tell me about lynchings around Somerville, Texas, but when I entered their town’s name in the search window, nothing came up.
Did my mother and grandmother, both now deceased, lie? Did they make up their lynching stories? While retellings over generations had lost many details, enough remained to point to the veracity of their stories. One location was a bridge over a creek outside of town. One victim was the son of the Heroines of Jericho Lodge member, Nancy Flemings.
My grandmother, Ora Dawson, was born in Lee County, Texas in 1896, and lived during a time when Texas ranked third in the states with the greatest number of lynchings of African Americans. My mother, Jessie Lee Dawson, was born in Somerville, Texas in 1936, near the end of this period. I was born in Los Angeles, California in 1964, during the Civil Rights Movement, but it was the Black Lives Matter Movement, following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, that spurred me to investigate my family’s lynching stories.
In her 1993 self-published autobiography, Yeller Gal: Memoir of a Sharecropper’s Daughter, Dawson used the word “lynched” only once in her manuscript. The same page also contained a recollection that her mother had shown her a tree where “a colored man had been hung.” It was almost as if Dawson wanted to get a couple, but not all, of her lynching stories out of the way on one page so she could resume writing about her life instead of the deaths of African Americans. Regarding Nancy Flemings, from whom her family rented pasture, she wrote: “One of her sons was lynched on the way from Caldwell, the county seat. The whites swooped down like vultures on this group of colored boys that were walking back to the Tie Plant. The boys took off running, but her son didn’t run fast enough and was beaten to death.”
I later discovered his death certificate on a genealogical website and identified Albert Flemings, age 20, as Nancy Flemings’ son lynched in Caldwell, Texas on October 21, 1926, a month shy of his 21st birthday.
However, Dr. Thomas Luther Goodnight, a white physician who signed his death certificate in Caldwell, had diagnosed “shock” as Flemings’ cause of death. Furthermore, Goodnight certified that he last saw Flemings alive on that date and had attended to him before his death at 10 in the morning. Perhaps, in his capacity as doctor, Goodnight attended to him following the “shock.” He might have even witnessed what happened and recognized his patients in the mob.
The timeline resumed with Dawson’s concluding line on what happened next – Flemings “was found dead on the side of the road when they (his brothers) went back to look for him.” Although the small print beneath Goodnight’s signature on the death certificate instructed him to state the “Means and Nature of Injury” and if it was “Homicidal,” he provided no evidence that would implicate who or what caused Flemings’ “shock.” No autopsy was performed.
The website Lynching in Texas uses “legal evidence that a person was killed” by a mob, such as newspaper articles, court testimonies, or legislative investigations. However, a network of gatekeepers squelched evidence that could be used by historians – the lynch mobs that kicked out reporters; the white supremacists who terrorized Blacks into silence; the Jim Crow laws that prohibited Blacks from testifying in court against whites; the sheriff who didn’t investigate; the justice of the peace who held no inquest; the doctor who omitted details from a death certificate.
Relying largely on newspaper articles, it is highly probable there is an undercount in the number of lynchings recorded by this project. In 1916, a crowd of 15,000 watched a mob torture, hang, and burn Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas after his conviction for raping and killing a white woman. For every well-publicized lynching, other unreported and undocumented lynchings also occurred. No “legal evidence” can be found. The stories exist only as oral narratives that survivors and witnesses recounted. When my uncle, Lacey Dawson, was found dead by his car in Somerville, in 1956, the undertaker told Ora Dawson, Lacey’s stepmother, that he didn’t die from a car accident but from a knife wound, and she should look into it. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t report it to the sheriff.
Perhaps I, too, should stop investigating the lynching of Albert Flemings nearly a century earlier. Don’t I have enough recent murders of African Americans to protest about? But I can’t let him go. I can’t forget the trauma. I learned that Albert’s brother, Fred Lee, later married into my extended family of cousins. That makes Albert Flemings related to me by marriage. He’s family. He’s my family’s Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd.
Every generation designates a family member to carry its stories to the next, to connect the past with the present. Before me was my mother, and before her was her mother. Now I’m at the end of the dynasty. My last surviving aunt has fled Texas, because of the virus, unable to plant, in Houston soil, the tree collard seeds I gave her. I’m unable to make my first pilgrimage to Albert Flemings’ grave at the Lyons Community Cemetery in Lyons. I’m unable to walk along State Highway 36 in Caldwell to hear echoes of him and his brothers talking and laughing on their way to work in the moments before their lives changed forever. I’m unable to collect a Mason jar of dirt where I imagined he had bled and died.
Andre Le Mont Wilson grew up as a Black, queer poet and writer in California. His poetry and essays have appeared or is forthcoming in such literary journals as The Sun Magazine, Rattle, RFD, Interim, Sparkle & Blink, Mom Egg Review, Genre: Urban Arts Media - Queer People of Color Anthology, and Ina: A Queer Erotic Anthology. He won Red Planet Magazine's Featured Work Contest and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He teaches storytelling, poetry, and writing to adults with disabilities in the Oakland area.