My conversations with journalists and historians did not prepare the emails I received in the winter of last year. The writer was a Chicago-based memorabilia dealer who offered to send me a photo book that included a photograph of a Texas lynching.
I replied that I would be grateful for the chance to review the album and to identify the victim.
A week later, I found five photos in the envelope, along with a cartoon and a key marked “Teddie’s pictures.”
Each photograph was numbered.
The first image was of what looked like burning wood. The idea was difficult to read. The description helped to clarify the situation.
The charred remains of Jesse Thomas can barely be seen in this photograph taken on May 27, 1922. Jeff Littlejohn
The caption read: “Burning a negro before the old City Hall in Waco, Texas.”
Revealing history lessons
I set out immediately to find the person and the story behind the “Teddie pictures.”
While I was doing this, I realized what I was about to do would have been controversial if it hadn’t been illegal if I had been a K-12 educator in Texas.
I was actually engaging in exactly the kind of historical analyses that Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Republican legislators in Texas want to ban from public schools. Greg Abbott and Republican lawmakers in Texas want to ban historical research from public schools.
In 2021, Texas Republicans, for instance, enacted Senate Bill 3 to prevent K-12 educators from teaching that “slavery and racist are anything but deviations from… the authentic founding principle of the United States, which includes liberty and equality.”
This official state interpretation states that slavery, racism, and racism’s fatal manifestation, lynching, did not serve to shape Texas history but rather were aberrations that had no fundamental meaning for Texans – or even outside the state.
The burning of Johnny Cornish and Snap Curry on May 6, 1922, in Kirvin, Texas. Jeff Littlejohn
Teddie’s album of photos, which included images of Teddie, her husband, and themselves doing everyday activities like riding donkeys or attending wedding anniversary dinners, was a direct challenge against this interpretation.
Racist mob terror
My research revealed quickly that the photos belonged to Mary “Teddie Kemp,” a white Pennsylvanian woman who moved to Waco, Texas, in 1922 with her husband, Gene Kemp.
This date was crucial because it proved that the victim in Teddie’s photo album couldn’t be Jesse Washington. The 17-year-old mentally challenged young man who died in the “Waco Horror of 1916.
In this lynching, historian Patricia Bernstein wrote that Washington was “beaten and stabbed to death, then mutilated before being burned on the Waco Town Square, in front of an audience of 15-20,000 screaming, cheering witnesses.”
The dates of the other photos in Teddie’s album make it very likely that the picture shows the pyre burning of Jesse Thomas, a 23-year-old Black man.
Thomas was falsely accused of the murder of W. Harrell Bolton and assaulting Margaret Hays, his female companion, near Waco on May 25,1922.
Sam Harris, a relative of Hays’s, shot and killed Thomas after Hays identified Thomas to be her assailant.
The white mob then burned his body in front of a crowd several thousand strong at City Hall.
White supremacy in Texas
Teddie’s photo album led her to identify Jesse Thomas, the victim. This identification only raised more questions.
Why would a white woman educated from Pennsylvania include a photo of a Black victim of lynching in her personal photo album.
Why would she place the lynching photo as the first picture in her album and take the photos out of chronological order?
Answers to these questions tell us a lot about Texas 100 years ago.
The album, in my opinion, shows the importance that Anglo Texans – even those who are new to the state – place on white supremacy.
Teddie probably pasted the photo of Jesse Thomas burning body as the cover of her album, because it was an adrenaline-charged and electrifying event that vividly illustrated the nature of Texas.
Mary Kemp’s descriptions of her photos in handwritten form. Jeff Littlejohn
As William Carrigan, a historian, has demonstrated, white superiority and racial violent served as core elements in the state’s identity.
Together they set the rules for social order, including who was allowed to vote, marry whom and attend events, as well as the punishments for breaking the rules.
The lynchings depicted in Teddie’s photo album are a direct challenge to Abbott’s and his Republican colleagues’ whitewashed version of Texas history.
The Jim Crow era in Texas was marked by a high number of lynchings – 16 in 1922 – which were the most violent manifestations of white supremacy.
When Black and Hispanic Texans challenged white authority or claimed for themselves the rights as U.S. Citizens, they faced violent on a level rarely seen in other areas of the country.
This image is from a newspaper of May 6, 1922. The caption on the photo reads: “Where three Negroes burned in Kirvin, Texas.” W.E.B. Du Bois Papers
In May 1922, for instance, white Texans committed at least 10 lynchings in a single month, which is more than any other state except Georgia in the entire year.
Eight of the Texas victims who were killed in 1922, were burned to death at the stake. This is a form of torture that many people associate today with the “Dark Ages”.
These horrific acts took place in Texas today, only a few generations back. White people captured the events on film and placed the photos in family albums.
The lynchings of Black men, women, and children in Texas a hundred years ago were not an anomaly. It was the exception. You could call it the rule of white supremacy.