The Undefeated, ESPN’s new content initiative exploring the intersection of sports, race and culture, launched this week and one of the initial pieces was a deeply personal story by senior writer Jesse Washington. In “The Waco Horror,” Washington explored what it meant to share a name with the victim of one of the most infamous lynchings in American history. He spoke with Front Row:
When did you first become aware of the story of what happened 100 years ago in Waco, Texas and do you recall how you learned about it?
I was working at Vibe magazine about 1997 or ’98 and had a colleague, the writer Harry Allen, who understood the Internet way before the rest of us. This was before it was common to Google your own name. One day Harry emailed me a link to the photo of Jesse Washington’s charred body. I can remember exactly where I was sitting, what my office looked like, what computer I was using — everything about the moment I first saw that photo remains clear.
– Jesse Washington
How long have you wanted to write this piece? And did you always envision it as a first-person piece?
I’ve wanted to write this piece since the moment I first saw the photo, but I was a manager and editor back then and had other priorities. In 2005/2006, when I saw all the resistance to commemorating the 90th year after the lynching, I knew I had to write it. I returned to writing in 2008 when I got the race beat for The Associated Press. At that point, I started looking for the right hook. The 100th year after the lynching was the best opportunity, although it was hard to wait that long. It was a real gift for the 100-year mark to coincide with the launch of The Undefeated. And our new site is the perfect platform for this piece because the story of the how to deal with the lynching today is all about encountering defeats, understanding them and rising above them. And not just for black folks, but for the city of Waco and America as well.
I never envisioned it as a first-person piece until I had a conversation with Steve Reiss, my editor at The Undefeated. I’ve spent my whole career detaching my emotions from my reporting, but Steve immediately recognized that I should immerse myself in this Waco experience to fully convey the depth and impact of the atrocity.
How much time did you spend researching this piece, and how long were you in Waco?
I followed this story from afar for years. One of the first things I did was read the terrific book “The First Waco Horror,” by Patricia Bernstein. I read that a few times, actually. Her book led me to the NAACP online archives, which had some incredible reporting and analysis by W.E.B. DuBois. The NAACP material helped clarify the context of why this particular lynching, out of the thousands that took place, was so important. About two years ago, I set up a Google alert to monitor news about the situation. That gave me a lot of reporting leads. Finally, in April, I went to Waco for four very intense days of reporting.
What do you hope readers will take away from this piece?
I hope readers will understand that America’s past sins, racial or otherwise, cannot be buried or erased. And that once we acknowledge these sins — only when we acknowledge them — we all can heal.