- The Cabiness Family Lynching: Race, War, and Memory in Walker County, Texas
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“I don’t know for sure that this is true,” Thomas Anders, a native of Walker County, Texas, reported in his manuscript, Memoirs of a Country Boy, “but I heard that there were two colored brothers who supposedly roughed up one of the members of the Draft Board . . . during World War I.” The black youngsters intended to teach the local draft officer a lesson, but, before they could, “a bunch of [white] men . . . went out to where the brothers lived, and . . . shot ’em.” It was a brutal killing, Anders recalled. The white mob “forced ’em into the[ir] house” and “burned the[ir] whole family—men, women, and children.” The murder of the Cabiness family proved so traumatic, in fact, that, even years after the event, “old colored men” on the Huntsville square continued to talk about the ill-fated brothers and their lingering ghosts.1 [End Page 1]
Anders’s recounting of the Cabiness family lynching near Huntsville, Texas, covers the event like a shroud, revealing the broad outline of the story, but concealing its true horror. A white mob in Walker County did, indeed, target and kill George Cabiness, his mother, Sarah, and four of his siblings between May 30 and June 1, 1918. Although the Walker County sheriff, Tom E. King, the Huntsville city marshal, C. B. Birmingham, and the Dodge, Texas, justice of the peace, Sam Roark, were all identified as members of the mob, these law enforcement officers did nothing to prevent the burning of the Cabiness home or the murder of its inhabitants. Not only does Anders’s narrative miss this important fact, laying blame for the event on the Cabiness boys themselves, but it, like contemporary news stories and more recent reference articles, fails to place the lynching in historical context or to explain who the victims and perpetrators of the crime actually were. So, even now, one hundred years after the events of 1918, the facts and figures involved in the Cabiness lynching remain a mystery.2
This article seeks to move beyond the vague memories and deliberate silences that have surrounded the Cabiness lynching by providing the first in-depth study of the crime based on archival research. The authors of this article have examined hundreds of pages of census records, court reports, property deeds, and newspaper stories while also consulting a half-a-dozen local authorities on Walker County history. The result is a story that stretches from the antebellum days in Walker County, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and on to World War I and the “Red Summer” of 1919. It is a story about black slavery and white supremacy, about the search for freedom and the limits of democracy, and, most of all, it is a story about African American agency and white violence in the New South at the turn of the twentieth century.
This story is not new to Texas. Over the last fifteen years, numerous scholars, including William Carrigan, Patricia Bernstein, Gary Borders, Cynthia Skove, and Nicholas Villanueva Jr., have examined lynching in the Lone Star State. Their books have explored the development of a lynching culture in Texas, the role that European immigrants played in lynchings, and the way in which particularly gruesome stories, like the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, might shed light on the past [End Page 2] as well as the present.3 While these studies have provided new insights into the practice of lynching, they generally focus on the perpetrators of these deplorable acts of racial violence. As Amy Kate Bailey and Stewart E. Tolnay argue in their book, Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence, “one of the greatest gaps in our knowledge about...