Biographical Non-Fiction posted April 17, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
Based on oral histories.

Boxcar: Part 2

by Sis Cat

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.

“Well, the White Caps were furious because that was the first time that a black man had killed a white man in their area.”
“Who were the White Caps?”
“Well, they were a group of white vigilantes who rode around wearing hoods on their heads like the Ku Klux Klan. They lynched train robbers, horse thieves, and Negroes. When they captured Tom, they tied him to a boxcar. They tortured him and forced his wife and daughter to watch. They then set the boxcar on fire.”
“They set the boxcar on fire?”
“Yes, they set the boxcar on fire. Sometimes white mobs not only lynched blacks but they burned them alive, especially if they were accused of raping a white woman or killing a white man. Up in Maryville, Missouri ten years ago, a mob dragged a black man from the sheriff’s car, chained him to the roof of a schoolhouse, drenched it with gasoline, and burned him alive.”
“Wow, they burned the whole schoolhouse down?”
“Yes, they burned their whole little white schoolhouse down to the ground, because the man had raped and killed the teacher, and confessed. They moved all of the desks and chairs out onto the lawn, chained him to the ridgepole, and set the school on fire. Two thousand people and the National Guard cheered as the man struggled and screamed when the flames reached him. He burned alive and the school collapsed in a pile of embers.”
“So, great grandfather Tom burned to death tied to a boxcar?”
“No, a group of Freemasons arrived. They’re the ones who helped Tom get established in Indiana. When they saw their friend screaming and bleeding as the flames reached him, they told the White Caps, ‘Don’t you know this kind of stuff has to end? It’s now illegal.’ They chased the White Caps off and put the fire out. The Masons untied Tom from the boxcar, but he was badly injured.”
The campfire crackled. Mama Jennie threw a branch on it. Sparks flew in the air. Julia stirred and returned to sleep. Freddie inhaled wood smoke and exhaled. “What happened next?”
“Well, the Masons were scared that the White Caps would retaliate and lynch them, too, and finish killing Tom. At the time, fraternal organizations fancied themselves as tribes with lodges and they would sometimes wear Indian clothes. Someone came up with the idea, ‘Why don’t we dress like Indians and row Tom, Elizabeth, and Jennie across the Ohio River into Kentucky? He’s not safe here.’ And that is exactly what they did. They dressed as Indians and rowed Tom and his family across the Ohio at night. They hid them in a cabin, but Tom’s injuries from the whipping and burning were so bad he died the next day. The Masons took his body and buried him in secret and with dignity.”
Freddie raised his head. “Why did the Masons bury him in secret?”
“Well, at the time and still today, when a white mob burned a Negro they would collect his fingers, teeth, bones, and privates as souvenirs.”
The boy winced and covered his crotch.
“It was important that the Masons hide Tom’s body so that the White Caps would not dig it up, burn it again, and tear it apart. They rowed Elizabeth and Julia back across the Ohio to their farm and left them. But after they left, a white mob led by White Caps broke into her cabin and demanded, ‘Where’s Tom?’
“Elizabeth said, ‘He’s in a place where you’ll never find him. He’s dead.’
“They beat her and said, ‘Where’s the body?’

“But she would not tell them. They tortured her some more and threatened Jennie, who was screaming.
“Well, the Masons had posted a lookout on the farm. They sent for reinforcements. A large group of Masons rode up with guns and chased the White Caps off again. The family couldn’t stay there. The Masons helped them escape. Elizabeth and Julia left with everything they could carry, especially the tobacco. The Masons escorted them across the Wabash River to the Illinois side and helped them reestablish their tobacco farm. ‘Til the day she died in 1920, Elizabeth never said a word about where her husband was buried. The White Caps always tried to find out. Those hooded men rode their horses up and down the countryside, searching for Tom’s grave. They wanted to finish burning the body of the first black man to kill a white man in their area, but they never found his body. No one knew where great grandfather Thomas was buried.”
A silence followed the story as the boy absorbed it. He searched his memory and shared another story. “I remember you telling me about the boy named Eugene in Chicago. He was born before I was born. One day, he went swimming in Lake Michigan and didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to swim on the white side of the beach. A white guy threw rocks at him and hit him in the head and he drowned. And people got really mad.”
“Yes, that was the Red Summer of 1919. There were race riots all over the country. White mobs tried to burn us out of the South Side of Chicago.”
“And then I come to California and I can’t even go swimming in the river right in front of us. Me and Julia have to walk all the way upriver to Murray’s Ranch, because they have the only pool for Negroes in the whole valley. . . .” The boy trailed off and grew silent. He looked away—far away over the Rainbow Bridge whose steel beams arched across the Mojave River to the side he can never visit.
Mama Jennie’s hand clasped his chin and piloted his head back to face her. “What’s wrong?”
Freddie shrugged, and then muttered. “I don’t know. I was kind of hoping that things here would be—different.”
“Yes, Freddie, things are different, although it doesn’t seem like it now.” She removed her hand from Freddie’s chin. Her arm swept to take in the whole expanse of the campsite below and stopped at the boxcar behind them.  “Our own camp is segregated. You have the black folks all living up here in the heat and the white folks all living down there by the cool water. I was born before the Great War and now the whole world is in another Great War. Seems the whole world is on fire this time, the flames licking at you. The past keeps repeating itself. It takes different forms, but it’s still the same ole past. Freddie, you have to give time time to change.”
Mama Jennie paused to listen to the hooting and fiddling from campers in the Mojave River bottoms. “The past is not the past. It will always follow you. It’s when you ignore it, that it will bite you on your heels to let you know that it’s still there. It’s important for us to know our own history. We, and no other people, hold the key to our own history and destiny.”
The boy listened with resignation to an uncertain future. How can things repeat themselves and not change? His stomach growled and he asked a question even though he knew the answer. “What’s for dinner?”
That night, Freddie had a dream. He dreamt he was asleep, swaddled in blankets on the wooden floor of the boxcar.
Who, who, who—who. Who, who, who—who.
An owl outside awoke him. He stirred and rubbed his eyes. He could barely make out in the darkness the hung bedsheet separating his side of the boxcar from Mama Jennie’s and Julia’s side where they slept. He staggered to his feet and groped his way to the entrance. The cool night air enveloped him. He looked out over the riverside camp which rested silent except for the owl.
Who, who, who—who.
He stepped outside. The dirt crunched beneath his feet. He followed the owl’s hoot down the embankment towards the river. He passed the bedsheet tents of the segregated white area of the campsite. No one stirred to stop him. The closer he approached the owl, the further away it hooted.
Who, who—.
The hoots stopped when Freddie reached the shore of the Mojave. Across the river, which undulated and hissed like a black snake, he saw four horsemen. One held a torch aloft and Freddie could see that the four men wore white hoods over their heads like pillowcases. Crude holes served for eyes. Their horses also wore white hoods, as if the beasts had run through clothes lines. He could make out that one horseman held what appeared to be a long stick—a rifle? Another held something coiled at his side—a rope? And still another held something curved—a whip?
Freddie shuddered. His heart raced. White Caps in California?
He watched them and they watched him from the other side of the river, and then the rider with the torch advanced. The hooves of his horse splashed in the water. The other horsemen followed.
Freddie turned and ran up the embankment, plunging through the thicket whose branches stung his face. The splashing of water resounded behind him. He turned and saw that the bedsheets of tents had formed eyes. The ghost-eyed sheets drifted from their moorings and followed him like stingrays.
He ran. The splashing behind him changed to the pounding of horse hooves. They reached his side of the river.
He crested the embankment and rushed the boxcar. His body slammed against the closed door. His fists pounded. “Mama Jennie, let me in!”
No one stirred inside. He tried the door. It remained stuck. Horses pounded and crashed through the thicket behind him. He turned. His arms spread-eagled on the splintered side of the boxcar. The flickered torch approached through the cottonwoods. The light intensified. Its heat warmed his face. He looked at his wrists and saw that ropes had tied them to the boxcar. How? Ropes had tied his ankles, too. He tugged at the ropes but could not move. He heaved. His breath chugged like a steam engine. The four horsemen topped the embankment. An army of ghost-eyed bedsheets swarmed behind them.
Freddie awoke screaming.


Story of the Month contest entry



FREDDIE (Fred Wilson) black boy of about twelve, son of Mama Jennie, and father of author, Andre Wilson

MAMA JENNIE (Jennie Moore) black woman of about thirty, mother of Freddie and Julia and grandmother of author, Andre Wilson

JULIA, black girl of about eight, daughter of Mama Jennie and sister of Freddie

THOMAS HARRISON (Tom), former slave and the great grandfather of Freddie

ELIZABETH HARRISON, former slave and mistress of a tobacco planter, wife of Tom and mother of Jennie

JENNIE HARRISON, former slave, daughter of a planter and Elizabeth

FREEMASONS, a fraternal order of men dedicated to public service

WHITE CAPS, Ku Klux Klan-like vigilante group which executed their version of justice in a form of a noose in Southern Indiana after the Civil War


One of the gruesome tasks I undertook while researching this story was to read accounts of lynchings of African Americans as white mobs, racist groups, and local, state, and federal governments used terror to roll back the gains of former slaves following Emancipation. I wanted to know where my great great grandfather's near lynching and burning fit into the continuum of lynchings and burnings throughout America. Given the time and location of his boxcar incident, his torture and near burning may have been the work of the vigilante group the White Caps who operated in Southern Indiana at that time. Note also that the incidents that my ancestors and family experienced on my father's side all occurred in the North or the West, and not in the South.

During World War II when I placed Mama Jennie telling the "Boxcar" story to my father, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the United States government to seriously investigate and prosecute lynchings because Adolf Hitler started propagandizing that Americans treated African Americans worse than the Germans treated the Jews. To my grandmother and father, the lynchings were recent events. The mass lynchings that swept America following the Civil War abated before the launch of the Civil Rights Movement. Read Douglas Blackmon's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Slavery By Another Name."

What I most learned was that my great great grandfather's rescue by Freemasons was extraordinary. After I posted my story, a clue from a reviewer led me to find Daryl Andrews' book "Masonic Abolitionists: Freemasonry and the Underground Railroad in Illinois." It recounts Masonic lodges in Illinois and neighboring states which helped slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, the Masons remained active in helping former slaves.

This explains a lot of things in the story my ancestors passed down to me: the ability of the Masons to arrive in the nick of time, ferry people stealthily across rivers and borders, use safe houses, and engage in intelligence. Even though Thomas died, the Masons won this skirmish by hiding his body and carrying his family to safety. I have just begun to read this book. It may give me corroborating accounts of my story with exact dates, location, and the names of the Masons who helped my ancestors. I am deeply grateful for the assistance the they rendered my family. These Americans are the heroes of this story.

While writing story, I got little sleep. An owl kept awakening me to write and I had nightmarish visions of being tied to a boxcar and burned. I used my nightmare by imagining what my father must have dreamed while living in a boxcar after his mother told him that his great grandfather was tied to a boxcar and burned. My story finished, I can now get some sleep.

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