Shortly after a horrific lynching in downtown Temple in July 1915, a black journalist from Chicago arrived in town, cautious but unafraid.
The traveling correspondent, Charles Stewart, wrote about his impressions of the county in the Broad Axe, a black newspaper based in Chicago. His experiences gave him the opportunity to speak out about race relations.
Now, nearly a century later, the Bell County Museum is featuring an exhibit on the struggle for racial equality. This is a world that Stewart could only dream about a century ago.
The Rev. Roscoe Harrison, who covered Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral for Jet magazine, will be the speaker at a free program at the museum at 2 p.m. Saturday. His talk is sponsored in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibit, “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights.”
A former director of community affairs at Scott & White Healthcare, Harrison produces the news program “Focus” for KNCT-TV. He also serves as pastor of Eighth Street Baptist Church in Temple.
A century ago, black journalists, such as Stewart, were rarely welcome or respected by their white peers. A Kentucky native, Stewart (1869-1925) was a newspaper correspondent and press agent for the National Baptist Convention.
Stewart was also an ordained Baptist minister and a popular speaker. His pseudonyms varied with circumstances, such as “Charles E. Stump,” “The Rambler” and “J.O. Midnight.” Often, he was relegated to ride in boxcars because whites got priority on passenger seats. Still, Stewart didn’t complain — much.
The 1915 lynching of Will Stanley in Temple made national news. An African-American, Stanley was accused of a horrific murder of three children and brutal assaults of their parents. However, a crowd of vigilantes stormed the jail soon after his arrest, killed him and set fire to his body in a raucous public spectacle.
Photos and news accounts spread throughout the white and black presses as an example of Texas-style “justice.” To add insult to the indignity, picture postcards of Stanley’s burned body circulated throughout the nation.
Stewart’s sojourn in the county was one of many here. “I am now unable to tell you how I felt in that town in Texas the place where the young man was burned at the stake a few weeks before. It is still in the memory of the people,” Stewart wrote in August 1916.
When he joined the Broad Axe in 1900, he gained a wide audience and freedom to travel throughout the country — especially in the South under increasingly restrictive Jim Crow laws. He came with solid journalist credentials. Before he joined the Broad Axe, Stewart worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Chicago Inter Ocean.
The Broad Axe was widely circulated and well read. A black journalist who was a self-described heathen launched the paper in 1895 in Salt Lake City. Utah had few black residents. Tired of being treated as a second-class citizen, oppressive religious and all matter of racism, the editor single-handedly produced a publication full of hard news and polemics.
Finally in 1899, the paper moved to Chicago, where it found a larger black readership and a more receptive audience. He and Stewart made a formidable journalistic team the next year.
Stewart did have one run-in on the Temple-Belton Interurban during his first trip to Bell County. “The white people tried to see just how nice they could be, except one conductor on the railroad and he forgot himself. He wanted to have a little fight with me, but I carried it up to the superintendent, and he thanked me for bringing it, and assured me it would not happen again,” Stewart wrote.
His next visit tested his patience and his religious principles, tempting him to “use cuss words,” but he asked God to forgive him.
In a December 1920 article written in Bell County, he again sermonized on the Will Stanley lynching and others since: “Law has been tramped underfoot by a race claiming to be superior race, a race that makes the laws, who construes the laws, keeps the jails and other places of confinement, yet they will batter down the jail doors, take out a helpless man who has no chance to defend himself, and riddle his body with bullets, and then burn the lifeless form. What do you call this?”
Despite his frustration, Stewart still believed that his people would be vindicated eventually. “A man who declares that he must rule because he is white but — believe me — with sin (and) with lawless practice, he must someday go down; for justice and injustice cannot rule on the same throne without a clash. I fear my white brother will find his star going down.”
He belittled some white men as “dwarfs in manhood, for they depend on their color to carry them through.”
Writing again in January 1921 of the Broad Axe, he said, “I am in Texas and I am not afraid, although this is the state which furnished more lynchings than the other states last year. It was in this state where they tried to put the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in jail. These long-horned men tried to send this man to the other world to teach him a lesson. They were only little fellows. They put more disgrace on themselves than they did on the man they clubbed.”
Stewart lodged his most pointed criticism at colleagues whom he felt had betrayed their race. “We have so many men who want to have the white man pat him on the back and pronounce him the leader of his race,” he added, naming a minister who “sold his race out simply to have the white folks say that he was a leader of his race. … I hope that God will forgive him and let him some day repent and get to heaven.”
He traveled to Belton, where he enjoyed his visit with L.B. Kinchion, esteemed principal of Belton’s black schools, and his fellow teachers. Stewart was impressed with the science classes and Kinchion, who treated him to “a real lunch.”
Stewart died suddenly in 1925 while on a preaching and reporting trek in Oklahoma. Tributes poured from his many white and black admirers he had garnered during his 25-year journalistic career.
The power of his influence will live in the lives of others,” reported the Negro Star of Wichita, Kan. Now it was time for another to step forward to lead the battle, the Star added.
Eventually, Stewart became a harbinger for a new generation of black leaders just two decades later.