Fort Worth had its version of the Capitol riot when a mob attacked the jail in 1913.
Jan. 6, 2021, is a date that shall go down in American history like Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001, as national traumas. It is the date a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol.
Something similar occurred in Fort Worth on the night of May 15, 1913, when a lynch mob attacked the county jail intent on seizing Tommie Lee, an African American accused of murder and attempted murder. Earlier that day Lee had stalked through the south end of town, killing two men, one of them a white police officer, and wounding three others.
A mob gathered on the scene and chased Lee into a railroad culvert where he tried to take his own life by putting a shotgun under his chin. He only succeeded in blowing off part of his face. Police Chief Oscar Montgomery found him and whisked him away first to Fort Worth Medical College then to the county jail.
It did not take the mob long to find out where Lee was, and they gathered in the street in front of the jail. As the hours passed the mob swelled to nearly 2,000 men and boys, all of them white and many of them inebriated. Chief Montgomery had an ally in Sheriff Bill Rea whose jail was under siege, and it was police and deputies who stood guard in front of the jail, barely holding off the belligerent mob. Rea finally put out a call to Austin to send the National Guard to handle what constituted a full-blown “domestic insurrection.”
Before any troops arrived, however, a pitched battle took place on the front steps of the jail. At 8 p.m. the mob worked up the nerve to rush the doors, but was driven back by the policemen. In the next two hours the mob would rush the doors two more times. Before that, however, Sheriff Rea came out on the steps and told them Lee was no longer in the jail; officers had slipped him out to Dallas, so they might as well go home. They did not believe him, so as a conciliatory gesture he offered to let a “select committee” of men come inside to search the building. Lee was actually hidden in a tunnel below the jail where he remained safe.
Still not satisfied, sometime after 9 p.m. the mob charged the steps again. Just 20 officers stood between them and the inside of the jail. Policeman Ike Boyd was hit in the head by a flying brick but stayed in the battle swinging his billy club. The climax came when a group of 30 toughs charged up the steps with a makeshift battering ram. Police Capt. C.R. Schwinn rallied the tired defenders. Deputy John Estes grabbed one attacker and tossed him from the landing into a nearby treetop. With their backs against the doors, the officers took desperate action. Estes and another officer drew their revolvers and fired several rounds into the air. The mob retreated, but from the safety of the street continued to throw rocks at the bloody but unbowed officers.
Around 10 p.m., the mob went looking for a softer target. They headed to the south end of town where the Black business district was located, overturning a streetcar on the way. For the next couple of hours, they rampaged through the district looting, setting fires, and beating up any black person they could get their hands on while the police on the scene did nothing, at least until Chief Montgomery showed up with a riot squad to move them out.
By midnight, peace had descended on the south end of downtown, and the police had 15 “boys and young men” under arrest. An hour later, Maj. Calvin Elliott and a troop of 50 National Guard troops armed with Springfield rifles arrived at the jail and relieved the officers. They would stay for the next two days.
When the sun rose on May 16, the forces of law and order began taking stock of what had happened and trying to deal with the consequences. Who would pay for the damage to the Black district? Could they identify the mob leaders? What charges should be filed against the rioters, many of whom were well known to the authorities? Would the county attorney prosecute those arrested by police? And what about prosecuting Tommie Lee? All these questions demanded answers.
Judges in justice of the peace court and municipal court adopted a lenient approach. JP Thomas Maben charged 10 perpetrators with “disturbing the peace.” They pleaded guilty and were each fined $1 plus court costs. He explained his decision by insisting that the mob’s leaders had been “boys in knee pants,” most of whom had “good reputations” heretofore. Everybody knew better. Municipal Judge Hugh Bardin charged two rioters who came before him with “public drunkenness” and let them off with fines of $25 plus costs.
Only Judge James Swayne of the Seventeenth District Court took a hard line. He convened a special grand jury and ordered it to indict Tommie Lee for the double murder but also demanded that it deliver “hundreds of indictments” against the members of the mob that had attacked the jail and rampaged through the Black business district. To make his point, he led them in person through the destroyed district, telling them, “The negroes of Fort Worth and their property are entitled to as much protection as the white people and theirs.” He added, “Our fair city has been disgraced.”
The grand jury indicted 21 men on dozens of charges ranging from drunkenness, burglary, and assault to “unlawful assembly that prevented [the Sheriff and his men] from pursuing their labor, occupation and employment.” Those indicted included a reporter for the Fort Worth Record and a night watchman at the courthouse. One and all, they promptly furnished bond and were released.
When they came to trial, some pleaded out their cases and paid a modest fine. Others were either acquitted for lack of evidence or, if found guilty, paid only a slightly heavier fine. None of them ever did any time. The white citizens of Fort Worth, who included the judges, prosecutors and juries, wanted only to put the ugly events behind them. Chief Montgomery publicly chastised “any officer” who might have stood aside while the mob wreaked havoc in the Black district. He excused the rest by explaining that they couldn’t act without “orders from a superior,” and their superiors were busy defending the jail.
Damage to black-owned property was set at a conservative $15,000 by officials. Several Black citizens whose property had been destroyed and themselves beaten, filed suit against the city, but their suits went nowhere.
In the years that followed, the events of May 15, 1913, were conveniently forgotten. In the collective memory, there had been no race riot, no domestic insurrection, and what is not recorded in history is not remembered. The newspapers did not rehash it nor did future historians grapple with it. That night did not fit the carefully constructed narrative of “the Fort Worth way.” After all, no one had died, the most serious destruction had been limited to the Black district, and perpetrators had been duly punished. Also, many of the victims left town, and those that remained kept silent. It was a minor blip in the uplifting story of Fort Worth, nothing more.
Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.