Between 1890 and 1930 accusations of criminal behavior by African American Texans triggered mobs of Anglo Texans to bypass the legal system and advocate vigilantism. Alleging that lenient officials and slow-moving hearings justified lynchings, White communities largely accepted the brutal practice. Black-on-White crimes (and perceived Black-on-White crimes), particularly rapes and murders, prompted hysteria in many White communities, and frenzied acts of retaliation resulted in barbaric consequences.
Sank Majors (alias Tommie Sank Cheatham), a twenty-year-old Black man, lived with his mother and siblings near the small town of Golinda, Texas, south of Waco in southern McLennan County. His neighbors included the families of Nathan A. C. Mackie and William C. Robert. Sank’s mother worked for the Mackie family.
In April 1905 Mackie’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Clintonia Beatrice (“Clintie”), married William Robert’s nineteen-year-old son, William Benjamin (“Bennie”). Although Sank Majors and Bennie Robert likely knew each other since childhood, their relationship proved volatile during the early months of Bennie’s marriage to Clintie. In fact, Bennie instructed Sank to never trespass on the newlyweds’ property.
On July 11, 1905, Bennie left for the day, and Clintie tended to her daily chores. During such time, she witnessed Sank walk across their yard. Moments later, as the young woman read the newspaper, she became the victim of a surprise assault and stabbing. The violent attack left her badly beaten, bloodied, and unconscious.
Crowds of people gathered, including several veteran Texas Rangers. They were mounted on horses and eager for vengeance. The search for Sank Majors stretched up and down the Brazos River from Waco to Marlin. Confusion and hysteria caused disorder as the posse rounded up several Black men; they did not find Sank. One man said, “If Sank Majors is caught no jail can keep him safe from our hands.” Some days later, Governor Samuel W. T. Lanham passed through Waco and offered a reward for the lawful return of the accused. The governor intended for Sank to receive a fair trial as he clearly stated his intolerance of lynchings.
For some ten days, the search for Majors in the Waco area proved unsuccessful. Meanwhile, a family member (his half-brother according to the Dallas Morning News) notified officials of the fugitive’s whereabouts. Sheriffs John J. Sanders of Caldwell County and Will T. Jackman of Hays County finally apprehended Sank at the home of his brother, Polk Majors, near Lockhart. The surprise capture frightened Sank as he begged for protection from mob violence and asserted his innocence. He was taken to the Travis County jail in Austin. After a Waco grand jury returned an indictment charging Sank with criminal assault, law enforcement officers brought Majors to Waco, and the case was set for trial. According to newspaper reports, Golinda’s citizens made assurances that there would be “no attempt at mob violence.”
In Judge Marshall Surratt’s court, George W. Barcus defended Majors; district attorney Oliver H. Cross, assisted by Pat M. Neff, represented the state. Majors pleaded not guilty, but a previous confession he had made to McLennan County Sheriff George W. Tilley was admitted as evidence and corresponded with details given by the victim, who, though she never saw the assailant’s face, identified a scar on his hand. On August 2, the jury returned a guilty verdict and assessed the punishment at death. However, due to a technicality, the court, on August 5, granted Sank a new trial that was scheduled for August 9. The judge had failed to instruct the jury correctly and worried that a conviction would be overturned on appeal.
This new trial caused outrage, and in the early morning hours of August 8, 1905, scores of citizens stormed the Waco jail. They made prisoners of Sheriff George W. Tilley and his men. With sledge hammers, the mob battered five steel doors and eventually reached Majors. One man said, “We came to kill Sank Majors, and we will not fail.” Majors refused to walk, so the people dragged him across the streets until they reached the new Washington Avenue Bridge. They planned to burn him, but Clintie Robert asked for a hanging. With the noose around his neck and the rope’s end passed over a crossbeam, Majors soon dropped to his death. People ran to the body and took “souvenirs” such as a rag from the corpse, strands of the rope, and Sank’s severed fingers. Reportedly, just before his death, Sank Majors told onlookers, “I did the deed myself and am the guilty party.”
When Governor Lanham heard the news, he replied “gracious no!” Sank’s remains were turned over to his family, and he was buried at the Majors Chapel Cemetery near Golinda, Texas. Curtis Majors, a brother to Sank, paid the funeral expenses.
Immediately following the lynching, several events proved equally chaotic. For example, a large group of people seized a Black man named Jim Lawyer from his Bruceville home near Waco after he spoke out against the occurrence. The abductors flogged and whipped Lawyer. The Dallas Morning News, in its August 9, 1905, issue, which reported that Sank Majors died “at the hands of unknown parties,” also printed, “At one of the hotels the colored servants quit in a body and caused temporary inconvenience at the breakfast hour.” Governor Lanham initially withheld the $300 reward but approved the payment after sheriffs Sanders and Jackman petitioned for it. Additionally, an African American woman in Austin fatally stabbed Sank’s half-brother, Will Cheatham, in an unrelated matter.
Sentiments regarding race relations remained tense, however some stepped forward to quell the animosity between Blacks and Whites. The Waco Times-Herald published, “No good citizen can believe that the mob should regularly rule.” The San Antonio Daily Express printed, “Prominent people of [Waco] express themselves as being sorry” but added that there was “no harsh criticism of the people who did the work….”
More than a hundred years later, in 2006, Waco’s Lynching Issue Task Force adopted a resolution acknowledging and apologizing for the “shameful legacy” of the region’s history of mob violence.