John R. Shillady, NAACP National Secretary, Beaten and Banished from Austin by County Judge and Posse, 1919
John Shillady, the Secretary of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, helped to document mob violence in the United States. He assisted in publishing a series of pamphlets to inform the public of the ongoing crisis of lynchings. For example, Thirty Years of Lynchings (1919) included a state-by-state breakdown of lynching rates by year and listed the lynchings in each state chronologically with information about the alleged reason for the murder. Texas ranked third in the nation for the highest number of lynchings.
In some cases, Shillady traveled to states himself to investigate lynchings and to advocate for states to pass anti-lynching legislation. In January 1919, the NAACP learned of the brutal lynching of Bragg Williams in Hillsboro. Shillady sent a letter to Texas Governor Hobby requesting information regarding efforts by Texas authorities to prosecute mob participants. He reminded the Governor of an address by President Woodrow Wilson the previous summer, in which the president implored state governors, local officers, and US citizens to keep “American’s name without a stain” and to end lynchings, the “disgraceful evil” that continued to plague the nation. Since that address, mobs had lynched twenty-one Black citizens, four in Texas. The governor did not respond to Shillady’s request.
On January 22, 1919, in the wake of the Hillsboro lynching, Governor Hobby made public demands for changes in Texas. In addition to increasing funds for public schools and universities and increasing taxes on wealthy Texans, Hobby proposed that the state legislature pass laws “so drastic lynching will be forever stamped out.” Despite the public statements, the governor ignored requests by the NAACP encouraging him to write anti-lynching legislation and to order investigations into lynchings in Texas and to investigate mob violence. Instead, the Governor called on the Texas Rangers to investigate Black civil rights organizers and rumors that African Americans had been purchasing rifles in preparation for an armed uprising. The Rangers concluded that associations advocating racial equality, like the NAACP, had incited racial tensions in Texas. In other words, the state police blamed the NAACP and Black organizers.
On August 20th, Shillady arrived in Austin to meet with local members of the NAACP and, he hoped, to discuss anti-lynching legislation with Governor Hobby and Attorney General C. M. Cureton. He was subpoenaed, hauled before a so-called “court of inquiry” where Travis County Judge Dave J. Pickle declared that the NAACP secretary had been “inciting Negroes against whites” and warned him to leave the state. He was also questioned about the NAACP’s efforts to desegregate railcars. Despite this intimidation, Shillady stayed and held meetings with local residents, but he was shadowed wherever he went. On August 22,as he returned to his hotel he was attacked by Judge Pickle, Constable Charles Hamby, and Ben Pierce. Judge Pickle was later quoted in the press that he accused Shillady of “stirring up more trouble than Austin citizens can get rid of in ten years.” When Shillady suggested that the judge did not see from his point of view, Constable Hamby bragged that he said, “I’ll fix it so you can’t see” before he struck Shillady in the eye. Pickle boasted to reporters that he and Pierce joined Hamby in beating Shillady until his face bled freely. Shillady reported that when he bought his train ticket to leave, members of the mob, including County Judge Pickle, stood around “menacingly.”
The NAACP swiftly wired Governor Hobby to request an investigation into the assault and to confirm that the officials that participated would be prosecuted. Rather than denouncing the county judge and local law enforcement for assaulting a civil rights worker, the governor rebuked the NAACP for interfering in race relations in Texas: “Shillady was the only offender in connection with the matter referred to in your telegram and he was punished before your inquiry came. Your organization can contribute more to the advancement of both races by keeping your representatives and their propaganda out of this State than in any other way.” He also committed to sending any “narrow-brained, double-chinned reformer…back to the North where he came from, with a broken jaw if necessary.”
The NAACP became increasingly concerned that in Texas both state administrators and newspapers approved of these actions by the local police and county judge. In 1919 the NAACP published a brief pamphlet, The Mobbing of John R. Shillady, describing the attack and including a statement from Shillady. The organization printed 6,000 copies of the pamphlet that year.
The violent attack on Shillady is a reminder of the many forms of vigilante violence in the Red Summer of 1919. Extralegal violence and mob violence did not always end in death. Racially motivated violence sought, in one way or another, to instill fear, discourage civil rights organizing, and to encourage silence. It is also a reminder that racially motivated violence targeted racial and ethnic groups as well as white Americans that helped advocate for racial equality. John Shillady was an Irish-American. He resigned from the NAACP and died in 1920.