The Tyler Loop Interview: Darryl Bowdre of We Remember Tyler

Listen to the audio or read the full transcript, below.

📷 all photos courtesy of We Remember Tyler

Jane: My guest today is the Reverend Darryl Bowdre. Darryl is a resident of Tyler and has been for the past 41 years, as of this week. He is a founding minister of South Central Church of Christ in Tyler. He’s a former City of Tyler city council member and a former trustee of the Tyler Independent School.

He says the group We Remember Tyler promotes community awareness, education and public reckoning around racial terror lynchings in Tyler and Smith County through partnerships with local stakeholders. Welcome, Reverend Bowdre. 

Darryl: Well, I’m glad to be here, glad to be a part. 

Jane: Well, I asked you to come, Darryl, because I received a press release about a group called We Remember Tyler. What can you tell us about the organization We Remember Tyler? How did it form, and what are its goals? 

Darryl: Well, it began as a small group, and our main goal was to promote community awareness of things that had happened in Tyler and East Texas – especially the dark history of lynching – realizing that even though it was a dark part of our history, it is history nonetheless.

We believe that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. So, our goal is to have discussions, to bring it to the forefront, to force reconciliation between parties and to just come to realize the truth about what happened.

Jane: Specifically, what has come up recently is the James Hodge lynching. Can you tell us about that lynching and the events around it? 

Darryl: Well, in 1909, James Hodge was an 18-year-old boy who was lynched by a mob of about 4,000 people in front of what was then the brand new courthouse that sat on the square. In fact, they used a crane used in the construction of the courthouse as the site and hung him on the crane. There are published articles and we have some of them on our website at weremembertyler.org, that reveal a charge of murder that was set up against young Hodge, which was most likely false. No one identified him or anything like that.

But, the crowd wanted his life, and so they used sledgehammers to break through a fence surrounding the Smith County Jail, which still sits behind the new jail. It’s a lawyer’s office now. They smashed through the doors and windows, and then they grabbed James at high noon on Saturday, May 1,1909.

Articles indicate that 17 participants from among the mob of 4,000 threw a rope over the top of the platform made from materials used to build the new courthouse. They made a noose on the other end, which they placed around James’s neck and quickly jerked him into the air.

I understand that his father worked at what was then the federal courthouse across the street, and his coworkers had to hold him because naturally, he wanted to go help his son. They knew if they let him go, the mob would get him, too.

Jane: Well, that is a chilling story. I understand the James Hodge lynching is the only known lynching in the county that has existing photographic proof. Can you tell us the story about how and where that photograph was discovered? 

Darryl: About 20 years ago, a little boy was playing in the basement of a building at 325 South Bois d’Arc. His mother worked in the building and while nosing around, he came across a large stash of photo negatives. As he looked through the negatives, one gripped his attention, and that was the one of James Hodge. It’s my understanding that at the time, a well-known Tyler photographer occupied that building.

The boy took the negative and held onto it for decades. Later, when he learned about our lynching memorial project, he came forward to tell us about the negative. He wanted to donate the photo negative to our work, which we gladly accepted. 

So last week was the first time that I held that negative in my hands and looked at that horrific picture of this 18-year-old kid being lynched in downtown Tyler, the mob standing all around him. It’s horrific to see. 

That’s the only one we have a picture of. That was another incident in which actually Judge Quincy Beaver’s grandfather, who was also killed, lynched in downtown Tyler. The Beavers, they really have a story to tell, because their family were slaves to the Goodmans, i.e., The Goodman Museum.

Darryl: And while I realize all of this is part of history, however recent, there are some things in history that we do need to showcase, we do need to talk about. We do need to remind people that it happened in order for there to be reconciliation and in order for us to move forward. I think that’s been one of the things that has stopped Tyler and East Texas or Texas period, from going forward. 

Jane: We do know there were other lynchings in Tyler and Smith County. What proof outside of the photographs do we have of those occurrences? 

Darryl: One of our leaders, D.G. Montalvo, has spent a lot of time reading books and doing research, not just about Tyler, but across the state .He’s discovered that there are at least 10 local Tyler area lynchings and at least 15 victims.

At our last count, there were more than 80 lynchings that took place in Tyler. Every Juneteenth, we go and name the names of every person that was lynched, and we try as best we can to tell their story on Juneteenth to commemorate what happened.

Jane: The We Remember Tyler’s webpage says its “intergenerational, multi-gendered, interfaith community members tell our story with dignity, truth and resilience in order to move toward reconciliation.” Tell us about the people of We Remember Tyler and what are their motivations for taking action?

Darryl: Well, we’re seeing people from all walks of life. There’s been a real big hit since last week when the story came out on KLTV. More people are interested. I mean, they’re Blacks, they’re whites; Jew, Gentile. There are a lot of people that are not just interested in the stories per se, but they’re interested in telling the story in the right way, especially in this age when you have political leaders that want to take Black history out of the history books or they have basically demoted history to a one page in history books in public schools. They don’t even call it slavery anymore; they call it indentured servitude. It’s particularly important for us to tell the real story. 

As I tell people all the time, even if they don’t teach it in school, we never should have depended on public schools to tell our story. It still needs to be told in our families. We need to retell the story; it needs to be told in our churches. We kind of quit talking to each other in our quest to become a part of society. I’m finding a lot of families when I share things, they’re just utterly shocked about what happened. 

When I was growing up – and I’m 66 years old – my parents and grandparents told us the stories they didn’t want us to forget. They wanted us to know what our ancestors and what our families had gone through.

This group, through documentation because it is there – is a very important group. I think it will continue to grow. We’re still looking for partners out of churches or just good, well-meaning individuals that want to know and want to push the truth. 

Jane: You talk about We Remember Tyler’s partnerships with local stakeholders. I would love to know who they are and how they’re promoting similar public reckoning around racial terror lynchings. 

Darryl: Well, there are not as many as there could be or should be, but we’ve partnered both with the local and the state NAACP. Gary Bledsoe, who is the longtime state president, is a good personal friend of mine. We’re trying to partner with the Smith County Historical Society for the first time in their history. They have a Black president, and they sit on a lot of information, so they’re certainly a very important partner – as well as organizations like the Texas African American Museum.

Tyler is the Rose City, but every rose has thorns. And we gotta talk about the thorns too, because that’s all a part of the rose.

Jane: There already exist memorials on the square, which was the site of the old Smith County Courthouse, including a Confederate hero’s memorial. So imagine approval was given to place the lynching memorial in close proximity to that Confederate memorial.

Darryl: Our memorial has got to be something that that is really, I mean, there’s no other way to put it – that’s just really in your face. “This happened. It’s an ugly part of history.” And it would contrast to the narrative of the loyal slaves and so forth. I think  the two of them together, they’re going to speak for themselves. They’re going to tell their own story. And people will get an opportunity to draw their own conclusions, looking at the real facts.

Last week was the first time that I’d ever stopped to read the Confederate memorial on the square and when I read it, two things stood out. Number one, it told the story about the Confederate soldiers and how they were taken care of by loyal slaves who cooked for them. And then when I looked further at the memorial, it was only erected in 1965, which was the height of the Civil Rights revolution.

So, Tyler still wanted to hang on to the, both the, the language, the lingo, the entire thing of slavery as recent as 1965 – which kind of throws a fallacy on a whole lot of the memorials that they’re saying, “Well, that was our history.” Well, most of them weren’t built until between 1930 and 1965, and we know why they were erected. 

Jane: Yes. 

Darryl: I grew up at a time when slavery was a whole semester in history. I went to an integrated school. There were times with the white kids would turn around and look at us, and it would invoke certain feelings. Every part of history doesn’t make you feel good.

And I think that’s what people have to understand. We want history that gives us warm, fuzzy feelings, and everything in history isn’t like that for anybody. Not, not even the history of our own families. We have to face that, and we have to move on, because we’re all human beings.

Jane: The subtext I’m hearing is that you want the story to be presented; the information is presented and how it changes over time. And then, trust people to evaluate that for themselves as we carry on.

Darryl: One of the biggest things I had in this town when I first came here – this was maybe the early 90s – there was a movement to change the name of Confederate Street in North Tyler. And when I moved here, it was just that: there’s a street in the Black part town called Confederate, and Black folks live on it.

We tried to change the name, but the problem was the people that lived on the street didn’t want it changed. 

Jane: Because?

Darryl: Some of the old ladies had these little stickers they already had on their envelopes, and they didn’t want to have to reorder them for Christmas.

Jane: (laughter) People have their reasons.

Darryl: People fight change. So, we abandoned it. It’s Confederate to this day, and now there are probably more Hispanics who live on it than, than Blacks at this point, because that part of town has gone through a transition. So, it’s a moot point with them. 

Jane: I understand that June will be the second annual remembrance vigil. Tell me, what can participants expect to hear and see on the square on that day? 

Darryl: Well, at the first remembrance, I told the story of the racial terror lynching that took place in the 1920s. That’s when Mr. Eunice Beavers was shot and killed by police officers over a cotton dispute.

I do remember holding up the newspaper with the headline and I told our truth at the second vigil. However, I think we can expect to hear more truth-telling about more stories of injustice that took place around that time, to an interracial crowd, so that more people can pay their respects to the lives that were lost through injustice.

There are a lot of stories. There was not only lynching that went on downtown, but throughout North Tyler on Englewood, even on Confederate streets. It’s real graphic. 

Tyler had its, well, it had its caste system, and to some degree still does among whites. So it certainly did among Blacks. So I think every June, we just will never run out of stories. It is like peeling back the layer of an onion. 

Jane: Darryl Bowdre, what is your great hope for Tyler in East Texas? 

Darryl: Well, you know, this is my home: the good, the bad and the ugly. I just hope that my generation or me as an individual can at least leave an imprint of accurate history of truth, so the generations afterwards will put things in perspective, understand the history from where we’ve come and be able to build a future for our children, for our grandchildren.

I’m so afraid right now that my grandchildren are growing up in a society that mirrors my grandparents’ society. They’re not just turning back the hands of the clock, they’re throwing away the whole clock.

I grew a part of my life in eastern Tennessee around the smoking mountains. I can remember coming home from church and seeing a Ku Klux clan rally down the street from my house, and the fear that I had as a child looking at that and looking at them with their robes on. 

I’ve gone through some things here in Tyler. Years ago, when I was on the school board especially: At that time, we had the enlarged system. Everybody voted for every position on the school board.

There was a gentleman’s agreement made by two of the power brokers here that there would always be a seat for Blacks. And as time went on, there were two seats that were kind of given to Blacks, and I held one of them.

Well, I guess I raised enough hell  in Tyler in the little time I was on there. In 1990, they voted both Blacks off the school board and Tyler had no Black representation. TISD,  they were sonervous. They were so appalled that they literally put the pencil in the hands of me and Mr. Ernest Deckard, who was the head of the NAACP and let us draw the single-member district lines.

Of course, it had to go through the justice department and so forth. And it was through that effort that we got single member districts for Tyler ISD. Things like that would happen, and I would speak out.

We came out of our house one Sunday morning – I was living in Gresham – to go to church. And there were crosses on in the front yard. They weren’t burning, but we got the message.

There was trash in the yard.

The FBI would call me and tell me, “Look.” They’d call my wife and say, “Look, the Ku Klux Klan is following and watching your son as he rides his bicycle here, here and here.”

 So, it doesn’t take too much to tip the scales with some people.In this area, it’s never very far: racism, prejudice, and the violence that accompanies it. And that’s what I fear. 

Jane: Thank you. You actually answered that second question, , because I wanted to hear a personal story from your growing up that led you to what you’re doing now and why.

Darryl: We’re going to have to look at stories like this. Look at truths like this, face them, talk about them. No matter how much it hurts, and find something together, just like I have with my own family and with people. 

You know, it’s a sad thing that my ancestor was raped by the slave owners and so forth, but then it caused me to be related to people that I came to know and love. It’s a difficult story, but, you know, let’s bite off the hard part. Let’s close our eyes and swallow and do whatever we have to do and face these facts and, and move forward. So, that’s my hope.

Jane: Is there anything else important that hasn’t come up yet that you would like to address? Anything you wish people knew or understood?

Darryl: There’s new history being uncovered every day. I love history, even the part that hurts.I love it because it takes all of that to tell the whole story. I just want us to stop telling one side of the story, sugarcoating it or denying that certain things happened when they did, because people’s lives were impacted and still are by what happened back then. Until we can come to a dialogue and feel each other, it’s not gonna get any better.

We have to have empathy toward all sides, and I’m hoping that’s what will come out of this.

Jane: Thank you so much. 

Darryl: Thank you. Thank y’all. This was good.

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