Monday, September 06, 2010

Lust, Violence, Religion: Life in Historic Waco Compiled by Bradley T. Turner

When I arrived in Waco in August of 1993, I had only vague notions about the city that would become my home. I knew it was the home of Baylor University.

Bradley Turner has assembled a collection of essays which fills gaps in my knowledge of the colorful, amusing, and sometimes disturbing history of a town that became the thriving city it is today. Whether someone has spent an entire life here, or merely arrived last month, Lust, Violence, Religion will shed light on the evolution of Waco.

Organized around events and social institutions from prostitution to the story of the circuit riding preachers and the establishment of religious denominations, the full gamut of life on the Brazos becomes vividly clear. While the essays are a bit uneven, several of them really stand out. Numerous interesting “then and now” photos of locations mentioned in the text add to my interest in the stories.

The second essay, “Waco Undressed,” relates the story of the “oldest profession” legalized in the late 19th century in Waco. The red-light district on Second Street, dubbed the “Reservation,” thrived until 1917. Threats from the Army to close the new military base, Camp MacArthur, caused the city to shut down the sex-trade. Meticulous research of city records showed these businesses provided a substantial amount of income for the city barely fifty years young.

The most startling essay concerns William Brann, the founder and publisher of a local paper known as The Iconoclast. He began a war of words with Baylor University, which divided the city into factions. When it turned violent, several people, including Brann, died in the conflict.

The history of Cameron Park reveals the generosity of the Cameron family, who donated this peaceful and beautiful Waco landmark. It also uncovers a terrible side of Waco’s history during the Jim Crow era. African-American citizens were barred from using the park despite the fact that the Cameron family “stipulated that the land be used exclusively as a public park for the ‘pleasure of the people’ of Waco.”

The final essay on protests against the War in Viet Nam provide interesting contrasts to my own college years in the late 60s. The photos and essay on the tornado of 1953 only begin to hint at what must have been a terror-filled 35 minutes. Newspaper articles and ads show how the community came together in the cleanup after the storm.

However, the most powerful – and horrific – stories of early Waco relate shameful lynchings and murders, especially that of Jesse Washington in 1916. Some disturbing photos may not be suitable for all readers, but those pictures graphically demonstrate the inhumanity engendered by racial prejudice. The fact that Jesse Washington proved to be innocent adds a bitter conclusion to the essay.

All in all, Lust, Violence, Religion: Life in Historic Waco provides a more than worthwhile history of the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly of early Waco. 4 stars

--Chiron, 9/03/10

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