ROBERT HENSON HILLARD
Texan Lynching Victim -- 1895
Robert Henson Hillard was an African American Texan burned alive at the stake by a mob of 10,000 people in Tyler, Texas on October 29, 1895. The morning after finding the body of a brutally raped and murdered white woman, authorities saw Robert sleeping in a cotton pen and arrested him. How suspicion of Robert was established is unclear, especially as the only eyewitness —the murdered woman— was dead.
Dozens of vigilantes overwhelmed the arresting posse, abducting Robert. The Sheriff wired the Texas Governor for help as authorities were overwhelmed by armed mobs. As the members of the mob produced a “confession,” thousands of people gathered around a makeshift scaffold in Tyler’s public square. Wagons of wood, straw and coal oil converged for the burning.
Robert was given a last chance to speak, but the crowd’s sound was so loud he could not be heard. Tied to an iron stake, his pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears as flames roared. Rather than allowing fire to end his misery, executioners partially extinguished then reignited the fire again and again, ensuring maximum agony. Robert tried ending his misery by swallowing flames and bashing his head backwards against the iron stake.
In the photo used in this art piece, Robert hauntingly gazes into the camera while seated between his captors.
Lynchings were widespread across the U.S. South in the 19th and 20th centuries. According to records maintained by the NAACP, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S. from 1882 to 1968, though many historians believe the true number is underreported. The highest number of lynchings during that time occurred in Mississippi, with 581 recorded, Georgia was second with 531, and Texas was third with 493.
Black people were the primary victims of lynching. However, immigrants from Mexico, China, Australia, and other countries were also lynched, as were some white people for helping Black people and/or for opposing lynching.
Lynchings typically evoke images of Black men and women hung by their necks from trees, but sometimes involved other forms of brutality including torture, mutilation, decapitation, desecration, and burning. Billy Holiday’s 1939 song “Strange Fruit” poignantly grappled with the practice and became an anthem for the anti-lynching movement.