Friday, March 17, 2006

Elijah Washington

Elijah Washington died because he didn’t like being called a six-letter word for black people.

And a San Bernardino jury decided that Tough Webster had done nothing wrong in killing him, even though Webster’s friends said the slaying was unjustified.

On Oct. 1, 1906, Lon “Tough” Webster, a recent arrival from Oklahoma, and Fred Drew of Ontario went out in a horse and buggy to hunt doves in the fields east of Pomona. It was a hot day and after a bit of hunting, the men decided to go drinking at the Sandos winery, an unlicensed saloon frequently closed by authorities.

Drew and Webster pitched horseshoes with the blacks and cholos gathered there, and whoever lost bought drinks for everyone.

The Times described Washington as “a splendid figure of a man, standing about six feet and weighing about 180 pounds. For one of his race he was unusually handsome.”

“Webster, [Drew] said, had resented the attitude of the Negro and said that he would take no insult from any Mexican or …” and here is where we find our six-letter word.

Washington began to take off his coat, a gesture that the men interpreted as if he wanted to fight, so Webster ran to the buggy and got the shotgun, which was lying on the floorboards, loaded and cocked.

“Why you wouldn’t kill a man, would you?” Washington asked, and Webster shot him in the neck with both barrels. Washington collapsed in Drew’s arms.

At the coroner’s inquest, Webster’s friends said the killing was completely unjustified. He was bound over for trial and when the judge refused to grant bail, several prominent local businessmen began to raise money for his bond, which was ultimately set at $5,000 ($102,617.85 USD 2005).

During the trial, the court was presented with an affidavit from Webster’s hometown in Oklahoma, saying that he had a good reputation and that “Tough” was merely a nickname from his schooldays.

The jury returned a verdict of not guilty in 10 minutes, according to The Times for March 14, 1907.

About the six-letter word. You know what it is as well as I. It was frequently used in newspapers, appearing in at least 39 stories in The Times for 1907. But you won’t read it here, at least from me. If a man died because he didn’t want to be called a certain word, it seems criminal to describe him that way nearly a century later.

By the way, I was surprised to find usage of “cholo” this early. I assumed it was a bit more recent. Live and learn.

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