Waller County, Texas, has had a complicated racial history since the days when it was a part of Mexico. At one of its first settlements, Bernardo Plantation, about 100 slaves grew cotton on a large farm on the banks of the Brazos. Yet in the years before Texas fought Mexico for its independence, the area became a magnet for free blacks from elsewhere in the South who sought a welcoming home.
The messy, confusing double legacy of that history has persisted to the present, most recently embodied in the death of Sandra Bland in a Waller County jail cell. Bland, a 28-year-old from Chicago, was on a road trip to start a new job at her alma mater, historically-black Prairie View A&M University, when she was pulled over by a state trooper for failing to signal a turn. Somehow, that apparently routine stop escalated and ended with Bland with an arm injury, under arrest for assaulting an officer. She was found dead in her cell three days later, on July 13, of what police say was suicide by asphyxiation. Her family disputes that account, saying she had no inclination to suicide and was upbeat about her new job.
We’ll need more information to understand what happened to Bland. As Radley Balko notes, jailhouse suicide is disturbingly common. Regardless of the circumstances of Bland’s death, however, a routine stop for failing to use a blinker should not end in several days of imprisonment and death. That has brought a natural focus on Waller County and the figures involved.
After Walter Scott was shot and killed by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer, advocates noted that traffic stops are often a pretext for searching or questioning citizens of color. Scott, who was pulled over for having a taillight out, was wanted for failing to pay child support, and it’s speculated that led him to run away. He was shot in the back as he ran. In North Charleston, police made traffic stops involving African Americans far out of proportion to their percentage of the population. That isn’t the case in Waller County. Statewide, stops and citations for black people in Texas are actually lower than their share of the overall population, and the same holds true for stops by the Waller County sheriff and police in the towns of Hempstead and Prairie View.
But this might be one of the few areas where there isn’t evidence of racially disparate outcomes in Waller County, a place with a grim history of discrimination and tension—“racism from the cradle to the grave,” as DeWayne Charleston, a former county judge, put it to The Guardian.
The history is especially painful because Waller County was for a time a beacon of black progress. During Reconstruction, an office of the Freedmen’s Bureau opened in the county seat of Hempstead, and federal troops—including, for a time, some commanded by George Custer—occupied to keep the peace. Not coincidentally, the Ku Klux Klan also set up shop. Nonetheless, Hempstead became a locus of black political activity and hosted the Republican Party’s statewide convention in 1875. In 1876, the predecessor of Prairie View A&M was established, and in the 1880 Census, the county was majority black.
But the last two decades of the century saw an influx of white immigrants from Eastern Europe, and that dilution of the black vote, along with the end of Reconstruction, reduced blacks to a minority and slashed their political power. After a 1903 law established “white primaries,” African Americans were effectively shut out of politics—such that in a county with some 8,000 black voters, only 144 Republican votes were cast in 1912, according to The Handbook of Texas. Waller County, as Leah Binkovitz notes, had among the highest numbers of lynchings in the state between 1877 and 1950, according to a comprehensive report by the Equal Justice Initiative.
This may seem like distant history, but it set something of a pattern for the county’s race relations through to the present—and as the events of the last year have made clear, a place’s history is often an effective predictor of how it treats its black residents, from St. Louis County to Cuyahoga County. In fact, the disenfranchisement of black voters in Waller County has continued to be a source of contention.
In 2004, students at Prairie View A&M fought and won a battle over their right to vote in the county. District Attorney Oliver Kitzman claimed the students were ineligible to vote in Waller County and could only cast ballots in their home counties, despite clear Supreme Court precedent showing they were allowed to register. Kitzman threatened to prosecute any student who voted. It wasn’t his first clash with black residents, who accused the district attorney of deploying a range of intimidation tactics. Kitzman denied any racism, and told The Los Angeles Times that any racial issues in the county could be solved “if we took several of the players and sent them to Los Angeles.”
The students, with the support of conservative Republican state Attorney General Greg Abbott, triumphed in the battle. Kitzman resigned his post, a moment local black leaders compared to the Emancipation Proclamation. But four years later, PVAMU students again found themselves fighting for their fight to vote. A judge ruled against Waller County, and demanded that county officials justify every rejected voter registration to the U.S. Department of Justice for four years. The county has seen a variety of other accusations of voting irregularities in recent years.
In the early 2000s, Hempstead was embroiled in a dispute over cemeteries in town, which had historically been divided between white and black. Black residents complained that the city had devoted much lesser resources to black burial grounds. In the midst of litigation, the white mayor of Hempstead offended the city’s African-American residents by refusing to attend a parade to mark Juneteenth, the day of emancipation of slaves in Texas. The lawsuit was ultimately settled, with Hempstead agreeing to spend more on upkeep of the black cemeteries.
The interment question wasn’t entirely settled: In 2007, DeWayne Charleston, the judge, ordered a black funeral home to bury the body of an unknown white woman found dead in the county. (Charleston was later removed from the bench for accepting bribes.) Officials balked, as the Associated Press reported:
When activists started raising questions about the county's hesitation at burying the woman in a black cemetery, the commissioners asked a white-owned funeral home to handle arrangements—adhering to what community activists say is a long-standing tradition of cemetery segregation in the county .… Had the unidentified woman been buried in a black cemetery, she would have been the first known white person buried in a black cemetery in the county.
In 2007, the chief of police in Hempstead, Glenn Smith, was accused of racism and police brutality during an arrest. Council members opted to suspend Smith for two weeks, a sanction that disappointed civil-rights leaders in town. The following year, amid more allegations of police misconduct, Smith was fired. He promptly ran for county sheriff and won, and is now charged with investigating Bland’s death in the jail he oversees. At a news conference about Bland’s death, Smith vowed, “Black lives matter to Glenn Smith.”
It may not come as a surprise if Waller County’s African American residents don’t buy that. And they may not feel any better about the prosecutor who would handle any case. Elton Mathis, who holds Kitzman’s old job, has also been accused of pursuing racially disparate prosecutions. Last June, a black clergyman alleged that Mathis has threatened him over such accusations.
Almost as soon as Bland died, her family and many black Americans assumed the worst. They were skeptical of official explanations and pessimistic about the odds of a thorough and fair investigation. A popular hashtag, #IfIDieInCustody, became a forum to express that skepticism and the fear of being disappeared into a jail—or, like Freddie Gray, a police wagon—and emerging dead or near death, with no explanation and little evidence to explain what happened beyond the official account. To those Americans more accustomed to trusting the judicial system to deliver fair outcomes, this outpouring may come across as baffling at best—and as a hasty, unwise leap to conclusions at worst, short-circuiting the due process of the justice system. But the local history explains those deep wells of skepticism. Waller County has given African Americans more than a century’s worth of evidence that it is not in the habit of protecting their interests.