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.