Sandra Bland's death tinged by Waller County's murky racial past

Locals in the rural county where a black woman was found dead in her jail cell are rejecting characterizations that the area hasn't moved on from its recent history of racism and discrimination.

Pat Sullivan/AP
Sylvester Nunn leans against his pickup and talks about growing up in Waller County Wednesday, July 22, in Hempstead, Texas. Mr. Nunn sells watermelons from the back of his truck along the highway, a generations-old summer tradition. A more troubling tradition, of racial strife, has resurfaced here in the days since a black woman named Sandra Bland died in the county jail after a traffic stop by a white state trooper.

Hempstead, Texas, is known for several things. It’s the county seat of Waller County. The sandy soil and rainfall has made it the “watermelon capital of Texas.” And it’s history of white supremacist violence once earned it the nickname “Six Shooter Junction.”

Most recently, it’s known as the county where Sandra Bland, a black woman, was found dead in her jail cell three days after being pulled over by a white state trooper for not signaling a turn.

Sylvester Nunn was selling watermelon just outside Hempstead this weekend. Like many residents of the rural Texas county near Houston, he continues to come to terms with Waller County’s mixed racial history – and contemporary struggles – brought back to the fore after Bland’s death.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” said Mr. Nunn, who is black, in an interview with the Associated Press. “I know how it could happen, but nothing’s happened to me. It’s been all right with me.”

As evidence mounts that Sandra Bland committed suicide in the cell, some locals are rejecting characterizations that the town has yet to shake off much of its history of discrimination.

Waller County, near Houston, has a population of about 46,000 people – about 25 percent of whom are black, 70 percent white according to the latest US Census figures.

Michael Wolfe, mayor of Hempstead, the county seat, since 2004, said the negative reaction to Bland’s death “is not a true reflection of people who live here.”

“It creates a level of animosity that may not be true,” he told the AP. “The community has changed tremendously.”

Mr. Wolfe is Hempstead’s third black mayor since the 1980s, and District Attorney Elton Mathis acknowledged to the AP that while the county “does and did have a lot of things that went on here that we’re not particularly proud of, as far as racial interaction,” there is “a more progressive generation” guiding the county now.

“People need to realize there is a new generation in control of government here,” he added.

David A. Graham, writing for The Atlantic earlier this month, reported that the county has been both a longstanding site of discrimination and also something of “a beacon of black progress.”

“The messy, confusing double legacy of that history has persisted to the present,” he added.

Hempstead, for example, was “a locus of black political activity” during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, he reported. But that history was gradually submerged under decades of discrimination and racial attacks. An influx of white immigrants sapped the power of the black vote and the Ku Klux Klan gained increasing power in the county. Between 1877 and 1950, Waller County had among the highest number of lynchings in Texas, according to a report from the Equal Justice Initiative. Hempstead became known as “Six Shooter Junction” because of white supremacist violence in the 1800s.

Through the 20th century Waller County’s black population had to resist efforts to blunt black political participation. In recent years students at Prairie View A&M University – Sandra Bland’s alma mater and a college established specifically to train black teachers – have complained about voter intimidation and a lack of voter access for low-income people in the county. Lawsuits in 2004 and 2008 called for additional early voting sites in the county. Another recent controversy involved the unofficially segregated cemeteries in the county.

DeWayne Charleston, a former Waller County judge, ordered a black funeral home to handle the burial of an unidentified white woman in 2007. The order sparked controversy and local activists demanded that the woman be buried in a white cemetery. Another federal lawsuit, alleging that Hempstead was neglecting historically black cemeteries while maintaining white ones, was settled in 2004.

“This is the most racist county in the state of Texas,” said Mr. Charleston, in an interview with The Guardian earlier this month. “You’ve got racism from cradle to the grave.”

One of the main targets of racial animosity in the wake of Bland’s death has been Glenn Smith, the Waller County sheriff. Mr. Smith was suspended for two weeks in 2007 and ordered to take anger-management classes after using profanity and pushing a black man during an arrest. He was fired as Hempstead police chief in 2008 and then elected county sheriff.

Despite calls for his resignation, Smith said he plans to seek re-election next year.

“I’m not a racist,” he said at a press conference last Thursday. “Black lives matter to Glenn Smith.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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