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Staying In Your Lane – 180 Years Of Racial Violence In Kaufman County

Staying In Your Lane – 180 Years Of Racial Violence In Kaufman County

How the dark clouds of history still loom over Kaufman County skies. – Part One of a Series

Last month, the Texas Reconstruction Project took a tour in North Texas. The city of Kaufman, which is in Kaufman County, was to be one of their stops along the tour. De-Confederate Kaufman is the local group that has been tirelessly working at getting their Confederate statue removed from courthouse property. As we have seen in many of these small Texas towns, their efforts have been met with hostile opposition. Just days before the protest was scheduled, local Neo-Confederates started online rumors of Antifa coming to town. In response, we published, “The Confederates in Kaufman are Scared of the Boogeyman.”

The protest still happened, as scheduled, and local anti-racist activist, Jessica Luther Rummel, headed out there to document. Unsurprisingly, the protest was met by about a dozen angry, elderly white people, who waved Confederate flags and spoke of Northern aggression and heritage. An armed militia also stood across the street, with their hands on their long-guns as they stood in a shooting-stance. Also in attendance was plenty of law enforcement, city police, and county sheriffs.

We saw a first.

As we have been covering these protests surrounding Confederate statues, mostly in North Texas, this year, something happened at this protest that we haven’t seen before. About an hour into the protest, law enforcement asked the protesters to leave, because they were unsure if they would be able to keep them safe or not. Later, one of the organizers said that was a possible miscommunication, but whether or not law enforcement could or would keep protesters safe at that event is undetermined.

I didn’t write about that incident here on Living Blue in Texas, but I did write about it on Recalled Witness, (our sister blog, covering protests and activism all over the nation). Then, the next day, one of the people who were at the protest published these pictures:

Naturally, we posted them on the Living Blue in Texas Facebook page, and we all got a good laugh.

At that time, I had no immediate plan of writing a follow-up story, but then this email came.

While I have never published any of these emails before, it isn’t the first one I received. It is emails like these, that have kept my focus on these Confederate statue protests because it shows the level of depravity that Black and brown people are still dealing with in rural Texas. They’re all the same. When peaceful protests in rural Texas for the removal of white supremacist symbology, (like Confederate monuments), they are often met by either Neo-Confederate groups, waving Confederate flags or trigger-happy white militias that stand across the street with their fingers on their triggers, staring down groups of Black people simply exercising their first amendment rights.

Their behavior is racist and as I have written about specific court-case references, their tactics are the same tactics once used by the Ku Klux Klan.

No matter how many times, I’ve witnessed it, it will never cease to blow my mind how large groups of white people will partake in this type of behavior and then get angry when their behavior is called racist. There is no other word to describe it.

A brief response regarding the email.

I did write this person back and addressed all of her concerns. Since this email is what pushed me to start this research, you should also know what the response was.

There was nothing said in either article I wrote, both on Living Blue in Texas and on Revolution Witness, that was untrue. Was it inflammatory? If the truth is something that can inflame, then perhaps. However, when covering these protests against Confederate statues, I have always made sure that what I have written about can be proven. Whether that is with video, pictures, or eye-witness accounts who are willing to go on record.

There are plenty of details I have left out of stories that covered Confederate protests in Gainesville, Weatherford, or elsewhere because those details were hear-say.

It is emails like these, which have made me act with an abundance of caution.

Calling people out on white supremacist behavior pisses them off and afterward, they email me or message me on social media about how they aren’t racist, how their town is perfect and harmonious, and accuse me of not being honest. (And they almost always have a “bi-racial nephew” to explain why they aren’t racist.)

Proof.

Aside from Jessica’s video and the one-on-one conversations I had with several people with De-Confederate Kaufman, there are also these screenshots.

When I received that email, I had spoken with several people in the group pushing for the removal of that statue, but the one person I hadn’t spoken to yet, was James Henderson. Of course, since the email was a claim about how all of the others were dishonest and James Henderson could tell me the truth, I made speaking to James my next priority.

An eye-opening conversation.

A few days after I received the email, James Henderson and I spoke on the phone for over an hour. He told me everything about how the protests got started, how things have changed for him since, and what Kaufman the city and the county were generally like.

James had lived in Kaufman for most of his life, as did his parents, and their parents before them. When he was younger, he never paid much attention to the statue, but when he started working at the courthouse, he really started putting a lot of thought into how it was there and why it was there.

Even before the George Floyd uprising, he spoke to the mayor about it. Yet, when the George Floyd uprising happened, that’s what initially motivated him to start organizing and lobbying for the statue’s removal.

That first protest.

Initially, James had collaborated with Kaufman County’s local Democratic party and scheduled the first protest for June 20th. Apparently, out there the head of the local Dem party is an elderly retired preacher. When the Neo-Confederates found out he was planning on protesting the statue, they began calling him and sending him death threats. Out of fear over safety, the local Democratic party pulled out of the protest efforts to remove the statue.

At first, James walked alone. He live-streamed as he marched in silence around the courthouse. That day, there were nearly 100 Neo-Confederates that met him at the square. They stalked him and shouted things like, “why do you kill Black babies?”

Being the small town that it is, when word got out that there was a Black man walking around the courthouse in silence, while it was surrounded by 100 Neo-Confederates, many other people showed up.

James is not old, he’s in his mid-40s, but the way it was described to me by another Kaufman resident was, “when they found out this older Black man was up there protesting alone, the younger generation got up there as fast as they could, to stand with him in solidarity.”

What James caught on video that day was astounding.

Not only because of the amount of hate he bravely kept marching past, but because all of those who showed up to support him, showed up impromptu, and there were dozens of people who showed up in support.

Since that day, there have been many protests at the square over the Confederate statue, but none have been that size, and mostly those who continue to protest have been white.

I asked James why, he thought, the Black community hasn’t been out much to continue the support of the protests. He told me that after that protests, the racism and hatred online had escalated, and he believed that many were scared, both of personal safety and of job loss.

At the June 20th protest, at several protests since then, and online James has been called Antifa, thug, and even devil worshipper. He’s received threats and lost friends. The best friend he had that the woman referred to in the email, he also lost, over the statue issue.

What is life like for the Black community in Kaufman County?

The response James gave me after I asked him that question will likely stay with me for the rest of my life. He told me that the Black population in Kaufman was small, (12% in the city of Kaufman and 10% in Kaufman County) and that before this happened he never saw racism as a common occurrence as he had plenty of white friends, but many in Kaufman are still small-minded.

He went on to tell me about the Black District Attorney, and how Kaufman has a Black judge and a Black district clerk, but then he said he said, “well…they’re all Republicans.”

That’s when he said, “If you’re Black in Kaufman, as long as you stay in your lane, you’re ok.”

He and I spoke some more, specifically about the county commissioners and some of the things that have gone on at the county commissioner hearings. When we hung up, I went to go and find the previous recordings of those hearings.

I did find those recordings, but more importantly, I found the videos of the citizens’ council meetings on YouTube, posted by the local Neo-Confederate group.

The same exact words.

In this video, the first speaker, Heather Davis, is also the woman who told me her multi-racial family was run out of town.

She said she was there to speak for those who could not speak for themselves. She then told a story of her older Black relatives and how many Black people in Kaufman County feel as if they have no voice.

They (Black Kaufmanites), felt accepted only in the town as long as they maintained the present notion to stay in your lane, do not speak up, and do not speak out.

When I heard Heather Davis repeated the exact same words that James told me just earlier that day, stay in your lane, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Why, in 2020, would any Black person feel as if they were only ok if they “stayed in their lane?”

Trying to put it in perspective.

I’m a third-generation Dallasite, while there is no denying that racial bias and white supremacy is still a very real issue in America and Texas, the thought that Black residents in Kaufman county are still living by an unspoken code of the 1950s, seems unreal.

In writing about Confederate protests in Gainesville, I have often referred to some in the white community and law enforcement behaving as it was 1950, but what we’ve seen there is even though the Black community is small and they have faced threats and danger, none of them have expressed they only felt safe if they stayed in their lane. Not to me, anyway. Perhaps, in every small community in rural Texas this is how minority populations feel, but hearing it twice from one town, I found unsettling.

I couldn’t put it in perspective.

So, that’s when I started digging. The last article I wrote about Kaufman County contained several links to old articles I found, like this one. Mostly it was about racial violence, Klan activity, and the celebration of the Confederacy between the 1880s and the 1920s. This sort of activity isn’t abnormal for the South in that time period, nearly every Southern town shares that same story.

However, for the modern-day Black community to feel as if they needed to “stay in their lane,” I was beginning to feel like there might be much more to Kaufman County’s story.

Staying In Your Lane,” will be a multi-part series exposing the racial violence of the past, which lasted way beyond the 1920s. I’ve interviewed several people from multiple generations and have more interviews planned. I have found old records and new ones, that will show not only does Kaufman County have a very dark and insidious past, but they still grapple with racism today. What I have come to believe is much of what we’ve learned so far about Kaufman County and the idea of staying in your lane, has to do with generational trauma in the Black community, and with this series, I plan on proving it.

The origins of Kaufman County.

Like many communities throughout North Texas, Kaufman was named after a white man who was heroized for his volunteer participation in militias that slaughtered indigenous populations, to make space for white prosperity and settlements. Both the city and the county were named after David S. Kaufman. Kaufman is most notoriously known for his volunteer fighting in the 1839 “Battle of the Neches,” a critical victory for the Texas Republic initiated by President Mirabeau B. Lamar who refused to recognize all previously initiated treaties between the natives and the Republic with the announcement of an “exterminating war” on all indigenous populations in Texas.

Before the Civil War, Kaufman County partook in illegal slave trading activities.

In 1859, the Civilian and Gazette published an article which stated that there was a man in Kaufman County selling slaves at two thirds below present prices.

More so, the article stated that the prices were low because there was a regular supply of slaves from Africa. However, the African slave trade in America was outlawed in 1808. Even though congress banned the African slave trade, ships of stolen people continued to arrive in America through the 1860s. It appears as if some in Kaufman County benefited from illegal slave trading.

White residents in Kaufman County did what they wanted.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, Kaufman has a long history of elite white residents making up the laws as they go along in order to preserve white supremacy.

When Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, the South began their plan for secession. However, before the final vote for secession had been taken, Kaufman County commissioner’s court had already taken their first steps to “deal with potential problems and ensure domestic tranquility.”

According to the TSHA, in Kaufman County in 1861, there were over 500 slaves and in February 1861, the court ordered the creation of patrol detachments in each of the precincts “to patrol the negroes.”

Although, a published letter in the local paper said “vigilance committees” were formed in August 1860.

Slave patrols.

If you’ve been paying attention this year, during the George Floyd uprising, you may have heard the term ‘slave patrols,’ more than once. Slave patrols were one of America’s first forms of policing and evolved to what we know not as the police.

Vigilance committees in 1860 had pledged themselves to rid the country of abolitionists. Throughout much of North Texas during 1860, there was fear and worries over insurrection and abolitionists. The white slaveholders in Kaufman County were determined to continue the institution of slavery.

Reconstruction in Kaufman County.

In 1872 the town of Kaufman was incorporated. In protest against Reconstruction, however, the voters refused to hold elections during the 1870s. Kaufman once again held elections, and once again was incorporated, in 1881. 

During the Reconstruction era, Federal officials were having to enforce democratic institutions across the south as Confederate leaders still held power in their local communities. If they weren’t holding elections, then they couldn’t be an incorporated community. So “Reconstruction” or federal intervention was often required to make them hold elections…. once they started holding elections again, the town was able to reincorporate

To understand what the attitude white people in Kaufman had towards the newly freed slaves, look no further than this March 14, 1868 issue of the Kaufman Star.

It was around this time that Jim Crow laws began to take form in the South.

The rise of Kaufman County “Karens.”

The Karens, who we all know today is the name referred to as white women who call the police on Black men and make up stories of assault and harassment. While it seems Karen is a new phenomenon, it’s far from it. Do you remember the movie back in the 1990s called “Rosewood?” If you never saw it, it was based on a true story of an angry white lynch mob that murdered several in the Black community based on one white woman’s accusations.

Accusations from white women in Kaufman County led to multiple lynching in the 1800s and early 1900s. Even in the 2000s, Kaufman County Karens are still accusing innocent Black men of assaults and rapes, (more recent incidents will be discussed later in this series). Many of the stories don’t make sense, yet it’s clear that Black men died for these accusations. Were any of them true? In the racist South? During the Reconstruction Era? 100 years before DNA was used in criminal forensics? We will likely never know.

Martin Bradley / August 17, 1883 – Terrell, Kaufman County TX:

The official narrative reported in papers is that on August 14, 1883, a white waitress named Cora Bickham woke up in the early morning hours to find a black man in her bedroom who attempted to force himself upon her. Supposedly, Bickham resisted and screamed which woke her mother up and brought her into the room. The Black man then jumped out of an open window and Bickham was later identified by the MOTHER as Martin Bradley, a local Black laborer. Cora never identified her supposed accuser.

(The far more likely scenario is that Cora Bickham was caught by her mother having consensual sex with a Black man and to protect herself made up the story.)

During the preliminary hearing, Bradley presented a strong alibi but an all-white jury decided to charge Bradley with a crime. The Judge set Bradley’s bond at $700, which he could not afford to pay and he was placed in jail. At two o’clock the following morning, a  mob “broke down the [jail’s] iron door with a hammer and took Bradley with a rope around his neck.” The leaders of the mob then warned officers not to follow them and took Bradley to a creek bottom roughly half a mile from town.

The Fort Worth Daily Gazette reported that the mob gave Bradley fifteen minutes to reflect on his alleged crime and to pray and supposedly confessed to the attack on Cora Bickham before he was hung from a large oak tree “in the presence of his wife, who behaved frantically.”

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Bradley “begged to be permitted to talk” after he was abducted, but that the mob refused to allow it. This account makes no mention is made of a confession. All accounts confirm that Bradley’s body was left hanging until nine o’clock the following the morning.

The Black community was outraged when they learned that no one would be held responsible for Bradley’s murder. “Negroes congregated on the streets, and threats were made that they would either kill some white man or burn up the town for revenge.” Local white residents put guards throughout the city and one Black man was beaten during the time.

Though it was a white mob that violated Martin Bradley’s rights and denied him a fair trial before they lynched him, the Kaufman Sun portrayed the local Black population as the problem saying, “There is bad blood among certain negroes both in Kaufman and Terrell,” the paper said, “and the white citizens should be very watchful over their lives and property.”

The horrible whipping of Joseph Moore – 1884.

Joseph Moore was a disabled man, who had a short arm, and the community called “Short-arm Joe.” In 1884 he hired (rented) a horse from Thomas Huff, near the city of Kaufman.

Huff said that Moore rode the horse too hard, so Huff and some others tied Moore up and beat him nearly to death with a buggy whip. At the time this happened, there were no federal laws that would have held Huff responsible for his crime.

Frank Johnson, an innocent man riddled with bullets – 1885.

Frank Johnson’s story is a story that we have heard countless times and in our own modern era, we have seen caught on video.

Kaufman County Constable Chitty was looking for a murderer, when he came across Frank Johnson. The Constable said that Johnson fit the description of the murder suspect, so he tried to place him under arrest.

Knowing he wasn’t a murder and a white cop was trying to arrest him, in 1885, Frank Johnson tried to run away. Likely, he was in fear for his life.

As it has always been, running away from the police, in the police’s mind, is a reason to shoot. And that’s just what Constable Chitty did. He shot Frank Johnson.

Luckily, Johnson survived.

Crawford Benson was only 18 years old -1887

In 1887, Crawford Benson, only 18 years old, was accused of attempted rape of a young white girl. At first he was jailed, but then a lynch mob showed up late that night.

They took him out of the jail, hung him from a tree, and then shot him multiple times.

McKeto – 1888

In 1888 John White, a white man, shot and killed a Mexican man named McKeto. He said it was self defense, but what else are you supposed to say when accused of murder?

Sam Smith – 1888

Another Black man accused of raping a white woman. He was jailed, but then a lynch mob came to the jail and took him.

The officers apparently tried to get their prisoner back, exchanging gunshots with the mob, to no avail. Sam Smith was lynched that October afternoon.

Texas White Caps – 1897

White Caps, who behaved very much like the Ku Klux Klan were actually a completely separate organization, however history credits them for the inspiration behind the KKK’s now infamous white hoods.

In the late 1800s, they were terrorizing Black communities all over North Texas.

In September 1897, an elderly Black man named Bill Plyle was taken from his home in Kaufman County by the White Caps and whipped severely, then made to leave his home.

That same week notices had been placed all over the county, which said: “Notice – Negroes, you must leave by the 2d of September, 1897, or you lay yourself liable to death either by dynamite, nitroglycerine or powder and lead. Don’t delay; it is dangerous, and will prove to be a thief of time to you.

White Cap activity in Kaufman County continued for more than a decade.

Part Two of “Staying in Your Lane.”

Check back, next Monday for part two, as we transitions to the 1900s and learn about the disturbing details I uncovered by searching state death certificate records. As it turns out, not all of Kaufman’s murders were publicized and if it wasn’t for the now digital death certificates in Texas that began in 1903, much of Kaufman’s story would continue to go unknown.

Also, in future parts of this series, you’ll learn about previous fights over the Confederate statue, the persistent racism of white Kaufman residents, and how in the 1900s, all the way up to the 1960s, each time racial tensions rose in the county, the bodies murdered Black people would mysteriously appear.

In 2020, the Klan may not being parading on Kaufman County streets and racism may no longer happen in the open, many of those who were alive in Kaufman County during times of racial violence, may still be alive today. If not, their children or their grandchildren may be in high school calling your child the n-word or they may be at the county commissioner hearings, fighting to keep their history in place.

Stay tuned.

(A special thanks to Jessica Luther Rummel for research help.)

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