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Is Vidor, TX Still A Sundown Town?

Is Vidor, TX Still A Sundown Town?

Vidor, TX is the most well-known Sundown Town in Texas, but what is Vidor like in 2021?

A few months ago, I launched a new series to address active Sundown Towns in Texas. The first town I covered was a county, Comanche County. The response received the most was comments and questions about Vidor. While there are plenty of towns and counties I still have yet to cover, I wanted to address Vidor directly.

To confirm Vidor is, isn’t, or was a Sundown Town I needed to find evidence confirming that a town intentionally kept Black people out. This evidence could be either through the use of restrictive covenants throughout the town, violence or threats of same, bad behavior by white individuals, an ordinance, realtor steering, bank redlining, or other formal or informal policies.

On the surface, this appeared to be an easy task, but with Vidor, there was more than meets the eye.

I came across this documentary on YouTube called “The Least of My Brothers,” which answered many questions about what happened in the 1990s regarding the integrated public housing incident.

The documentary showed interviews with residents who talked about a billboard that warned Black people to stay out of town. (We’ll get to that)

The Least of My Brothers – 2015 Documentary about 1990s Vidor Klan Incident

Mostly, the documentary speaks about Bill Simpson, a Black man who lived in Vidor, and his murder in Beaumont one day after moving out of Vidor.

July, 1994

HUD attempted to integrate Vidor public housing in 1993 and moved several Black families into town. Unfortunately, they were met with racism and harassment. It didn’t last long before they packed up and left.

Several local Klan groups were part of the harassment in the 1990s.

Michael Lowe and Charles Lee, the 1993 Grand Dragons of two local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, were behind much of the intimidation and hate which met Bill Simpson and the other Black families that year.

The state sued both grand dragons. When they refused to give up their members list, they both served jail time. Neither one of the grand dragons lived in Vidor; both since have died.

At the time, the Klan was widely blamed for Simpson’s murder. It was later determined the Klan wasn’t involved, when the murderers were arrested.

After Simpson’s murder, there was a victory parade in the town to celebrate Vidor once again being an all-white town. The national media condemned Vidor and trashed Vidor’s name because of this parade.

However, as it turned out, the white nationalists in the Vidor parade, they weren’t from Vidor, they weren’t even from Texas. They drove in from Learned, Mississippi.

Near the end of “The Least of My Brothers,” it showed city council meetings from 1994 packed with residents wanting to keep the hate groups from out of their town.

Did Vidor get a bad rap?

The documentary paints it that way. During the 90s, there weren’t any documented incidents of actual violence. Instead, the short film asserts that the Black families had moved out of Vidor because of racism, even though those threats involved only a small handful of people.

The now infamous 2006 CNN article talks about how its past haunted Vidor. The article’s author said the impression he was left with after interviewing the mayor was that Vidor was a welcoming community to all races. However, after his interview, he sat down to eat at a local café.

While at the café, he spoke with residents who openly expressed views of racism. He concluded by stating Vidor was trying to change, but they weren’t trying that hard, which is why they still hadn’t escaped their past.

Another article from 2001 in the Baytown Sun echoed that sentiment that Vidor was eager to shed their reputation as a Klan stronghold.

How did Vidor get the reputation as a Klan stronghold in the first place?

Was it the 1993 incident that scarred this town so badly that if you bring up the topic of “Sundown Towns in Texas,” that the immediate response is Vidor? Or was it the 1993 incident that made Vidor the most famous of all Texas Sundown Towns?

Remember the sign that residents spoke about being outside Vidor, warning Black people to stay out? I started looking for evidence of the sign, thinking that would lead me to the bigger story about what happened in Vidor in the 20th Century, which gave them that notorious reputation.

From the late 1800s to mid-1900s, there were signs in cities and counties all over rural Texas. More than a dozen cities proudly displayed these hate warnings. Here is an article in a 1955 issue of the Orange Leader, which references the Vidor sign.

1955 article mentioning sign.

The article casually mentioned that a few Black people could come into town in 1955 because they worked for White families.

It said, “for years, the road bore a sign.” W. R. Price lived on Wilson Street in Vidor, where the alleged sign was. The documentary called the sign a local legend but said it had was removed by the 1970s.

How did Vidor gain it’s bad reputation?

On November 27, 1983, the Baytown Sun published an article titles “Vidor’s Past Haunts Vidor.

Even back in 1983, Vidor had an image of being a stronghold or even the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. The article said that most of the images were a myth. That same year Texas Monthly published a report calling Vidor the home of the Ku Klux Klan. Locals asserted that they got a bum rap.

Oddly, for the last 40 years, Vidor has been fighting this reputation. In 2006, Vidor, city officials told a CNN reporter that they welcomed everyone. In 2001, they blamed their reputation on out-of-towners during the 1990s. And in 1983, they called their reputation mostly a myth.

To understand how Vidor became known as Texas’ most famous Sundown Town, we have to start at the beginning.

Vidor started as a lumber camp.

The Miller & Vidor Lumber Company started a lumber camp in the early 1900s, which was later incorporated as Vidor. However, the lumber camp moved out in 1920. When the lumber company moved out, the population of Vidor was only 50.

Up until 1920, there was no evidence of white on Black violence, except one incident, when a police officer shot and killed a Black man in 1910, a common occurrence everywhere in the South.

The Miller & Vidor Lumber Company

With a population of only 50, even if all 50 were Klansmen in the 1920s, it’s hard to imagine that would be characterized as a Klan stronghold.

Orange Klan builds church in Vidor.

In the 1920s in Southeast Texas, there are mountains of evidence of Ku Klux Klan activity, however, the only evidence of the Klan activity in Vidor during the roaring 20s was when the Orange Klan donated money to build a church in Vidor.

Did the Klan then move to Vidor to live and worship and build their stronghold after that?

By 1940 the population of Vidor remained low with 706 residents.

Then, in the 1940s, the Miller & Vidor Lumber Company began selling off all of their lands in Vidor. They only sold land to white families. In 1940 Texas, Black people were not moving to rural white areas, and they likely wouldn’t be able to obtain loans from the banks to purchase a property.

So, by the time 1950 rolled around, Vidor was a little pocket of 2,100 white people.

Then in 1954, the Supreme Court passed down a decision that put the South in turmoil for a long time. When Brown v. The Board of Education was decided, white parents in Southern states lost their minds. The South saw years of violence and white flight from urban areas.

During the 1950s, there were countless local newspaper articles discussing school integration, like this one. Each one listing the racial makeup of each school district, Vidor always having 0 Black students.

White flight from larger cities from families looking to escape desegregated schools descended on Vidor. By the late 50s, Vidor had a booming population of white families looking to escape from school integration.

What happened in Vidor in the 1950s?

Vidor was an all-white town with no Black residents, but between 1946 and 1962, many Black people died by accidents in Vidor.

Lee Solomon, a 56-year old Black man who lived in Orange was killed by a hit-and-run in Vidor in 1946.

In 1949, 48-year old Martin Bronson, also Black, was allegedly killed in a forested area of Vidor when a log rolled off of a truck.

Kenneth Bennett, only a 15-year old Black child, died drowning while swimming in Vidor in 1956.

Another Black man, Albert Brandon, drown in 1958 while swimming in Vidor.

38-year old Henry Charles died on impact when he jumped out of a moving bus in 1959.

Then in 1965, 40-year Freddie Wallace was also killed in a hit-and-run.

The Texas records of death certificates readily available online span between 1903 and 1982. As far as Vidor goes, there are no records of any Black person dying by accident before 1948 or after 1965. Nor are there any records of Black people dying from natural causes at any time during Vidor’s history.

Was that the era when Vidor was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold?

Yes. Whether it was Klan sanctuary or the Klan grew in Vidor from the want of keeping the town white, there was certainly a Klan presence in Vidor in the 50s and 60s.

Cross Burnings in Vidor.

In 1957, the Vidor Klan heard rumors that their schools would be integrated. In response, they burned crosses in front of businesses that allegedly employed Black people. The rumors were unfounded. The 1957 article spoke about the sign that said, “Don’t let the sun set on you here.”

Most Vidor residents were silent after the cross burnings, however the Ku Klux Klan continued to harass two local businesses which they believed to have Black employees.

At one of the businesses, the Black employees asked the sheriff to escort them out of town. The sheriff didn’t provide an escort, because he didn’t think the situation warranted it.

And as we all know: Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses.

The other business vehemently denied having any Black employees.

Vidor’s reputation by 1960 undoubtedly stemmed from incidents like the cross burnings and the odd amount of Black people who had accidental deaths in the town.

Were the deaths all accidents?

65ish-years later, who knows? It’s suspicious that a handful of Black people died by accident in Vidor, at the height of their Klan activity, during a 17-year times pan, and no similar deaths were reported before or after.

Klan threatens businesses in 1957.

The Vidor Klan was active in the 1960s.

In 1965, they participated in a march in Austin on the same weekend Frankie Langston, the head of the Vidor Ku Klux Klan hosted a rally in town. The rally consisted of out of town Klansmen and only claimed 200 attendees.

In 1966, Frankie Langston and his fellow Klansman, Milton Carlton, showed up at the Beaumont Police station in full Klan regalia. They were both charged with an anti-Klan mask law. Both were later acquitted of all charges.

They said they went into the Police Station in their Klan outfits to bail out other Klan members who were arrested on traffic charges during the “automobile caravan.”

In the 1960s, the Klan used to drive around together, in a train-like formation, dressed up in white sheets to scare minorities. It is the same thing as a Trump Train, but with different outfits. Ironically, Confederate flags could be spotted in a Klan Train, just like they can with Trump Trains.

Was that a long time ago?

Frankie Langston quits the Klan.
1971 – Klan beats city councilman.

Likely your age guides your opinion on time relevance. You might feel like 1965 was a long time ago if you’re younger, but we can put it in perspective.

83-year old Frankie Langston is still alive and still a Vidor resident. Langston publicly quit the Klan in 1966 because he thought public opinion would doom them.

Then, something odd happened in 1972. Strom Thurmond (yes, that Strom Thurmond), who was stumping for President Nixon, held a rally in Vidor.

At the time, Vidor’s population was less than 10,000, which is why it seems strange that Thurmond would hold a presidential election campaign rally there.

That’s exactly how the Southern Strategy worked; Nixon had to appeal to racists to win the South.

The Klan activity in Vidor continued throughout the 70s.

In 1971, after city councilman C. E. Scott made a motion to fire Vidor policeman B. L. Vandewater. The motion passed and the entire Vidor police department, including the chief, quit.

The Vidor Klan marches in Austin.
1965 Klan rally in Vidor.
Langston and Carlton wear KKK robes into Beaumont Police Station.

Because of that, local Vidor Klansmen beat up Councilman Scott. He immediately resigned after that incident. Vidor no longer had a police force, and Orange County Sheriffs took over policing the town.

The same year, the Klan held multiple rallies in both Beaumont and Vidor. However, on February 1, 1972, the Vidor Ku Klux Klan alerted the local newspaper that they were disbanded.

It was just a rouse, though.

The Klan continued to hold rallies in Vidor every year, multiple per year, for a long time after that.

One 1975 article even spoke about one Klan rally like a church picnic. Children waved flags and carried balloons as barbeque smoke filled the air.

Port Arthur News – 4/3/1974
Port Arthur News – 4/09/1975
Corpus Christi Times 6/11/1975
Austin Daily Texan – 7/29/1973
Port Arthur News – 4/28/1974
Vidor Klan disbands.

If a small kid was at a Klan rally with his parents in 1975, how old would he be now? 50?

At that same rally, the speakers spoke a lot about making America a “white Christian country again.” Sound familiar?

New Klan faces.

By 1976 the National KKK had a new grand dragon named Dan Smathers, and he lived in Vidor.

Port Arthur News – 1/24/1977
Port Arthur News – 9/3/1978
Port Arthur News – 9/28/1978
Ammunition Factory in Vidor
Port Arthur News – 5/16/1981

Under the leadership of Dan Smathers, there were multiple incidents of threats and violence in the late 70s. Smathers has since passed away.

In 1978, Vidor resident Daniel Harvey became the youngest Ku Klux Klan officer to hold that position in the local chapter.

64-year old Daniel Harvey still lives in Vidor today.

The grand dragon of the “original Ku Klux Klan,” A. W. Harvey from Vidor, wrote a letter to the local news that year explaining the Klan’s positions and love of Jesus. It’s assumed A. W. Harvey was related to Daniel Harvey somehow but has since died.

In 1980, the Ku Klux Klan gladly boasted of operating an ammunition factory in Vidor.

In 1981, the Port Arthur News published an article about a “country-fair flavored” Klan rally in Vidor.

Then, in 1982, Vidor canceled their Christmas parade because the Vidor Klan enrolled a float, but other townspeople didn’t want them there. So when the Klan refused to withdraw their float, the town canceled the entire parade.

So, in 1983 when the Baytown Sun published the article about Vidor being haunted by their past and Vidor not being a Klan stronghold anymore, that was complete bullshit.

By the time Vidor reached a population over 10,000, there is no doubt that people who lived in the town weren’t part of the Klan and weren’t racist. However, that doesn’t take away that there was still a Klan presence in Vidor in 1983 and beyond.

In late 1983, there was a Klan rally in Vidor against immigration, where the Klan urged Governor Mark White to close the border.

Then in 1985, A. W. Harvey, the former grand dragon A. W. Harvey ran for Vidor mayor. During his run, he told the press, he would “allow Blacks in Vidor if they had proper backing and a clean record.”

Klan activity in Vidor was quiet in the late 80s.

Then in picked back up in the early 90s, when public housing was integrated. Although, the Vidor locals wanted to portray the Klan activity as coming from out-of-towners, there were multiple incidents that happened before the out-of-towners showed up.

Like this cross burning, for instance, which the Orange Leader published an article about, in their August 23, 1992 issue.

1992 cross burning in Vidor.
Houston Daily Cougar – 4/15/1975
Dan Smathers – National KKK Grand Dragon.
1976
Port Arthur News – 7/11/1983
Port Arthur News – 12/3/1983
A. W. Harvey runs for mayor.

While the 1990s incident was going on, Vidor residents repeatedly told media outlets, including the Orange Leader and the Galveston Daily, there was no Klan in their town, nor had there been in 20 years.

It’s understandable why non-Klan Vidor residents would say that and why they don’t want that reputation in their town, but it simply wasn’t true.

During the legal fallout from the 90s incident, several more Vidor Klan members were identified.

Joel Horne was the Vidor Klan den leader. However, he died in 2006.

Then there was the Foux family.

The mother, Judith, placed Ku Klux Klan calling cards on the cars of a pro-integration Vidor reverent. Her son David was charged with intimidating a grand jury witness and her son Steven was charged with lying to the grand jury.

Although Judith has since passed, her son David still lives in Beaumont, and Steven moved away to Muleshoe.

Check out Steven Foux’s Ku Klux Klan tattoo.

Although the two Foux brothers moved away from Vidor, they still have dozens of family members living there.

Regardless of how many people had ties with the Ku Klux Klan in Vidor, city officials continued to blame outsiders on the rallies from 1993 and assert the Vidor Klan died out in the 1970s.

But that wasn’t exactly true.

In 1995 when the Human Rights Commission sued the Ku Klux Klan for their behavior in Vidor, the city of Vidor refused to join the suit.

Then in 1997, a KKK assassination plot was uncovered in Vidor. Members associated with the Vidor Klan planned on murdering the Texas Commissioner of Human Rights and the Texas Attorney General.

But still, Vidor residents continued to call the Ku Klux Klan outside agitators.

Vidor resident, Joel Horne, was also the Klan den-leader.
Judith, Steven, and David Foux charged in relation to Klan activities in 1992.
Orange Leader – 6/30/1995
Orange Leader – 3/15/1995

In 1998, when Ku Klux Klan members murdered Robert Byrd in Jasper, Texas (only an hour away from Vidor), both grand dragons from the 1993 incident, Michael Lowe and Charles Lee, held Klan rallies in Jasper, supporting the hate crime.

Orange Leader – 8/31/1997

Joining them was Derrell Flinn, imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and Vidor resident.

The Ku Klux Klan in Jasper.

After Robert Byrd’s murder, the Ku Klux Klan descended on Jasper. While most Klansmen were masked and hid their identities, Darrell Flinn was open about who he was and told multiple news outlets that his Klan group was based out of Vidor.

Darrell Flinn continued to make his presence known in the area until 1999, then seemingly dropped off of the face of the Earth. However, in 2008, related to another case, the SPLC wrote that Flinn had a Black girlfriend in 1996, and that’s why he disappeared. (Although, I believe they got the date wrong)

Amarillo Daily News – 6/17/1998

After 1999, there were no more publicized Ku Klux Klan rallies or marches in Vidor.

In 2001, the Galveston Daily News wrote about eight Black people living in Vidor. Clarence Russell, one of those residents, interviewed with the paper and told them it was uncomfortable to live there and tried to keep to himself.

And in 2005, Vidor took in Katrina refugees.

In 2011, the Ku Klux Klan was spotted in Vidor, on the side of the road selling t-shirts.

After 2011, I couldn’t find evidence of a Ku Klux Klan chapter or members in Vidor. That was ten years ago. Not 30 or 60 like some locals would want outsiders to believe.

Now, in 2021, Vidor remains a mostly white town, and they still struggle with their reputation.

Shortly after the 2020 George Floyd incident, the topic of race and Black Lives matter was brought up in the local Vidor Facebook group, “Vidor Views,” with over 4,000 members.

They were saying the same thing that Vidor residents have been saying for 40 years now, that’s not who Vidor is, Vidor isn’t racist, Vidor is a great town, and so on.

However, mixed in with the comments are several racist comments as well. But, then, some of the people posting about how Vidor is past racism on their personal Facebook pages are years’ worth of racist posts.

Eight Black residents lived in Vidor in 2001.
Klan in Vidor in 2011

But didn’t Black Lives Matter march in Vidor in 2020?

They did. While some of the protesters were from Vidor, many of them traveled from nearby towns in solidarity. A small counter protest met them.

Some have pointed to this particular event in June of 2020 as proof that Vidor has shook away their long standing reputation as the most famous Sundown Town in Texas.

However, many failed to acknowledge that the protest was over and the protesters were gone long before sundown.

Most mainstream media outlets failed to cover the white militia members who showed up that day with long guns and body armor.

Far-right extremists news reporter, Kevin Steele, interviewed the militia who specifically said they were out there as a show of force.

But there wasn’t any Klan activity, right?

This 2018 report from KPRC talks about the decline of the Ku Klux Klan in Southeast Texas. However, as their report mentions, it’s not because people stopped being white supremacists; it’s because they’ve been joining other groups.

Many of the old Klansmen who ruled Vidor in the 1950s through 2000 are still alive. Just because they aren’t card-carrying members of the KKK anymore doesn’t mean they’ve changed their ideology.

2020 Black Lives Matter march in Vidor.
Militia shows up to give Black Lives Matter a “show of force.”
KPRC says Klan losing ground.

Instead, they’ve had children and grandchildren who they likely passed their ideology onto. Their descendants probably still live in Vidor, too. Just because they never joined their daddy’s KKK chapter doesn’t mean they welcome BIPOC with open arms.

In 2019, a car full of teenage boys thought it would be a good idea to spend the day in Vidor. They caught the incident on video and uploaded it to YouTube.

That wasn’t a good idea.

Knowing what we all know about Vidor, now, those kids likely put themselves in danger. But, unfortunately, they did have a gun pulled on them, and an angry white man in Wal-Mart accosted them.

Teenagers take risk for YouTube video.

So, is Vidor, Texas an active Sundown Town?

Even though they currently have a 0.1% Black population, it’s safe to say that if a Black person was in Vidor after Sundown, they might come across an old Klansman or one of their Klanspawns, and end their night as the target of hate.

Vidor residents said for decades that the Klan activity in their town was long over, all while active Vidor Klan chapters held rallies, made TV appearances, and even sold t-shirts on the side of the road. That doesn’t mean that they were lying, they could have been, but it could also mean there is a dark underworld in Vidor that they weren’t involved in.

In a town of 10,000 people, there are likely a lot of good, nice, and not-racist folks. But, while those not-racist folks would be perfectly fine with Black people in their town after the sun sets, the “other people” who live in Vidor’s dark underworld would not be okay with it.

Based on all of the information provided, it seems obvious that Vidor is still a Sundown Town.

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