Karma kills Sundown Towns.
Although this story is about Throckmorton, Texas, it starts in the sleepy little town of Rotan, about ninety miles away. William Henry Govan was born on November 27, 1897, and is most remembered for being a trailblazer for equality in West Texas. He was a Black man living in Texas during a time when hate was a common occurrence. Govan worked dozens of jobs, including shoe-shine, farmer, and janitor, but the most important job he ever had was trainer/waterboy of the Rotan High School Football team.
Over a period of 66-years, Govan only ever missed six games. Otherwise, he was a permanent fixture on the sidelines of the Rotan High School football games between 1923 and 1988. During that time, Govan experienced a lot of racism and white supremacy. After all, it was still the segregated south, but in 1982 he described the most volatile of all incidents to a reporter. The incident occurred in Throckmorton.
In 1953 the Rotan High Football Team was set to play the Throckmorton High Football Team in Throckmorton.
Upon driving into Throckmorton, a sign on the highway read, “Ni**er, don’t let the sun set on you in this town.” Govan said that it wasn’t until after he returned home that someone told him, “Throckmorton was not a town for a N*gro to go in.”
The 1953 Rotan Football Team was white, as Brown v. Board was still a year away. Govan was the only Black person traveling with the team and had to get a police escort to the stadium. Govan later said the police officers were nice. During the game, four boys from Throckmorton and three from Rotan were ejected from the game for fighting.
After his death, Rotan High named their football field “The H. Govan Memorial Stadium,” and the city of Rotan erected a memorial in his honor. He was loved in his community and is widely missed.
If it wasn’t for Govan’s account of the sign in Throckmorton, we might not know it existed.
What is a Sundown Town?
James W. Loewen was an author, a contributor to the History Channel, and a sociology professor. His books have extensively covered America’s racist past, including a book called “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.” He wrote an article called “How To Confirm Sundown Towns.”
This how-to said that we needed to find evidence confirming that a town intentionally kept Black people out. This evidence could be through restrictive covenants throughout the city, violence or threats of the same, bad behavior by white individuals, an ordinance, realtor steering, bank redlining, or other formal or informal policies.
The sign on the highway driving into Throckmorton in the 1950s confirms the town intentionally kept Black people out. However, does that make them a current Sundown Town?
Throckmorton is a dying town (we’ll get to that later), but according to the U.S. Census, which can be accessed and verified several ways, listed 11 Black people living there in 1920. But, by 1930, the Black population went to zero and remained at zero until 2000, when one Black person was listed on the census.
In 2020, according to the U.S. Census, there is only one Black person living in the entire county.
So, what happened between 1920 and 1930 that drove Throckmorton’s small Black population out? A better question would be: who happened?
Judge John Lee Smith.
Judge Smith was elected as Throckmorton County’s judge in 1920. Although he would later be an important political figure in the State of Texas, it was what he did in the early 1920s which ultimately drove Black people out of Throckmorton.
In 1923, Judge Smith was a keynote speaker in a large rally in Throckmorton that addressed the Ku Klux Klan. Over 2,000 people attended the rally, triple what Throckmorton’s population is today. Although what he said in that speech wasn’t publicized, his later speeches about the Klan were.
Felix Robertson was the ex-Confederate and pro-Klan candidate for Texas Governor in 1924. Judge Smith was a huge fan and stumped for him all over the State.
How did Throckmorton County Judge John Smith feel about the Ku Klux Klan?
In a 1924 speech in Denton, Judge Smith accused future Governor, then-candidate Ma Ferguson, of deceiving people about the Ku Klux Klan. He then claimed that the Klan stood for the highest of principles. He used the political activity of the Freemasons as justification for the Klan being in politics. Next, Judge Smith spoke about the good the Klan did, using Jones County as an example. After the Klan took over the courthouse in Jones County, he said that the liquor convictions shot up to 85%. He finished his pro-Klan words by saying all of the evil and vile in Texas opposed the Klan, which is why voters should support the pro-Klan candidate, Felix Robertson.
That same year, the Gainesville Register named Judge John Smith one of Texas’s best speakers.
Was Judge Smith a Klansman himself, or was he just avidly pro-Klan? Unfortunately, I could not find any documentation that suggested Judge Smith was in the Klan, but it’s not like they published their membership lists.
Judge Smith’s pro-Klan activity in his county in the 1920s likely drove the Black people out of Throckmorton.
Judge John Smith was a political powerhouse whose influence had a long-lasting impact on Throckmorton, both the city and the county, and in the State of Texas.
When America ended its prohibition on liquor in 1933, Judge Smith became a vice-chairman of the Anti-Saloon League, a group that worked at making “Dry Counties” throughout Texas. Most Texans are familiar with what a dry county is. It’s a county that prohibits the sale of alcohol within its boundaries. In 2022, only six dry counties are remaining in Texas. Throckmorton is one of them.
Under Judge Smith’s leadership, Throckmorton became dry, and 89-years later, they still uphold Judge Smith’s principles of morality and drinking. And it was under Judge Smith’s leadership that Throckmorton became a Sundown Town, and 102-years later, they have only had one Black person to live among them.
What happened to Judge John Smith?
While you can find information about Judge Smith through the Texas Historical Association and the Texas Political Project, both happen to leave out his pro-Klan ideals, his twisted sense of morality, and how Black people fled Throckmorton County under his leadership, leaving the white population to erect their sign that said, “Ni**er, don’t let the sun set on you in this town.“
Judge Smith was a political powerhouse in the State of Texas between 1920 and the early 1950s, and his long-lasting influence is prevalent in Throckmorton, more than any other place.
What happened to Throckmorton after that?
Black people in Texas knew to stay away from Throckmorton. They knew it wasn’t safe for them. So, they stayed away. Unlike some of the other Sundown Towns we’ve covered that continued to partake in racial violence and Klan activities throughout the 1900s and even today, racial violence was not a part of everyday life in Throckmorton. It couldn’t be because Black people knew to stay away.
Do you remember several years back when then-Governor Rick Perry made national headlines when people found out the name of his hunting camp was Ni**erhead? As it turns out, that camp is in Throckmorton County. In one account in the Atlantic, an elderly Black woman talks about how they drove through Throckmorton in the 1950s and stopped for gas. The gas station owner refused to sell gas to them because they were Black.
The offensive sign for Rick Perry’s camp remained as late as 2008. It’s unclear whether it’s been painted over now, 14-years later, although Rick Perry claims it has.
Is Throckmorton still a Sundown Town?
Yes. While the census shows that one Black person is living in Throckmorton County, we don’t have any information about this person, how isolated they are, or how complicit they are in the system.
The population of the city of Throckmorton is 727, too small for its police force. The population of Throckmorton County is 1,440. Throckmorton County does have a sheriff, although it’s unclear if the sheriff’s department has any deputies or other staff. In a county this small, it’s unlikely.
Doc Wigginton isn’t only the county sheriff. He’s also the county tax assessor. And as he’s in charge of all law enforcement for the entire county, any persons driving through Throckmorton may be pulled over by Sheriff Wigginton.
Why is that frightening? One look at Sheriff Wigginton’s Twitter account will tell you. He’s pro-Trump, pro-domestic terrorism, anti-Hispanic, and all-around an angry and unhinged individual.
We strongly suggest that all people of color avoid going into Throckmorton at any cost. Their lives and safety may be at great risk.
Death to Throckmorton!
Both the city of Throckmorton and Throckmorton County are dying.
During the past few decades, changes in agriculture and the oil and gas industry have led to dwindling employment opportunities in rural Texas. As a result, many young people leave rural communities after high school to seek economic and social opportunities, often never returning.
In Throckmorton County, 14% of the population lives in poverty, and 25% of the population is uninsured.
While there is a small health clinic, it’s bleeding money, and the city of Throckmorton spends more money on the health clinic than any other expense in their city. It’s unsustainable, and unless Texas expands Medicaid, it’s only a matter of time until this clinic shutters its doors, like so many other rural health clinics before it.
|Census Year||City of Throckmorton||Throckmorton County|
Many people in this area don’t have access to broadband internet, and their roads and infrastructure are crumbling. The town can’t afford to fix its streets with such little revenue.
The death of Throckmorton is slow and painful.
During the 2020 presidential election, the county voted 90% for Trump and 9% for Biden. This means that this rural city/county that’s bleeding money will soon lose its rural health clinic, has a crumbling infrastructure, and is driving out its youth, will continue to vote against its own best interests. Racism is so ingrained in this area that they would instead use their votes to further their hate than make life better for themselves.
They will continue to embrace their conservative way of life while the rest of the State and the country leaves them behind. And Throckmorton will continue to die.
By 2080, Throckmorton will be a ghost town. Karma for Judge John Smith’s moral sins, the evils that Throckmorton embraced long after his rule and long after his death.
And in a state where white people are now a minority, we say, “Death to Sundown Towns and death to Throckmorton!”
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