Last month, Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1325 into law, legalizing the production and sale of hemp with less than .3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. But then came an unexpected twist. Crime labs across the state didn’t have the proper equipment to test for this level of THC, and consequently, prosecutors decided to drop hundreds of cases involving low-level marijuana charges.
Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau was not among them. Instead of taking a cue from other prosecutors in Texas, Mau opted to continue pursuing prosecution. As a Hays County resident for more than 16 years, I am worried about the message Mau’s no-tolerance decision is sending to residents directly impacted by these life-altering charges.
The Hays County Law Enforcement Center. GoogleMaps
HB 1325 gives Hays County a legal and legitimate reason to stop planting people in jail for extended periods of time; it effectively saves the county money. On average, it costs $60 per day to hold a person in county jail.
There’s a broader issue at play here, too. If Hays County wants to adhere to the law, it needs to budget for the new and expensive laboratory equipment and accreditation required to test marijuana for the new legal levels. This could cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million per year to initiate and maintain, according to Peter Stout, president of the Houston Forensic Science Center. These are valuable dollars that could be put to use to reduce the backlog in our current criminal justice system, expand the community library and allocate more resources for low-income, underserved communities in the county. Or the money could be used to pursue important criminal justice policy initiatives like Cite and Release and LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion). These policies provide people accused of certain offenses with the opportunity to be diverted to treatment and rehabilitation programs in lieu of incarceration. Versions of these diversion policies have already been successfully implemented in other parts of the state, including Bexar and Harris counties.
As Hays County officials continue to debate how to reduce the jail population, I hope they remember the needs of their concerned constituents and the people who have been forced to face the penal system without affordable or adequate legal representation. Declining to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses is a win-win for the county and for defendants. I hope that DA Wes Mau will reconsider his decision and prioritize the people most affected by his decision: the residents of Hays County.
When the wind blows across Port Arthur, a predominantly African American city on the Gulf Coast, it’s likely carrying toxic gasses like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and benzene into residents’ lungs. Bordering the city are two sprawling oil refineries, one of which is the largest such facility in the United States. Activists here helped establish tighter national limits for pollution from refineries and plants. Now, Port Arthur might be the site of yet another fight for clean air.
Last month, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality released a scientific assessment that justifies an increase in the amount of ethylene oxide that petrochemical plants can legally emit. TCEQ’s assessment is the first step toward increasing the amount of legally acceptable ethylene oxide emissions to 1,000 times the current rate. Ethylene oxide, which is used to create products like antifreeze and adhesives, is a known carcinogen linked to lymphoma, leukemia and breast cancer.
“Southeast Texas in particular is a home and refuge for oil and gas. TCEQ is working hard to lift these regulations.”
TCEQ’s report asserts that Environmental Protection Agency models overestimate the number of cancer deaths that can be linked to the chemical. Environmental advocates from the Sierra Club, Environment Texas and other groups wrote a letter to TCEQ last week requesting a 45-day extension to review the agency’s methodology and findings, citing a 2018 EPA report that found that “communities nationwide, including in Texas, are facing extraordinarily high cancer risk due to this exposure.” Two experts told the Observer that they can’t reasonably review the agency’s complex assessment by the current deadline of August 12, particularly when the stakes are so high given existing research around ethylene oxide’s carcinogenic effects. The letter says that the agency is “attacking and proposing to ignore EPA scientists’ evaluation” of health risks.
In a statement provided to the Observer, TCEQ stood by its findings, saying that the assessment was “consistent with standard scientific practices, as well as with the agency’s own peer-reviewed methods.”
“There was nothing from TCEQ stating that this [assessment] was happening,” says Hilton Kelley, the director of Community In-Power and Development Association, an environmental advocacy group in Port Arthur. “Southeast Texas in particular is a home and refuge for oil and gas. TCEQ is working hard to lift these regulations,” he says. “It is up to us to get this information out there and protect our communities.” Many residents are likely unaware that the assessment could affect the quality of the air that they breathe. A longer review period would allow community organizations to educate and engage residents on the issue.
Hilton Kelley, who returned to Port Arthur 19 years ago to fight pollution and poverty in his community, rebuilds his house after Hurricane Harvey. Michael Barajas
Nearly 30 areas in Texas — from the Houston Ship Channel to Odessa and Irving — would be impacted by an increase in emissions of the carcinogen from chemical plants, says Neil Carman, the Sierra Club’s Clean Air Director. Many of these communities are low-income and predominantly communities of color, just like Port Arthur. Rates of cancer, asthma and other respiratory illnesses are measurably higher in such communities, since industrial facilities have historically been located closer to where low-income and minority Texans live. For example, cancer rates among black residents in Jefferson County, home to Port Arthur, are higher than the state average.
The EPA is currently reviewing the federal limit for ethylene oxide emissions under the Clean Air Act and isn’t expected to make a final decision before 2020. TCEQ’s assessment could have an impact on the EPA’s review, since the agency can rely on scientific reports produced by state environmental agencies. With industry-friendly and science-skeptic Texan Michael Honeycutt on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Carman says that the situation is particularly worrisome. Honeycutt has previously downplayed the dangers that mercury, arsenic and ozone pose to public health. If the emissions limit is raised in Texas, Carman says, it could have a ripple effect across the United States, putting yet more vulnerable communities at risk from the hundreds of chemical plants that spew the pollutant.
Port of No Return: A year after Hurricane Harvey, Port Arthur is fighting for survival. Will Texas’ disaster recovery process push residents deeper into despair, or help lift them out of it?
Professor Trill: Rapper Bun B on Port Arthur, resilience and the meaning of trill.
It’s been more than three years since a federal judge ruled that Texas dumps some of the state’s most vulnerable children into a foster care system “where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm.”
Following a 2015 trial in a lawsuit brought by children’s advocacy groups, federal district judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi also concluded that state leaders can’t be trusted to reform the system on their own. Her blistering, 260-page verdict delivered in December 2015 accused state officials of deep-sixing an internal review that revealed “staggering” failures in child abuse investigations. She scolded one state witness who attempted to manipulate department data, including lowering child fatality stats. The judge chastised another state expert who, in an attempt to debunk the plaintiffs’ claims, further traumatized a teenage girl who’d already been battered by the system.
Since then, lawyers with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office have spent millions fighting the suit in court, where they’ve mostly lost. Until this month, when a ruling in the state’s latest challenge delivered a victory of sorts. Last week, a federal appeals court blocked a major piece of Jack’s order that would’ve required the state to revamp its dysfunctional computer system for tracking kids in foster care. Paxton’s office hasn’t said whether it plans to file more appeals in the case.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Patrick Michels
“From our perspective, the time for the state to fight is over and the time for the state to fix is at hand,” said Paul Yetter, a Houston attorney representing several foster children in the lawsuit. “The tragedy of this delay is that the state is determined to continue putting children through a system where they come out worse than when they entered.”
Child advocacy groups sued Texas in 2011, accusing the Department of Family and Protective Services of showing deliberate indifference to the roughly 12,000 kids stuck in long-term foster care until they age out of the system. The case highlighted stories of abuse and neglect suffered by numerous children in long-term foster care and argued such treatment is the norm rather than the exception. Jack ultimately agreed, writing that evidence presented at trial had revealed the state ignored internal failures for years and showed a “systemic willingness to put children in harm’s way.”
Marcia Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, one of the groups that sued the state, says Texas has fought harder than other states where advocates have pushed for reforms. According to the Dallas Morning News, Paxton’s office has spent nearly $10 million fighting the 8-year-old lawsuit.
“Texas is unique in that plaintiffs won a large part of the case, and yet the state continues to appeal basically as many times as they can,” Lowry told the Observer. “It’s very troubling that the state continues to fight for a system that is demonstrably harmful to children, that they’d clearly rather spend their money fighting ruling after ruling rather than take the necessary steps to fix the system.” She hopes Texas stops fighting after this month’s appeals court ruling.
“The tragedy of this delay is that the state is determined to continue putting children through a system where they come out worse than when they entered.”
If past is prologue, that’s unlikely. While the state largely lost its latest challenge, it still has some legal runway. Paxton’s office, which didn’t respond to questions from the Observer this week, could still delay the reforms the courts have left standing by filing even more challenges with the federal Fifth Circuit appeals court — or, if that fails, take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Governor Greg Abbott — who first defended the state against the lawsuit when it was filed during his tenure as attorney general — has publicly urged the courts to toss the case, citing some $500 million in new funding lawmakers allocated to the system two years ago for new hires and raises for overburdened caseworkers.
Yetter, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, argues that the state’s cash infusion doesn’t address the systemic reforms needed to both alleviate crushing caseloads for child protective workers and adequately monitor kids in state custody. “We’ve seen absolutely no improvement in the quality of the care given to children,” he told the Observer. “If you simply pour more money onto a problem while ignoring the larger plan to solve that problem, it’s wasted money.”
Expecting Care: How Texas is failing foster kids and contributing to an alarming teen pregnancy rate.
Fostering Neglect: Texas’ foster care reforms were supposed to fix a deadly system. Instead, they might make it worse.
There’s a painting in Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today that sums up the exhibit’s quietly subversive mood. Titled “Robert,” the acrylic work depicts a heavyset bearded man in a Morrissey T-shirt. With tattoos on his arm and a black cuff bracelet on his wrist, he appears stereotypically masculine. Then you notice that he’s wielding a pair of quilting shears, cutting fabric for a sewing project. Artist James Gobel, whose work focuses on bear culture, has adorned the painting with pieces of yarn, felt and thread. Why shouldn’t a big, masculine man partake in a traditionally feminine craft?
Transamerica/n bends gender norms in all sorts of directions. On display at the McNay Art Museum until September 15, the exhibit is billed as the country’s first major survey of North American art focused on gender identity. It’s presented in tandem with an exhibit of portraits by Andy Warhol and includes 100 pieces by more than 50 LGBTQ artists and allies, with a special emphasis on San Antonio’s Latino community.
Among the members of that community is Nicki Lucio, who contributed a self-portrait series to the show. Each painting portrays a different emotion, depicted in shades of gray. “A few years ago, I wouldn’t even look at a mirror,” Lucio said. “Whenever I worked on a self-portrait, it evoked a strong emotion, and it wasn’t a healthy way to be.” Lucio, who is openly trans, decided to confront her experiences with self-loathing by painting a self-portrait each day, treating it as on ongoing conversation with herself.
Rene Barrilleaux, the McNay’s head of curatorial affairs, emphasizes that the “trans” in the title refers not to just transgender art and artists, but to the broader idea of transgressing and crossing boundaries of all kinds: across gender norms, genre and media, class and culture. An eye-catching example of the latter is “El Arcoíris (The Rainbow)” by David Zamora Casas, an artist and activist in San Antonio. The artwork is presented as a giant altar, inspired by Mexico’s Dia de Los Muertos tradition. The altar holds portraits of Latino and Latina people across the gender spectrum alongside sugar skulls and other traditional items. Bright color-changing lights shine at the bottom of the altar, bringing the rainbow to life.
Transamerica/n is on display at the McNay Art Museum until September 15. Beth Devillier/McNay Art Museum
Another piece, “Doc in a Box,” was created based on artist Sarah Hill’s experiences at a doctor’s office. The 12-minute film uses puppets and humor to engage with the idea of medical trauma. It’s hard not to smile at the sight of the purple puppet, which sits on display at the exhibit, complete with large circular glasses, buck teeth and a neat yellow bow tie. This trans puppet is the focus of the film, attending a doctor’s appointment after a month of waiting and using its squeaky voice to ask about hormones, only to be misgendered and told that the doctor can’t prescribe testosterone.
“I try to use comedy to try to convey a message that’s harder to hear,” Hill said. “I think it makes it more palatable for people, not just hitting them over the head with the message.”
Transamerica/n could’ve easily been guilty of tokenism. Instead, the exhibit emphasizes a rich range of life experiences, cultures and artistic styles, encouraging viewers to ask questions and broaden their understanding. Lucio echoed this.
“I want people to understand we’re all humans,” Lucio said. “There’s more to my work than just what’s on the wall, but the person behind it. They have hopes and dreams just like everyone else.”
With the far right ascendant in Texas politics, once-marginal ideas and people have found a place in the political mainstream. Our recurring Fringe Factor series is an introduction to the often-unknown, but influential activists, thinkers and operatives who play a growing role in shaping the state.
Bradley Pierce and Wesley Thomas draw a distinction between themselves and other anti-abortion activists. They are not “pro-life,” they’re “abolitionists.” The two leaders of the group Abolish Abortion Texas, founded three years ago, compare themselves to anti-slavery abolitionists in their crusade to outlaw abortion without exception. Texas must “ignore Roe,” Pierce said at the state GOP convention last year, in order to end “the Nile River of blood that is flowing through our land.”
Abolish Abortion Texas is the most extreme anti-abortion group in the state. Both leaders are staunch religious-right activists: Thomas is a GOP precinct chairman in Liberty County, according to his Facebook page; Pierce, who lives in Liberty Hill, is an attorney and cofounder of the legal advocacy firm Heritage Defense, which is dedicated to “advancing the Kingdom of Christ by protecting and empowering the biblical family.” Abolish Abortion Texas has gained momentum this year, as red states pass increasingly extreme anti-abortion bills in order to set up a Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade. Thomas claims the group has grown from 3,000 to nearly 90,000 members since the beginning of this year.
Already they’ve had legislative victories. Members convinced the Texas GOP to adopt outlawing abortion, regardless of federal law, as part of the official party platform in 2016. Pierce and Thomas also allied with far-right Arlington Representative Tony Tinderholt, who filed the Abolish Abortion Act in the last two sessions, which would have criminalized abortion and charged patients and doctors with murder. Tinderholt told the Observer in 2017 that his proposal would “force” women to be “more personally responsible.” It did not include exceptions for rape and incest.
“Divine laws trump man’s law, so when a court comes into conflict with what God has said — thou shalt not murder — the court loses.”
“The entire bill is about treating people how you want be treated, it’s about the Golden Rule,” Pierce said of Tinderholt’s bill, which would make women who get abortions eligible for the death penalty. “Because every human being is made in the image of God.” The bill got a hearing this session in the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, chaired by Republican state Representative Jeff Leach.
Pierce and Thomas argue that states don’t need to wait for the courts to reverse the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. “Roe v. Wade was not only an unconstitutional decision but is morally wrong and Texas leaders are duty bound to ignore it and provide equal protection to all Texans,” Thomas wrote in an email to the Observer.
Abolish Abortion Texas is unique in that it opposes any incremental anti-abortion measures that do not outlaw the procedure entirely. Group members have testified against bills, including one in 2017 to mandate burial or cremation of fetal remains and one this year to ban partnerships between local governments and abortion affiliates like Planned Parenthood, that they say don’t go far enough. “We believe the incremental measures concede the principle, and by conceding principle do more harm than good,” said Thomas as he videotaped himself driving home from the Texas GOP convention last June, sporting a long red beard and a T-shirt that read “Righteous Resistance.” Even a six-week abortion ban, filed in Texas and passed in other Southern states this year, “undermines the very moral argument we’re trying to make: that abortion ends a human life, and that is murder, that is homicide.”
An Abolish Abortion Texas pamphlet.
The hardline stance has deepened a rift among anti-abortion groups and lawmakers, making even the far-right group Texas Right to Life, which seeks to use the courts to dismantle Roe v. Wade, seem almost moderate in comparison, and depicting some of the most staunch anti-abortion conservatives as obstacles to the group’s mission.
“What’s really happening is [Republicans] don’t want to pass any significant pro-life or abolition legislation this session,” Pierce said in a Facebook video in April, as Tinderholt’s bill stalled in committee. Thomas sat next to him wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “IGNORE ROE” and nodded.
“I believe this bill will pass, someday,” said Pierce. “With something this monumental — you think about William Wilberforce,” he said, referencing the British politician who was a leader in the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s. “He had to keep bringing it up over and over. … So everything that’s happening right now, and all the controversy — this is progress.”
Within a 10-foot tall barbed wire fence and between guard towers, armed immigration officers patrolled children in custody. The president declared the children and their families to be dangerous and ordered their arrest and detention. And so they were interned outside Carrizo Springs, Texas, between 1942 and 1948 at the Crystal City Alien Enemy Detention Facility.
Today, you could drive past the former site of the Crystal City internment camp without giving much pause to its history. The buildings that housed more than 4,000 Japanese, German, Italian and Latin American nationals and American citizens were converted over the years to schools, an airfield, a low-income housing project and even a whites-only country club. Now a few foundation slabs are all that remain. Blink and you might miss the historical markers across the old compound noting its significance as the nation’s largest internment camp during World War II.
But just 13 miles away, history comes alive. Barbed-wire fencing surrounds white tents and trailers where guards again patrol children in custody. The Carrizo Springs immigrant detention facility, which opened on June 30, can hold up to 1,300 teenagers who arrive at the border alone or separated from family.
Inside the barbed wire at Carrizo Springs, there are soccer fields, a giant air-conditioned tent serving as a dining hall and trailers used as classrooms. Reporters shared pictures of dormitories where colorful decorations cover the walls and observed a class learning to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say this camp is meant to alleviate the overcrowding at Border Patrol centers, where kids have been packed into cells under horrific conditions. Life at Carrizo Springs does appear to be better than at those jails, at least in the glimpse journalists got on a carefully orchestrated tour last week.
No amount of pools or gardens could overcome “the injustices and humiliations suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and discrimination,” as one of the Crystal City historical markers notes.
But no conditions can ever overcome the physical and emotional toll of imprisonment, according to WWII internment camp survivors. Satsuki Ina was held at Crystal City while her father was sent to another camp in North Dakota. She talked about her lifelong trauma in an interview with the Texas Tribune, saying that she still feels a “constant state of vigilance” more than 70 years later. As for conditions at camps today, Ina said, “I don’t care how they try to paint that picture. It’s a horror.”
The hollow praise of improved conditions in Carrizo Springs softly echoes a 1945 government film commending the “decent and humane treatment” of Crystal City prisoners. Scenes captured the internment camp’s swimming pool and flower gardens juxtaposed with perimeter floodlights and armed guards on 24-hour watch. No amount of pools or gardens could overcome “the injustices and humiliations suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and discrimination,” as one of the Crystal City historical markers notes.
Crystal City internment camp survivors met in March outside the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, where immigrant mothers and children — described again by the president as dangerous aliens — are detained. Wearing T-shirts with the message “Stop Repeating History,” survivors protested the chilling parallels between their experiences and those of people imprisoned today. They warned of a familiar, shared trauma: the toll of confinement while waiting and agonizing over their uncertain fate in America.
It is unthinkably cruel that in 2019, immigrant children — particularly those separated from their families — are still paying that toll. The Trump administration’s draconian policies have caused lasting harm to kids’ mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. These are not “summer camps,” no matter what immigration officials might say. The administration’s plan to expand the migrant shelters even includes the site of a former internment camp at Fort Sill.
The shameful practice of criminalizing and imprisoning the innocent shows we’ve lost more than just the buildings from the Crystal City internment camp. One of the markers at Crystal City warns that the old cottage slab it sits on should serve as a reminder that this tragedy must “never happen again.” Sadly, it already has.
In 1910, East Texas saw one of America’s deadliest post-Reconstruction racial purges. One survivor’s descendants have waged an uphill battle for generations to unearth that violent past.
by Michael Barajas July 15, 2019
A twisting, tree-lined road carried Constance Hollie-Jawaid and her family through the dense forest until they reached Slocum, a small unincorporated town dug into the Piney Woods of East Texas. A few miles southeast of the old high school, past two trickling creeks, the family pulled off the road near a small red farmhouse. A thick, leafy canopy shielded them from the cloudless midsummer heat as they exited their cars and began to quietly pace along the red fence.
It was July 29, 2018, a somber day for the Hollie family. Not far from where they stood, more than a century before, on July 29, 1910, white vigilantes attacked black communities surrounding Slocum. By most accounts, the violence lasted throughout the day and night as white men from across the region traveled to Slocum to join in the killing. Once the dust began to settle, the state’s major newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Register, reported that white mobs had murdered as many as 50 black people during the massacre. The papers also described how victims were unceremoniously dumped into communal pits before the mobs scattered. Hollie-Jawaid believes some of the dead, including her ancestors, could be buried here beyond the fence line — and she intends to find their bodies.
“Piled upon one another in a mass grave, like dogs,” she said. “That is a history that needs to be acknowledged and remembered. For so long people denied that it even happened.”
Hollie-Jawaid taught her daughter, Imani Nia Ramirez, and son about Slocum “as soon as they could understand words.” danny fulgencio
The massacre in Slocum shocked people from Abilene to New York, who read about the killings in newspaper coverage in the days that followed the spasm of violence. Texas’ governor at the time, Thomas Campbell, who’d grown up near Slocum, was reportedly appalled that vigilante violence still ruled his home county. Authorities called the episode an embarrassing stain on the state and region and vowed justice.
The outrage was short-lived. Within a year, the criminal prosecutions of seven white men indicted for the killings had fizzled. Less than three years after the slaughter, a fire ate through the local courthouse, destroying records from the case. The story had all but disappeared from East Texas history by the time Hollie-Jawaid was a teenager and started to dig deeper into her family’s history. Black people from the region were reluctant to talk about the violent past, she says, while many white people denied the massacre even happened.
Hollie-Jawaid and her family started visiting this quiet patch of forest off Anderson County Road 1208 after reading letters from the local historical commission archives that said the land might contain bodies. But they are constrained to exploring the fenceline, as the landowner refuses to let them onto the property.
The great-great-granddaughter of a man forced to flee racial violence after already having survived slavery, Hollie-Jawaid has spent the past several years struggling to unearth the region’s dark past, as did her grandfather, father and uncle before her. Her family’s fight to correct Slocum’s whitewashed history dovetails with the recent push across the United States to grapple with the country’s racist past and the legacy of inequality created by racial terror. While some cities reassess Confederate monuments erected during the civil rights era, others have begun to confront the kind of racial violence that shaped the South after Reconstruction. Officials in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recently created a committee to oversee a search for mass graves connected to a 1921 racial massacre that was swept under the rug for generations.
“That is a history that needs to be acknowledged and remembered. For so long people denied that it even happened.”
The resistance the Hollie family has faced in East Texas also underscores the profound hurdles facing those who push communities to confront past racial violence. Five years ago, when Hollie-Jawaid applied for a historical marker honoring Slocum’s victims, local leaders called the idea “inappropriate,” “dishonorable” and “blackmail by shame.” After officials failed to block the plaque, they carefully negotiated its language to avoid offending white residents, and acknowledged only eight victims.
Since then, Hollie-Jawaid has searched for Slocum’s lost graves, both so that descendants can honor the dead and to prove what really happened in 1910. The bodies, she says, could force an undeniable reckoning with the region’s past and give families like hers their history back. So far, local law enforcement, historical commission officials, county leaders and landowners have refused to help. In January, the landowner of the property that she believes contains bodies sent her an official “notice of forbidden entry.”
“If these were Confederate soldiers, they would be exhumed already, given proper burials and a museum would have been erected,” Hollie-Jawaid said. “They’re not interested in these bodies. These bodies only matter to us. Apparently their lives only mattered to people like us.”
Some of the earliest newspaper accounts called what happened in Slocum a “race riot.” Hollie-Jawaid cringes at that description. She learned at an early age just how one-sided the violence was.
Some accounts traced the troubles back to a white man fighting with a black man who owed him money; others told of a white farmer infuriated by a black foreman who asked him to work on a road crew. That such an explosion of violence could follow these minor squabbles points to the rancor many white people felt toward their black neighbors. On July 30, 1910, the Houston Chronicle questioned whether whites had launched “an attempt to exterminate the negroes” in the area. The Fort Worth Register characterized the violence as “a culmination of smoldering hate between races in a community thickly populated by blacks.”
The day the violence began, men flocked to Slocum “to witness the trouble and aid the whites” in such great numbers that a local judge ordered the county’s saloons and gun stores to close. Officials later said that as many as 300 men joined the mobs. Texas Rangers and state militia arrived the following day to impose martial law and restore order, even in the county seat of Palestine, nearly 20 miles northwest of where the killings took place. Newspapers describe most of the mobs as attacking black communities nestled along Sadler and Ioni creeks, on a strip of land a few miles outside of Slocum in far southeast Anderson County.
Jack Holley, Constance Hollie-Jawaid’s great-great-grandfather, survived the violence in Slocum and fled with his family. courtesy Constance Hollie-Jawaid
On August 1, 1910, Lusk Holley, one of Hollie-Jawaid’s distant uncles, told the Dallas Morning News that about 20 white men had attacked him and several others two days earlier. Lusk, who was 19 at the time, described his assailants traveling single-file through the woods, firing whenever a leader on horseback gave the signal. “When the first man saw us, he whistled.”
Hollie-Jawaid was born in Palestine, but her family moved to Dallas when she was young, after her father returned from the Vietnam War. A longtime educator, today she’s a principal at a Dallas-area school. She taught her daughter and son about Slocum “as soon as they could understand words.” She wants her students to someday learn about Slocum’s past in history books, to spur a more honest discussion about the real legacy of racial terror in East Texas. She’d learned her family’s history as a child visiting her grandparents in Palestine. They’d talk about Jack Holley, her great-great-grandfather, who had been born into slavery, was emancipated after the Civil War and eventually built the only general store in a black settlement outside Slocum.
Jack Holley belonged to a generation that escaped slavery only to face another historic wave of violence and oppression. The failed promise of Reconstruction in the South was soon followed by poll taxes and white only primaries, along with black codes that criminalized poverty and led to convict leasing, a new kind of prison-approved slavery. Meanwhile, gruesome and public acts of torture traumatized and isolated black communities across the state. Large crowds of Texans gathered to burn at least 31 black people at the stake between 1891 and 1922, averaging about one a year.
“They’re not interested in these bodies. These bodies only matter to us. Apparently their lives only mattered to people like us.”
East Texas became, and in many ways has remained, a hot spot for racial tension and violence. Between 1877 and 1950, at least 22 people were lynched in Anderson County, the most of any Texas county and one of the highest numbers anywhere in the country. Jeffrey Littlejohn, a Sam Houston State University history professor who has researched lynchings in the region, says the killings in Slocum weren’t an aberration, but rather emblematic of the kind of white-on-black violence that shaped the region and the state. “Basically,” he said, “when I think of East Texas in 1910, I think of a place that’s at the nadir of American race relations.”
The outrage that followed the violence in Slocum was brief and inconsequential. Eleven white men were arrested and seven were indicted for murder, but the prosecution waned under a new governor and district attorney. On May 10, 1911, the Court of Criminal Appeals freed the five men who remained in jail. The court’s ruling included testimony from a local white man, a justice of the peace, blaming Slocum’s black community for its own destruction. Before the massacre, the man testified, black people had “become very insolent towards the white people, and would ride by the houses where the white women were with their hats cocked on the side of their heads, whistling.” Another witness testified, “The Negroes down there are not disbehaving [sic] now.” The criminal cases were forgotten.
Winston Wilson shows an old photo of his father, who survived the massacre. He still lives on the property his parents fled to in 1910. michael Barajas
Winston Wilson grew up knowing that his grandfather, Richard Wilson, was one of the eight victims named in newspaper accounts of the massacre. Winston’s father, Justice Wilson, was 19 at the time of the killings and recalled fleeing in the dark on foot, spending hours inching through the countryside as he hid from men on horseback. “He didn’t like talking about it, you could see it on his face,” Winston said.
Audrey Wilson, another of Richard Wilson’s grandsons, learned a more graphic version of the story growing up. His father, George, was 8 at the time of the massacre. George recalled sitting in his father’s lap when the posse broke down the door. Audrey’s grandmother begged the men to spare the boy. “She got up and came and got my dad off his daddy’s knee,” Audrey said. “Then the man gave the command to fire. They shot him right there in his rocking chair, then went on to the next house.”
Many of the survivors escaped and never returned. After the massacre, Jack Holley fled to the small town of Oakwood, about 30 miles west of Slocum. The mobs had murdered his grandson, Alex, and nearly killed his sons Lusk and Marsh. The family settled in Oakwood, but only after changing their surname to Hollie.
“Basically, when I think of East Texas in 1910, I think of a place that’s at the nadir of American race relations.”
When Hollie-Jawaid was young, learning about what the Hollies had endured and escaped made her proud. It was proof that she was descended from people who could survive anything. “I was the only black person in my class until I went to high school,” she said. “I remember it being an immense source of pride, these stories that my uncle, my father, my grandfather would tell me — just, like, ‘Wow, look at where we came from.’”
In the mid-1980s, Hollie-Jawaid’s father and uncle unsuccessfully pushed Anderson County to acknowledge the tragedy with a historical marker. In high school, she joined her dad on trips to the library to scour microfiche reels of old newspaper records, which for her underscored both the scope of the bloodshed and its absence from the larger recorded history of East Texas.
Hollie-Jawaid became disturbed by the reaction her family kept getting from Anderson County officials. “They would say, ‘It didn’t happen,’ or, ‘It was rumored to have happened, but there’s no evidence,’ or, ‘Yeah, maybe a couple guys got into a fight, but that’s it,’” she said. “They just really minimized it.”
While the mobs had concentrated on the communities southeast of Slocum, the killing also stretched across the county line into the small town of Percilla. Granville James Hayes was born there months after the massacre and grew up hearing stories about it from his father, a prominent white doctor from the region. In 1984, Hayes offered to donate land to Houston County for its upcoming sesquicentennial celebrations in exchange for officials hanging a plaque that finally acknowledged the bloodshed.
Hayes also urged officials to investigate the massacre. He claimed two men he grew up with, men he believed had participated in the killing, told him that they dumped victims in a mass grave near the Silver Creek School southeast of Slocum. He wrote that as a boy, he picked bullets out of an old log house near the school. He seemed to grow irritated after the county ignored his offer, writing in another letter six months later, “Maybe we of the white community are a little too ashamed.”
“I remember it being an immense source of pride, these stories that my uncle, my father, my grandfather would tell me — just, like, ‘Wow, look at where we came from.’”
Officials denied Hayes’ request for a historical marker later that year, saying the only evidence of the massacre was hearsay. Meanwhile, Jerry Sadler, a native of the area who became a prominent state Democrat, dedicated sweeping passages of his 1984 memoir to what he called the Bad Saturday Massacre of 1910. Sadler wrote that he was not quite 3 years old when his family took in people fleeing the mobs around Slocum. “I did not fully understand all of what was happening, but I recognized fear in the faces of the black people who came to see my father that night,” he wrote. “I heard the terror in their excited but hushed voices as they told him what was happening.”
After her father died in 2010, Hollie-Jawaid took the lead on the family’s push to remember Slocum. In 2011, her family worked with a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter on a story about the forgotten history, which spurred a resolution at the Texas Legislature acknowledging the massacre. Three years later, E.R. Bills, a freelance journalist and author who writes about the state’s history of race-based violence, turned the newspaper stories, memoir passages, oral histories and other archival records into a book, titled The 1910 Slocum Massacre, that describes the episode as “an act of genocide in East Texas.”
E.R. Bills, who wrote a book about the Slocum massacre, calls it “an act of genocide in East Texas.” Elijah Barrett
The book bolstered the case for a plaque. Bills agreed to help write and submit an application for a historical marker commemorating the victims, but talks with local officials soured almost as soon as they started. Bills claims that Jimmy Odom, chair of the Anderson County Historical Commission, demanded to know whether he worked for the NAACP. When Bills persisted, Odom told him the story of the massacre was overblown and at one point quipped, “Ain’t you a white man?”
Hollie-Jawaid’s phone call with Odom was even uglier. “He told me, ‘My colored people down here are happy. Why are you doing this to us?’” she said. “I was like, ‘Your colored people are happy? I didn’t know you still owned colored people.’” According to her, the conversation ended with Odom accusing her of trying to kick people off their land.
After that, Hollie-Jawaid and Bills sidestepped the county and filed their application for a plaque directly with the state. Odom submitted a four-page letter calling the story of the massacre as told in the application “dramatically overstated.” Odom also questioned the value of commemorating something so violent in such a visible way. “It may be that the descendants know they will always remember it, but may not want to see a daily reminder of it,” he wrote. “It would be a shame to mark them as a racist community from now until the end of time.”
Chris Qualls, 39, works as a deckhand on Ed Machaceh’s oyster boat off the coast of Palacios. I photographed him as part of a project on the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, the largest in the United States. This vast swath of oxygen-deprived water spreads off the coast of Texas and Louisiana every summer, forcing marine life to flee or be killed. This year’s dead zone is projected to be one of the biggest ever at 8,000 square miles — nearly the size of New Jersey.
Qualls and Machaceh have worked together at the edge of the dead zone for 14 years. They told me it’s taking longer these days to gather 13 sacks of oysters, well below the daily limit of 30 sacks. Climate change, the dead zone and overharvesting all play a role.
And with all the rain that’s inundated Texas this year — many partsofthestate have blown past their average rainfall amounts — mosquitoes may suck extra hard this summer. For some Texas cities, that means bringing out the big guns: pickups that crawl through neighborhoods, usually in the evening, spraying insecticides to knock adult mosquitos out of the air and kill ’em dead. But the stout chemicals used by cities to keep mosquitoes in check could pose health problems for people and reduce populations of beneficial insects, environmental advocates say.
Mosquitoes are most active in Texas during the hot summer months of June, July and August, which is why communities from Amarillo to Lufkin have rolled out their fleets of mosquito trucks in recent weeks. The tanks mounted in the beds of pickups can be loaded with any number of insecticides, including organophosphates (extremely toxic and interrupt enzymes in the human nervous system) and pyrethrins (tend to kill mosquitoes but are also harmful to good bugs, fish and birds). This approach to mosquito control, called “adulticiding,” only kills mosquitoes in their final stage of life, and only when they come into direct contact with the poison; those who oppose the use of airborne chemicals for mosquito control, along with city officials who order the spraying, generally agree that the technique is costly and less effective than other methods that target larvae. So why spray at all?
“As is often the case, people like a dramatic intervention,” said Lori Ann Burd, who directs the environmental health program at the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona. Mosquito populations are better controlled when residents dump or drain standing water that collects in their yard, or when cities place inoffensive bacterial “dunks” in standing water to kill larvae before they morph into adults, she said. “There are some basic things that need to be done that just aren’t very exciting. Then everyone goes for the more exciting thing, which is the spraying,” Burd said.
In the days of yore, Texas cities loaded up spraying trucks with malathion, a member of the organophosphate family, to control mosquito populations. But there have been concerns about malathion since at least 1990, when Los Angeles was drenched in the pesticide to knock out fruit flies ravaging agricultural crops in the surrounding area, said Neil Carman, a scientist who directs the Clean Air Program at the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter and formerly worked as a state air quality investigator. Some people — especially the homeless who were outdoors when malathion was sprayed — said they fell ill afterward. “Malathion targets a very critical enzyme in people, animals and pets,” Carman said. “It’s a nasty chemical.” Exposure to high amounts of malathion may cause difficulty breathing, chest tightness, dizziness, loss of consciousness and death, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
More recently, organophosphates have faced mounting pressure worldwide. Thirty-three organophosphate pesticides have been banned in the E.U. In the United States, their use from 2006 to 2016 dropped by almost half. But the chemicals remain in the arsenals of some Texas communities.
“As is often the case, people like a dramatic intervention.”
Harris County health officials use malathion when mosquitoes test positive for disease, according to a 2017 Houston Press article. In nearby Galveston County, workers systematically spray malathion by truck, along with Naled and chlorpyrifos (also organophosphates) by plane, each year. Naled “is a hazard to human health due to severe acute eye irritation, corrosive dermal irritation and neurotoxicity,” the USDA says; chlorpyrifos has been linked to autism and ADHD in children.
Perhaps such dramatic interventions would be defensible if Texas were battling a wave of mosquito-borne illness. After all, mosquitoes, particularly the genuses Aedes, Culex and Anopheles, are vectors for potentially deadly viruses such as West Nile, Zika and Chikungunya. The insects, and the diseases they can harbor, kill more people than any other animal in the world (humans come in a distant second place). In 2012, Texas saw an “unprecedented” outbreak of West Nile, a disease that can cause inflammation of the brain, fever and disorientation. Almost 1,900 Texans were infected that year.
As of June 25, no human cases of West Nile had been reported in Texas this year, according to the CDC. Despite that, some Texas cities have already begun spraying regimens. In the Dallas suburb of Roanoke, officials started spraying early this summer to “be ahead of the game.” Amarillo rolled out its spraying trucks in early June; Wichita Falls is fogging neighborhoods where higher-than-normal numbers of mosquitoes have been caught in traps, a city official told the Observer.
In Galveston County, where West Nile hasn’t been detected since before 2018, officials don’t wait until a mosquito tests positive for a dangerous disease to roll out their suite of organophosphates. Rather, the decision to spray is made when mosquito numbers are high in a given area, said Ashley Wilson, an entomologist at the county’s mosquito control office. But what about the potential harm to people posed by the chemicals? “We make sure we’re following directions on the [product’s] label provided by the EPA,” Wilson said, which is the main precautionary measure cities are required to follow.
Local governments may be taking their cues from the state health department’s spraying. In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey swamped large swaths of the state, the department authorized aerial spraying of Naled and pyrethrin-based Duet. The Texas Department of State Health Services acknowledged then that the action was less about the potential spread of disease than the comfort of first responders. “Most mosquitoes that appear after floods are nuisance mosquitoes that don’t spread disease but can have a serious effect on recovery operations by preventing responders and people affected by a disaster from being outside,” the agency said in a press release published at the time. The agency approved another spraying operation in July 2018 in Aransas County when droves of mosquitoes hampered Harvey recovery work.
DSHS does not restrict the types of chemicals cities may use in their spraying operations, nor does it require them to spray only in the case of an imminent disease outbreak.
“There are some basic things that need to be done that just aren’t very exciting. Then everyone goes for the more exciting thing, which is the spraying.”
Some Texas communities have taken a more careful approach to mosquito control. The city of Abilene hasn’t activated its spraying trucks for four years, and officials there say they won’t do so until a local mosquito tests positive for West Nile or another disease. In Waco, Environmental Health Manager David Litke said the city hasn’t sprayed since the 1980s. The city hasn’t trapped a disease-carrying mosquito for at least the last two years. “If we’ve got a lot of disease, then that becomes a lot more serious and presents the need to do more spraying,” Litke said. “If there’s no diseases, then why should we worry about that mosquito?”
Populations of disease-carrying mosquitoes are only expected to increase as a result of climate change. More frequent deluges will create ample breeding grounds; warmer temperatures will allow them to expand their range. So in the future, when city officials are faced with a question — to spray or not to spray — they may opt for the former.