- Zelema Harris
Faces of White Terrorism: From East Texas to The Capital
The month of June in East Texas was unbearably hot. I was searching for something to do that day besides jump rope or hop-scotch. My nine-year-old friend, Fate Gatson had been promising me a ride on his red Radio Flyer wagon for nearly a month. My parents finally said yes on that stifling day because they had simply run out of excuses. We climbed the hill along a red dirt road. I settled in his wagon and took off down the hill. Fate was in front of the wagon steering the long handle to make sure we stayed on the steep incline, and I was holding onto him for dear life. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the bottom of the hill.
We then walked a few feet west along Highway 87 and Fate stopped suddenly and pointed to the hill west of his home and asked, “See that hill up there? That’s where your sister was killed.”
I tried to understand what Fate meant. It didn’t make sense because my two older sisters were home when I left with Fate. I was scared. I could see my home across the highway where Fate and I stood. I ran immediately across the empty road as fast as I could, up the steps to my front porch, and hit the screen door pushing it wide open. My mother was in the kitchen leaning over the wood burning stove, cooking mustard greens in a large pot.
She looked up startled.
Before she could say a word, I blurted out, “Was my sister killed?”
My mother, with her head looking down into the pot said calmly, “That was a long time ago and something your father does not talk about.”
I don’t remember much else of what was said but I knew my two sisters, Tressie and Priscilla were alive and someone I did not know had been killed by bad white men. I was seven years old. That day was the beginning of my lessons in domestic white terrorism.
My family had moved to Liberty Community, Newton County in 1947 from Wiergate, Texas, where I had completed first grade. In Wiergate, a sawmill community, our lives had been isolated. We lived on our small family owned cotton farm of approximately 50 acres with five children and two parents. The school day did not allow time to engage in folklore nor gossip. We rose early before daybreak. My brothers milked the three cows by hand, and we completed other farm chores before heading off to school. I was the youngest of the five children and my tasks were easy, such as gathering eggs from the chicken coop, or, during season, picking strawberries from the garden. School and work took all of our time. We seldom had visitors. We enjoyed each other. It was a happy childhood. While living in Wiergate, I had never heard the story of my father’s daughter, Carrie, being killed by the sheriff and his deputies. Carrie’s murder occurred in Liberty Community around 1938, two years before I was born.
Everyone in Liberty knew the story of my half-sister’s murder. Growing up in Liberty I heard pieces of the story frequently. The stories were all different. I tried to complete the patchwork of what happened to Carrie throughout my early years. In addition to the horror of my sister’s murder, my mother told us stories of white men riding in the night, killing black men and sometimes whole families without any reason that I could understand. It seemed to be an accepted way of life. My mother warned me and my sisters not to work in the kitchen of white folks. It was understood within our community that white men who owned the homes were known to rape the black women who worked for them—a carry-over from slavery. My mother warned my brothers of their imminent death if they dared to defy a white man by looking him in the eye, or not getting off the road when he approached. So, to avoid death and rape, my parents made every effort to keep us safe in our all-Black community. I could, however, never escape the stories surrounding Carrie’s murder.
The picture of Carrie’s torturous murder has become clearer over the years. Recently, my 91-year-old first cousin told me he was 9 or 10 years old when Carrie was murdered. He remembers the details that coincide with some of the pieces my daughter, Cynthia, collected over the years while working on her novel, RUBY.
In 2001 Cynthia and I traveled to East Texas to research Carrie’s murder. Our visit occurred two and one-half years after James Byrd was murdered by three white supremacists from Jasper, Texas in one of the most heinous crimes ever recorded. Our hotel was in the same town where Byrd was murdered, Jasper, Texas. Cynthia was concerned about the potential for violence. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express without incident.
We visited Trojan Shankle, a farmer who still lived in Liberty Community about 40 miles from Jasper and where my family had lived previously.
During our visit Trojan told my daughter and me, “It was a shame what they did to your sister. Cut her up, put her in a bag and threw her on your father’s porch.”
I did not want to hear more. We left soon after that conversation. Cynthia did circle back to continue her research.
The only time I heard my father speak of his daughter’s murder was in 1955. I was 15 years old. I came home from school and he was sitting on the front porch of our home in Beaumont, Texas where we had moved from the farm for a better future – to get a job and prepare for some type of trade school or college.
I always greeted my father with a warm hello and huge smile. He was not a hugger.
My father was quiet for a few seconds and finally said, “I never thought I would live to see the day that Pete Hughes would suffer like he did.”
My father had just learned that the sheriff of Newton County had died of cancer. Hughes, and his deputies according to family and community residents were responsible for his daughter, Carrie’s murder.
The insurrection that occurred on January 6, 2021 was not a surprise to me as it seemed to be for my three children. My daughters, in particular, were upset that the insurrection at the capitol could happen in America, and that the president of the United States would incite folks to commit acts of violence and get away with it. I anticipated it. The faces of the insurrectionist were images I have held throughout my life. I see the drunken white man who attempted to molest me when I was 13 years old, I see the young white auto mechanic who felt he had the right to touch a grown woman inappropriately; I see the two white policemen who stopped my husband while we was driving through Arkansas and verbally humiliated him in front of his wife and two young daughters. A ticket was not issued because he did not violate any traffic laws but was “driving while black” to visit his parents in Louisville, Kentucky. We never discussed the “tap dancing and head scratching” he did to survive the two officers trigger happy stance. And I see the face of the white police officer who held his knee on George Floyd’s neck killing him as though his life did not matter. I recognized those faces climbing the capital wall, beating capital police with flagpoles and whatever else they could get their murderous hands on. Yes. I recognized every one of those domestic terrorists.
Our history in America as Black people is replete with patterns of racism and violence each time we make visible progress. White supremacists come out of their hiding places to keep us in “our place.” After the Civil War and during Reconstruction (1865-1877) federal troops were ordered to Southern states by President Ulysses S. Grant to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. The Ku Klux Klan had risen in power following the Civil War. With the protection of the federal troops, Blacks made significant political contributions during Reconstruction. Sixteen Blacks served in the U.S. Congress and 600 more were elected to state legislatures. This progress was too much for Southern whites who still wanted the Old South to prevail. President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered the federal troops to leave the South in 1877. When these protections ended, Jim Crow laws were enacted. These laws legalized racial segregation and were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1896 in the case of Plessy v Ferguson. It was not until 1954, when the United States Supreme Court abolished the separate but equal doctrine in the case of Brown v Topeka Board of Education However, this historic ruling was not implemented immediately. States were allowed to develop their own timetable for implementation.
When President Obama was elected, the Tea Party was formed. The Tea Party has endorsed some of the most conservative right wing members of Congress. Also, after President Obama’s election there was an increase in the number of white terrorist groups organized. Trump’s election codified the rights of white supremacist and terror groups which led to the deadly insurrection on January 6.
I don’t expect to get justice for my father, James Robert Marshall’s daughter, Carrie. My half-sister is just another black woman murdered at the hands of those who had the power to kill her. I searched for Carrie’s name in the birth registry at the Newton County courthouse in 1996. Unlike all of my father’s other children, her birth was not registered. It was as if her life had been erased.
After eight decades, I am grappling with the question: Will there ever be justice for Black people in this country? The peaceful protests last summer offered a glimmer of hope, but even during and after the protests, police kept killing Black people. One site that tracks the killing of Blacks estimated that one unarmed Black man is killed by the police in this country on average of one day a week. This is another face of terrorism.
A glimmer of hope came when I observed the young peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. and throughout this country. It was the first time there was such a diverse group of people marching for racial justice.
There is hope, but it will take the Biden administration to track down every person who was involved in the insurrection, including those in Congress, who, like Trump, incited, aided and abetted this attempted coup. Just as Ulysses Grant was committed to keeping the union together and was relentless in quelling the attempted insurrections right after the Civil war, Biden must do so today.
President Biden’s administration cannot do it alone. Building a just nation where liberty and justice exist for everyone will require all of our citizens to take a stand against the politics of Trumpism and future charlatans.
As for me, my days of marching and picketing are over. What I can do is to join the chorus of those who are using their voices to inform, educate and place what is happening today within the context of our history in America. My first blog is my attempt to do just that.