Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Designated Negro

Fluttergirl found the grave. In Evergreen Cemetery you might say she found the city’s conscience buried next to a black guy with burns on his scalp and arms. In the coming weeks and months as her discovery is debated or not—in this town we prefer to look forward not back—please remember Fluttergirl’s role was limited. She’s not political. She just likes to take pictures.
          She also likes graveyards as so many of us do. There’s the quiet and the parklike landscape where you can walk among the headstones and wonder what this person was like, or that one, or how they spent their time aboveground. And how they died, that's always the question, isn't it, presumably that’s what caught her attention at this gravesite: Samuel Holmes’ headstone reading 1938-1960 but no “Rest in Peace.” So she was taking pictures and something, whatever it was caught her eye. Let's begin there.
         In this town we actually like parts of our history well-buried, six or more feet down—at least when remembrance is unpleasant or conflicts with our well-meaning view of ourselves. Texas may be full of rednecks and political trogs but the white majority in the capital city is touchy-feely and completely comfortable with its black and brown neighbors. We live side by side and get along: Some of our best friends are black or Hispanic as the case may be or even white if we are people of color. And if from time to time those people—whoever those people are, although in this town they are usually black—become unmanageable or have too much to drink or too much to smoke, or forget the rules of polite liberal society, the police—one of the best forces in the nation we're told—shoot him or her once or twice with a nine mil or Taser and hustle the offending Negro away on the non-stop to Huntsville, custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, with the understanding that he or she may one day come back to become, once again, a valued member of the Hill Country community. Samuel Holmes did not have that opportunity. Due to various legal oversights you could say. He came back from Huntsville feet first—upsetting any plans he might’ve had about a return to his wife and the future prospect of white fellowshipintervening were three jolts of 1800 volts of electricity, a permanent kind of behavior modification popular at the time. Oh well. Mistakes are made even in our tolerant community. 
What makes you curious now though, more than five decades later—Fluttergirl didn’t go this far when she was taking pictures although she did ask questions—makes you wonder even today what it was that caused the good people of the city to be so anxious to see Sammy Holmes got his final rest. But the police have lost his file. The whole thing, yes sir—or madam. Even the microfilm, isn’t that odd? Which is a coincidence because the Travis County District Attorney’s Office which prosecuted Mr. Holmes back in the day—based upon the now missing police file—reported they’ve also mislaid their documentation. Which doesn’t make you suspicious, not in this town, because we’ve always been selective about our history, what we keep and what we discard, deciding what baggage to carry as we move forward, rejecting anything too heavy or odious to the senses. Some files we’ve always felt need to disappear. Some things just need to be let go, you could say, to help the healing.
Still, even without the assistance of the police and D.A. who arrested and prosecuted him, it is possible to get an idea of how Samuel Holmes came to meet his Maker at such a young age. He had help. 
        For what follows—the reconstruction not of the crime but of the punishment—we owe a special debt of gratitude to Travis County District Clerk Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza and her staff in the criminal division who take a different approach to maintaining the record than police or prosecutors, they keep the paperwork; to the Texas State Archives—although they too were reluctant to disclose everything about Mr. Holmes’ trip to the electric chair—and to the Department of Criminal Justice, aka the state prison, which has maintained a history of an important aspect of life and death in the Lone Star State. Backstory: In January 1959 a middle-aged white woman was raped on the west side of town. She never saw her attacker, except his hand, which was placed over her mouth and was black. The victim was a civilian employee of the U.S. Army, a widow alone at home while her roommate was out and about and who heard a noise while in the shower, thinking it was her returning roomie, opened the bathroom door, which is basically all the detail you need to know: Wrestled to the ground—informed by her attacker, “I just want a little pussy”—beaten when she refused, the phrase “a little pussy” might tend to implicate a black man, that was the thinking at the time since the p-word was not generally a part of the lexicon of white Biblebelt America, even the sexual offender class, back in the day. 
           The victim relented, keeping her eyes closed while she was “ravished,” as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals later put it. Samuel Holmes, an African-American dishwasher at Breckenridge Hospital, a couple of blocks from the Court of Criminal Appeals where the victim was taken was arrested two days later, apparently because a car carrying him had been seen in the area, which was not surprising since he lived in the black end of the same segregated neighborhood. Polygraphed by the Texas Department of Public Safety, he was observed during the polygraph by the head of the city homicide squad, Lt. Merle Wells who also investigated sex crimes. Wells would later say in court that he became convinced based only upon the DPS test that the defendant was guilty of other rapes as well, which were never charged and never actually elucidated in any greater detail. Just enough information was given to inflame the white citizenry.
A confession was obtained.

We pick up the case at trial.
Imagine a courtroom with no AC, it’s May and presumably hot as hell, or getting there, just fans turning overhead, the men wearing white short-sleeved shirts and those (now) hipster-narrow dark ties; the women in below-the-knee summer dresses, with eye glasses that angle out like angel wings. People are certainly smoking and probably chewing tobacco. There would have been a spittoon near the door. This is a pre-P.C. era., John Kennedy running for president and he will win Texas but in Austin the defendant is still referred to as “the boy,” “that boy,” occasionally “Samuel” or “Sammy.” He’s 20 years old and he's a little nervous because he's about to be lynched.
Counsel for the defense is the Hon. Johnnie B. Rogers, former State Senator representing the capital district. He has a hard row to hoe in court.
Representing the State of Texas is District Attorney Les Procter who has a reputation as a bulldog. Police Lt. Wells is on the stand explaining to the defense attorney how the defendant’s confession came about.
         Q. Holmes called for you?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. All right.
A. I went in there, and he said he was ready to tell me. I sat down there, and I told him—
Q. Before you start that, let me ask, all right, you told him what, then when he said he wanted to tell you?
A. That he didn’t have to make a statement. That any statement made by him could be used against him in this trial or trials concerning this offense. That was told him before he ever started. And then after he made the statement and before he signed it, he read it. And then after he signed it—
Q. Let’s don’t get to the statement yet. Then at what point did you tell him that that polygraph test showed that he had committed not only this rape, but eighteen or nineteen others, and that he was a sick boy, and that if he didn’t admit to this one and all those other rape cases, that nobody would ever believe that he was a sick man. Unless he told about these, he couldn’t get any help, because he was sick?
A. The polygraph showed, Johnnie, let me tell you this. The polygraph showed that he was guilty of about four other rapes, and I believe it.
Q. Did you make as thorough an investigation as you possibly could about that?
A. Yes, sir. We took him up there and had the people look at him. There’s been a length of time in there that these things have happened, and the people did not identify him. But on the polygraph it showed that he was actually guilty of it and had guilty knowledge of it.
Q. Now you read this polygraph test? Did you find it to be that yourself?
A. No, that’s what Mr. Wheeler was telling me, and—
It's like a bad movie, someone's conception of what a rape trial would be for a black defendant in the Jim Crow South. You couldn't make it up or you could but nobody would believe it. Then it's compelling again.
         The confession read by the district attorney as, according to Lt. Wells, was set down on a manual typewriter in real time: 
“My name is Samuel Morris Holmes. I live [sic] 1713 West Eleventh Street in Austin, Texas. I am 20 years of age. I was born Feb. 27, 1938 in Austin, Texas. I am married [sic] Lucy Lee Holmes. We live together at 1713 West 11th St. We have one son 18 months old and my wife is about three or four months pregnant at this time. I am employed since November of 1957.
“On Monday, January 19, 1959 I was working at the hospital and a boy there by the name of Ralph Bowser, who is also employed there, had bought him a 1956 Ford and he wanted me to go with him to try it out. We went by the Bargain Corner liquor store at 11th and Red River Sts., and bought a fifth of wine. We then drove around in east Austin and drank this fifth of wine . . . ." They went cruising.
“When he got to the next corner from Enfield Road I told him to stop and let me out. He asked me why and I told him that I needed some money. I started walking back east on this street. I don’t know the name of this street but have been told that it is Summit View. I walked east on this Street until I was almost to Woodlawn when I looked over and I saw a woman on the bed and she looked like she was naked. She was raising her legs up in the air. I went over to the window where this woman was and watched her for awhile. She got up after awhile and went into the bath room. When she went to the bathroom I got a stick and punched a tear in the screen over the window and then I raised the window. . .  I then heard this woman call a name out and then I reached in and turned the light off in the bathroom." The confession sounds just like natural speech, no prompting needed.
"Today, January 31, 1959, while I was at work two officer’s [sic] came and arrested me and brought me out to the DPS where I submitted to a lie dector [sic] test and after it showed I was guilty I gave the above statement which is true and correct to the best of my knowledge. I have read the foregoing statement and it is true and correct to the best of my knowledge. I went to the 11th grade in Anderson High School. This statement consisted of two typed pages. All of the foregoing events happened in Austin, Travis County, Texas. Signed: Samuel Morris Holmes.”

Ignore for a minute that there were no blacks on the jury.
They were in the courtroom audience including members of Holmes’ family and in the jury pool, those who had paid the poll tax to appear on the voter registration rolls. 
         The District Attorney used six challenges to remove any African-Americans from consideration. According to a prominent local attorney who was in college at the time and remembers the trial, and later went to work for the D.A.’s office, not only would no blacks have been the standard of the era in the city but, “in a capital case it would have been a Tarrytown jury,” in other words not just white but of good means.
Ignore also the use of the death penalty primarily in cases involving black defendants. In the quarter-century prior to Samuel Holmes’ trial three other men from Travis County had been executed, two of them black and one of those also for rape, presumably also of a white woman. Ignore that for the moment, too. A mistake was made in the Holmes trial that actually had nothing to do with choosing the jury or deciding punishment. The defendant claimed his confession was coerced. He was denied rest, or food, left standing for hours, he said, and his family was threatened. That was the issue before the court during most of the trial. How was the amazingly-detailed confession obtained? At one point while Lt. Wells was on the witness stand he was asked to step down and the defendant was brought forward to testify directly about how the confession came about. Not about the crime—but about the interrogation. 
        The question was important because there was no victim identification of the suspect and the only physical evidence was a fingerprint the police said they later obtained from the window through which the attacker entered, only “circumstantial evidence,” as even the judge called it. Instead of leaving the courtroom Lt. Wells took a seat in the audience and listened to the defendant’s testimony about what he, Lt. Wells, was alleged to have done to obtain a confession. Then Wells returned to the witness stand and after hearing the defendant, the lieutenant countered the allegations point by point. Judge Mace Thurman (the Thurman of the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, by the way) trying his first capital case refused to admit that was a mistake. The prosecution was nonetheless worried enough to take an extraordinary step—a possible first in the annals of Texas criminal law—entering into evidence the sworn statements of three white members of the trial audience that they felt sure Lt. Wells would have testified exactly as he did whether he heard the defendant on the stand or not. Oh well. That issue settled—the jury voted guilty and death as the penalty.
Reports at the time noted that Judge Thurman was pale and shaking as he condemned Samuel Holmes to the electric chair. In his response to Holmes’s later appeal—before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals—the district attorney noted, “The defendant, a person of the negro race, did not take the stand . . . ” 
          Despite these errors Samuel Holmes spent the better part of the next year-and-a-half in prison awaiting what even he must have known was inevitable. In the run up to the execution the so-called race agitators began to surface. A protest letter from a woman in a small town in Germany arrived—addressed to the governor, University of Texas and “Minister of Justice for Texas”—noting, in German laboriously translated by Gov. Price Daniel’s staff, that the European understanding was that black men in the American South were sentenced to death for rape of white women but white men who raped black women were not so severely punished. That was actually a coincidence. Sammy Holmes' sister was raped by a white man after the Holmes' trial and the white defendant was sentenced to prison time. A news clipping still attached to the governor’s file on the Holmes file in the State Archives recounts the cases of two white brothers in Texas, one who raped a black girl and was sentenced to twenty-five years and one who raped a white woman and was sentenced to death. The race of the victim was almost as important as the race of the defendant. To receive justice it helped or hurt to be Caucasian, depending on if one was victim or perp, but it was always a disadvantage to be black. Samuel Holmes continued to assert his innocence, at one point saying he would not accept a commutation of his sentence to life—only acquittal would be enough. “I am not afraid,” he told a reporter. “It takes more than the electric chair to scare me,” although that particular bravado soon passed. 
  When the time came to pay for what he may or may not have done, Samuel Holmes spent the last day with his mother and three sisters. That evening his skull was shaved to allow better contact with the electrodes and he was dressed in the suit he would be buried in. He arrived at the execution chamber with a toothpick in his mouth and a smile on his face, his "attitude," his powerful black male persona palpable even in press reports. According to the prison pastor who walked with him to the chamber the condemned maintained his innocence to the end. He died like a man, as it's said, and as part of the administrative loose ends after the execution the prison warden sent a $25 bill to Travis County for electricity and staff time.

            You may think the point of recounting details of the life and premature death of Samuel Holmes is to address small-town Southern racism—or to reacquaint the public with the evils of an all-white system. The entire legal apparatus used to kill Samuel Holmes was Caucasian: judge, jury, both prosecutors, appellate courts, police and victim. 
             Warden and executioner too. 
             From the moment of his arrest, blacks didn’t enter the picture again until he was loaded into the hearse belonging to King Tears Mortuary, which has traditionally served the city’s black community so well, for the long ride home and eventual burial on the colored side of Evergreen Cemetery. That’s where Fluttergirl appeared on the scene with her camera five decades later. Has anything really changed? That's the question.
            Our sheriff is black. The police chief is Hispanic. The district attorney is a self-described progressive who happens to be lesbian. Her chosen successor is an African-American male. The county attorney who prosecutes misdemeanors is Hispanic. The city manager who hires the police chief is black. The deputy city manager who supervises public safety (police & fire) is black. The city attorney who advises these men is a sistah. The present judge and his predecessor in Mace Thurman’s old 147th District Court are both black men—and of the seven criminal district courts in the county three of the judges are women, one judge is Spanish surnamed and two are African-American, it’s hard to imagine more diversity than this in a majority-white Southern city like our own. But what are the outcomes? That is the question. And the answer is: very similar to when Sammy Holmes got strapped into Old Sparky for the ultimate electric ride, back in the day.
            The math works out almost perfectly: Dallas imprisons blacks at a rate a little more than twice the Big D’s black population while Houston imprisons blacks at a rate a little less than three times that city’s black population while the World Capital of Live Music, touchy-feely center of the Lone Star State—is putting blacks on the bus to the Big House at a rate four times the capital city’s colored population. No wonder there are practically no niggers left in Austin. So many have relocated to Huntsville.
            To understand how this can be—how diversity in leadership does not always mean equality in practice—or in living conditions—or before the law—you have to reach back to the great era of civil rights protest in this country, half a century agomorebeginning about the time the hearse carrying Samuel Holmes returned from Huntsville: a look back, a kind of retrospective like the recent civil rights summit held on the University of Texas campus but not the same players or the same movement really, at all. One famous saying from then also applies now: “To be black is necessary,” to push forward to equality, “but not sufficient.” What that means is there are African-Americans who only give lip service to "the struggle" and who cannot be trusted by their own people because they sell their services to The Man, although no one really says “The Man” anymore except bad screenwriters. Around City Hall, one of these individuals likes to be called “Chief.” He’s often the guy you see standing behind Mayor Leffingwell or Chief Acevedo when the shit hits the fan in the minority community. Sammy Holmes is dead but how does the system that killed him live on in another guise—with a different skin color, so to speak—Sammy Holme’s own color? Part of what's wrong is there’s been an aversion to maintaining the record not just by the local police and D.A. but at the Austin-Travis County History Center as well, which can tell you who was named Miss Bluebonnet in 1960 but like the pigs and prosecutorsand the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroleshas nothing on record about Samuel Holmes. 

            In a candidate’s forum last year Gary Cobb brushed off calls for a death penalty moratorium at the courthouse in Austin. “I can only speak about how we do things at the Travis County D.A.’s office,” he told potential voters. “A moratorium isn’t going to affect us one way or another,” he said to an audience of mostly white women as he outlined the way his office approaches the ultimate penalty. If you watch his comments on YouTube there’s a pause after his remarks, and then applause, and Cobb’s relieved smile as he tells white people what they most want to hear. Assistant D.A. Cobb claimed at the forum that the requirement for conviction in Travis County is not just guilt beyond reasonable doubt but beyond all doubta metaphysical concept that is not often achieved in American courtrooms but, magically, is the standard for our prosecutor’s office. 
             “Because of that I do not support a moratorium in Travis County,” he said, adding that, “There are other places that have issues they need to deal with.” 
             In a sense you can consider Samuel Holmes as the designated Negro of his era. These two men, Gary Cobb and Samuel Holmes, to say nothing of Chief McDonald, actually have a lot in common. Holmes was the black man chosen in 1960, perhaps even at random, to show that white people were still in control in the city. Mr. Cobb and Chief McDonald share pretty much the same job description only the benefits are better and there’s possibility for advancement, which is what the assistant D.A. seeks. Blacks like these are still being used for The Man’s purposes but today it’s considered a good job and has excellent benefits, for those lucky enough to be picked. 
           “There is a group of [white] individuals in the city,” says one high-ranking African-American official, “who think they can get blacks and Hispanics in office, tell them what to do, and then get rid of them when they’re no longer useful.” Which speaks to how the careers of men like Gary Cobb and Chief McDonald are born. The fear is that as the city council moves to district representation in the next election cycle—abandoning the gentleman’s agreement that through the decades has assured black representation on the council in a tame form—the city will suddenly find itself without a black elected official.
            Given what we’ve had recently—and the outcomes we’ve experienced—that may not be a bad thing either.

             Edited by Jake Schloss

1 comment:

  1. Hello from a fellow graver like Fluttergirl. Great piece. Lots to think about.