As a kid growing up in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, I often reflect on how white washed Black history was as it was being regurgitated to me by my almost exclusively white teachers and administrators. Relative to what I – and, indeed, we as an American collective society as a whole – now understand about our history and how it directly relates to our current circumstances, what I knew and was being taught in school as a child was essentially G-rated cliff notes: Black people were slaves, then they weren’t, it took some time for them to become fully equal, but they peacefully fought for their rights and now, everything is good. We’re all one big American family with the worst of our history behind us and limitless possibilities on the horizon.
Something changed in 2008. And ever since, there’s been an “awakening” of our body politic to the reality that our history was far more complex – and yes, harsh & cruel in some cases – than we ever cared to understand or be held accountable for.
Case in point, in just the last couple of years – in large part, due to the success of the HBO mini-series “The Watchmen,” many Americans learned for the first time about the Tulsa Massacre – the worst recorded racial violence in American history when Black folks in Tulsa, Oklahoma were beaten, killed, and run out of town by white residents who resented their accumulating wealth in the community. There are reports that aerial firebombing even occurred – on American soil against Black Americans, simply to drive them out of town. Or the Rosewood Massacre of 1923 in Rosewood, Florida. Or the lynching of Joe Coe. Or the only successful coup attempt in American history, the Wilmington, NC massacre of 1898. The list is exhaustive and disturbing considering how consequential those events were and how silent our pre-2008 history was about them.
This morning, I learned about another such incident. One so egregious, so blatantly racist and violent, I didn’t believe it at first until I researched it myself.
Here’s the story of Bob White, of Conroe, Texas.
Bob White was a Black share cropper in working on a plantation in Texas. One night, in 1937 – two years after my grandmother was born, I first thought when I read this story – a white woman named Ruby Cochran claimed she’d been raped in her home. She had scant details to give the local sheriff’s but was adamant that the perpetrator “was undoubtedly a negro.” The next day, the local sheriff rounded up about 16 Black men – Bob White included – and detained them without warrants.
They eventually settled on Bob White after Ruby Cochran identified him by his voice. Texas Rangers then held White for a week, beating him until he agreed to sign a confession statement. Bob White had no lawyer and was forbidden from communicating with his family.
He was then tried by all white juries three times. Three times, double jeopardy prohibition be damned.
The first time, in 1937, Bob White was convicted of rape and sentenced to death by electrocution. However, the conviction was overturned on appeal due to unfairness in the first trial. The appellate court remanded the case to a new trial.
The second time, in 1939, he was convicted & sentenced to death again, despite a change of venue to a new, supposedly *less racist” county 30 miles away. His defense lawyers again appealed the conviction on the basis of Blacks being barred from the jury, but this time the conviction was upheld by the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals. However, the conviction was overturned – again – but this time, by the US Supreme Court, which determined that Bob White’s confession had been coerced.
The third time Bob White was tried – the third damn time – was in 1941. on the first day of the trial, Ruby Cochran’s husband W.S. “Dude” Cochran walked into the courtroom and shot Bob White in the back of the head at point blank range, killing him instantly, White’s blood and brain matter spilling out in front of the judge and jury. Instead of outrage or even basic human disgust at the brutal murder they all witnessed, those in the courtroom cheered Cochran’s actions and shook his hand in congratulations.
While “Dude” Cochran was charged with murder, he was released on bail and at his trial, the prosecutor – the damn prosecutor – asked the jury to acquit Cochran, which of course they did. He walked out of the courtroom that day, a free man.
14 year old Black boy Emmitt Till would be killed 14 years later and his killers would receive similar justice.
Our history is fraught with stories just like Bob White’s. I don’t tell them to be morbid, or even to suggest that progress hasn’t been made. But to ignore our actual history – and the motivations behind some of the most horrific aspect of said history – is to not learn from our previous evils. To pretend like our racial history of violence and tension ended after Dr. King died is not only false, but it’s a dangerous form of cognitive dissonance that inevitably result in more tension, more violence, and stagnant progress for all of us.
I remember Charleston, South Carolina. I remember Mother Emmanuel AME Church. I remember the 9 church members – Pastor Clementa Pickney included – who were shot dead during bible study by 21 year old Dylan Roof, who had minutes before prayed with them. I remember being in shock – not just because of the heinous nature of the act, but because it felt like an event ripped right out of the 1950’s. It felt as if it belonged in a different time and was perhaps an aberration, a glitch in the matrix.
But it wasn’t. We never addressed the massacres of our past. We never truly addressed the tensions that existed post-slavery. We never held ourselves accountable for our own history and because of it, we repeat it. Is that to say another Tulsa Massacre is on the horizon? No, I don’t think so. But it is to say that until we reckon with our own history – our real, hard, sometimes disgusting history – we won’t fix the ills of our past. We’ll just continue to paint over them and hope the paint sticks.