The deadly secrets of a small town in Texas

The Guardian, February 2 1991

Conroe looked like a nice little town. I had cruised up the freeway from Houston for half an hour, through the forest that blankets this part of east Texas, turned off by the Holiday Inn and a couple of minutes later, I was in the courthouse square with its clean streets and its neat shops and the Stars and Stripes up high on the courthouse roof like a feather in Conroe’s cap.

In the beginning, just about everyone who lived in this part of Conroe said the same thing about their town – like the mayor, Carl Barton Jr, who whipped out his pocket book to show me pictures of the cattle he kept on his ranch and told me: “This is a great little place, and the best thing about it is the people. They’re the friendliest you’ll ever meet.” It took a little time before I found the truth.

I already knew one thing more about Conroe than the mayor was telling me. I knew this was the town where Clarence Brandley had lived – not in this same part of town with its air-conditioned shopping malls and brick-built churches, but over on the other side of the railroad tracks, in a part of Conroe where the mayor and his friends were seldom seen, where the roads were pocked with holes and the cramped houses were made of wood with corrugated iron rooves and makeshift polythene windows. That was where Clarence Brandley had lived, with all the other black people.

And I knew a fair bit about what had happened to Brandley back in the summer of 1980, when a young white girl was found raped and murdered in the High School and Brandley – the only black man in the building – was arrested and convicted and sentenced to death in this same courthouse, even though he was innocent, even though some people in Conroe knew who the real murderers were.

By the time I arrived in Conroe to look into Brandley’s story, in the winter of 1987, the case had become a highly-charged conflict. A few people in the town had dared to start telling what they knew about the schoolgirl’s murder. They had been beaten up and ostracised for their trouble, but, through their extraordinary efforts, an independent judge from outside the town had been able to get a grip on the case, to point the finger of guilt at two white men in the town and to declare Brandley the innocent victim of a piece of old-fashioned red-neck racism. Yet Conroe’s courthouse had appealed and Brandley was still on Death Row.

Even knowing about Brandley, I still did not guess the truth about Conroe; and when I asked a few white people on that first visit about him and about black people in the town, they talked with such apparent sincerity about Brandley being guilty and about Conroe being a happy town for black people that I was tempted to believe that this was just another small town in America with nothing to hide and nothing worse on its conscience than one accidental miscarriage of justice in a hundred years of otherwise blameless history.

It was a few days later when I caught my first glimpse of Conroe’s secret. I had crossed the railroad tracks to find Brandley’s family and I was walking slowly past a line of shacks, melting in the humid heat and wondering if my white face was welcome here, when I came across an old black man, bent into the mouth of a rusting car, whose engine he was trying to massage into life. That old man was the first person to tell me the story of Joe Winters.

He didn’t know it all. I found the rest in yellowing newspapers in the county library and in the broken memories of other black people who were as old as he. Some of them had been trying hard to forget, but it was in talking to them that the whole truth finally began to slip out – not just about Joe Winters but about all the others, too.

Joe Winters lived in the black part of Conroe and worked at one of the sawmills outside town. In the early 1920s, he was married to a woman named Anna but he also had a girlfriend – and she was white. A lot of black people knew that they were seeing each other but no white people did, until one Friday afternoon when they were in the woods together and a white man saw Joe Winters with his girl. When she got home, they asked her: “What you doing in the woods with a nigger?” And in her fear, she said the black man had forced himself on her.

All the old black people in Conroe knew what happened next. They still recalled the day when, as children, they had seen the white men with guns and sticks coming down through the streets and into their homes. “They came to get him. There was white men searching in all the houses. It went on all night… Sheriff Hicks came through our house. My mamma was crying. Everybody was crying. I didn’t know why. But I started crying, too… There was white men on horses in the streets. Everybody just stayed inside, hoped there wouldn’t be no trouble… Just before they came the first time, I saw him walk by my house. Joe Winters. He didn’t know he was in trouble. He just walked by and they never saw him…”

The search through the black part of Conroe was only part of the manhunt, which soon became such a big affair that it made the front page of the newspapers. By Saturday morning, white men had poured into Conroe from all over the county. Several thousand of them were now hunting for Joe Winters.

They took his clothes to give the scent to the bloodhounds which chased a trail more than a mile out to the west of Conroe but then they lost it. There was a rumor that the fugitive had taken a mule from a black boy out there. The dogs had given up when word came from the other side of town that Joe Winters had been seen there in the woods.

White men raced to the spot in trucks, on horses, with their dogs and their guns. Soon the woods were alive with the sound of the hunt, the dogs yelping, the men shouting, all crashing through the undergrowth. This time, they were on the right track and early on Saturday afternoon, May 20 1922, word came through to Conroe that they had caught Joe Winters, and they were bringing him back.

Just before four o’clock in the afternoon, they dragged him into the courthouse square. The whole place was boiling with people, all the men who had come to join the hunt, their wives, children too, hundreds of white faces filling the square and the surrounding streets. Out on the edge of town, the sheriff’s men blocked the roads and turned away black people.

Joe Winters was in chains when they hauled him through the crowd which jostled and shoved to get a look, to jeer and shout ‘Nigger’ and kick him and spit. First they tried to fix him in front of Wahrenberger’s store, but Mr Wahrenberger wouldn’t let them in case his place got damaged, so they chained him to an iron post at the end of the fence which ran round the edge of the gleaming courthouse.

Most of the crowd watched and waited while a few of the men organised everything, fetched old boxes from Wahrenbergers, piled them up around the black man’s body till they reached up over his head, fetched oil and kerosene and splashed it all over the boxes till they were good and soaked, and then one of them struck a match, and all the white men, women and children stood and watched while Joe Winters was burned alive.

The old black people had never forgotten what they had heard of the scene. “I heard they tried to take a picture of him, but he wouldn’t stand up… He was trying to make them kill him before they burned him. He was hoping they would shoot him. But they didn’t want to do that… You could smell it all around – smell the kerosene and the meat. Burning meat… He didn’t die straight away, not till the flames went down his throat.”

The fire died down and, with it, the crowd. Families went home to eat and sleep. The Conroe Courier reported: “Joe Winters Burned Here. Negro Pays Penalty for Assault Upon 14-year-old Girl.” The paper described the manhunt and its ending and said: “Winters was regarded by both white and Negro population as a bad character. He is said to have had three women, and his favourite occupation was smoking a cigar as he loafed the streets and refused hard work when offered him.”

A few days later, reporters from out of town came to Conroe to find out what had happened. Sheriff Hicks told them he could not help them. “I just looked away for a moment,” he said, “and when I looked back, the Negro was tied to a burning stake.”

The old black people who told me this story tutted and sighed as they remembered it all. One or two of them cried. But back on the other side of the tracks, I could find few who would remember and none who would admit to feeling bad. A much-respected white attorney confessed he had been in the square when it happened. “You get carried away with things like that and then later on you wonder why in the world did you ever do a thing like that. But I think the blacks took the attitude that he got what was coming to him. Fact of the matter is, blacks haven’t had that much to complain about.”

But they had. I kept going back to Conroe, piecing together scraps of memory with aging records in the local libraries, and finally I uncovered a picture of this neat little town which was almost inconceivably different from its cheery image. For the truth was that behind a screen of white lies and black fear, Conroe was hiding the murder not only of Joe Winters but of twelve other young black men who had been killed and buried by these smiling folk and their outlying communities.

The sheer number of killings made Clarence Brandley’s ordeal seem almost inevitable, like the recurrence of an unstoppable pattern. Although these other victims were spread throughout the one hundred years of the town’s life, they were all linked to Brandley by common threads. Like Brandley, each of them was black and each had been accused of attacking a white person – almost always a white woman – and, like him, they had been condemned by the whole community without hope of defending themselves, while law officers turned a blind eye.

Their deaths ran like a spine through the skeleton of Conroe’s buried history: Clem Scott hanged from the elm tree in the courthouse square; Andrew McGehee riddled with bullets in his prison cell; Tom Payne hanged on the edge of town when police handed him over to the mob; James Kinder and Alf Riley shot down in the street by a crowd of whites; an unnamed black man accused of prowling near a white woman’s house and shot through the head; Warren Lewis, mentally retarded, hanged from a tree because he went to a white woman’s house to ask her for water.

Bob White nearly escaped and, in a way, that made his story the most painful of all since he was always within reach of freedom. It was only through bad luck that he got into trouble at all. He had been living in Houston with his girl friend and, if he had stayed there instead of travelling back to his home town, Livingston, to help his mother pick cotton, he would have been a hundred miles away when Ruby Cochran, the wife of the biggest landowner in the area, was raped in her home one sweltering night in August 1937.

As it was, he was arrested by one of the three Cochran brothers, who took it upon themselves personally to round up 16 young black men on the day after the rape. He was still relatively safe until Ruby Cochran came to the yard where the men were being held and listened to their voices and said she was sure that it was Bob White’s voice that had threatened her in the dark. White was quickly tried and sentenced to death, but then he was reprieved by the court of appeals in Texas which said there was too much prejudice in Livingston for him to have a fair trial there. They said he should be tried a second time in a less prejudiced town – 50 miles away, in Conroe.

The trial there came to the same conclusion. But once again Bob White was saved from the hangman by the US Supreme Court in Washington DC whose judges overturned his conviction when they discovered that law men had tied Bob White to a tree every night for a week and whipped him with rubber hoses until he signed a confession. By the time Bob White’s third trial began on June 11 1941, in the courthouse in the middle of Conroe, feelings were running high.

Just after midday on the first day of the trial, as the court rose for lunch, as the judge collected his papers, as Bob White sat silently in his chair at the front of the room, Ruby Cochran’s husband, Dude, rose to his feet and started to walk forwards from the public benches. No-one noticed the stoney-faced white farmer as he pressed through the little wooden gate and stepped up to the defence table, up behind Bob White, up behind his black head and still no-one noticed as he drew a .38 calibre pistol from his pocket and shot Bob White dead. The bullet crashed into his brain from just behind his right ear. He slumped over sideways, spilling blood on the courtroom floor, and he was dead before his body fell out of the chair.

For a moment, the courtroom was frozen with fear and shock. Then Dude Cochran handed over his pistol to one of the attorneys and stood still and cold while spectators surged forward from the benches, leaning over the railings to slap him on the back, reaching out to shake his hand, calling out their congratulations. The Conroe Courier recorded: “General satisfaction over the killing of Bob White was apparent in the business district of Conroe which is practically all within one block of the courthouse.”

That afternoon, Dude Cochran was charged with murder and released on only $500 bail. A week later, he was put on trial. The District Attorney who was supposed to be prosecuting him asked the jury to acquit him. After deliberating for less than a minute, the jury obliged and Dude Cochran was carried out into the courthouse square, a free man. Bob White’s family were too scared to retrieve his body which lay in the morgue, unclaimed.

Many of the murders I uncovered had been committed in the bad old days when the Ku Klux Klan still openly met in the town. But other disturbing killings had happened more recently: Greg Steele shot in the back in the Conroe city jail in 1972 because he was dating a white policeman’s niece; Loyal Garner and Hambone Simpson, killed separately in police cells in near-by towns in 1987 and 1988. Their killers had escaped unpunished.

The more I discovered, the more I began to see that this history of public murder went to the heart of the railroading of Clarence Brandley. In Brandley’s case, lawmen had casually destroyed evidence and threatened witnesses; and judges had broken basic rules of courtroom fairness to send their victim to Death Row. They had not even been particularly careful about covering their tracks. They had never needed to be careful. Killing black men in Conroe was easy, and the law had always let it happen.

The mayor and the storekeeper and the assistant in the library and all the other white people I met in Conroe continued to insist with all the appearance of sincerity that Conroe was a nice little town and that they had never wronged Clarence Brandley in any way. For a while, I thought they were lying but then I realised that this was something more subtle and more frightening: they genuinely did believe that Conroe was a fine place because they did not feel even slightly guilty about any of this. This was normal life, the way things had always been.

Mayor Barton and his voters took it for granted that black people live in shacks while white people live in brick homes with garages and central air-conditioning. Black children play in the dust while white children play in sandpits. Black people get out of line and white people punish them. And Conroe is not special. All across America, in little towns and sprawling cities, there are railroad tracks or other lines that split the whites from the blacks, and split the power and the wealth the same way. All across America, there are white people who take it all for granted.

One lynching in particular rang with echoes of Brandley’s case, the death of Bennett Jackson, a nineteen-year-old farm labourer who was the first of Conroe victim’s, a hundred years earlier in December 1885.

Jackson was born the son of emancipated slaves in 1866, the first year of his parents’ freedom, and grew up like Brandley a hundred years later with a new promise of equality. But Bennett Jackson’s life was as good as finished the moment a white farmer named John Smith came home and found his wife and two children beaten and bloody on the floor of their home. Rightly or wrongly, Jackson was blamed for the crime and there was never any doubt about what was going to happen to him.

In Houston, the Post newspaper of Saturday December 19 1885 declared in its headline that ‘Judge Lynch’ would be in town that day. The Post explained that the town’s real judge had suggested that Jackson be sent to Houston for safe-keeping but that “the people in the majesty of their might would not permit it”, so the judge had backed down.

The Post understood the town’s feelings. “No man in this county feels that his wife and children are safe from outrage and murder as long as so fearful a demon lives… A thrilling time is expected here. If he is lynched, however, it will be openly and boldly done without disguise or any attempt at secrecy. It will be the act of the people… Every good citizen approves of the lynching as the negro outrages are too frequent in this section.”

In the small hours of that Saturday morning, a crowd of white men took Bennett Jackson from his prison cell and led him into the woods. History does not record what they did to him there, but Jackson was still alive at noon when he was dragged into the middle of town. News of the lynching picnic had drawn families from miles around to the square. According to the Houston Post, it was ‘the leading citizens of the county’ who then bundled Bennett Jackson on to the back of a horse, ran a rope over the branch of a stout tree, looped the noose around the young man’s neck, and jerked the horse away. Bennett Jackson was soon dead.

A hundred years apart, Brandley and Jackson were victims of the same communal ritual: the rules of law that were abandoned; the judge who fell in with the mob; the press that relished his fate; the ‘leading citizens’ who engineered the crime; the bodyguard of new civil rights which turned and deserted him; the whole town which stood by and let it happen. Both men had suffered, as the Houston Post had put it, from ‘an act of the people’.

Finally, I left Conroe for good. Soon afterwards, as a result of the extraordinary courage of his small group of supporters, Clarence Brandley defeated the legal manoeuvres of Conroe’s courthouse and was declared innocent by the most senior court in Texas and, in January 1990, he was released after nearly ten years on Death Row. He never went back to Conroe. They never said they were sorry. It was all just part of normal life in a small town in America.

* White Lies, The True Story of Clarence Brandley, Presumed Guilty in the American South. By Nick Davies. Published by Chatto and Windus, February 11, £14.99.