Waller County, Texas, where Sandra Bland was found dead in a jail cell three days after she was arrested at a traffic stop, is known for its watermelon festival – and its long history of racial tension.
That tension continues to the grave. As elsewhere in Texas, cemeteries in Waller County have long followed an unofficial pattern of segregation: whites are buried with whites, blacks are buried with blacks.
“This is the most racist county in the state of Texas which is probably one of the most racist states in the country,” said DeWayne Charleston, a former Waller County judge who in 2007 ordered a black funeral home to handle the burial of an unidentified white woman, sparking controversy when activists claimed that other officials intervened to stop a white person being buried next to black corpses.
A federal lawsuit alleging that the county seat of Hempstead neglected historically black cemeteries while maintaining white ones was settled in 2004, resulting in the city committing more resources to their upkeep.
“You’ve got racism from the cradle to the grave,” Charleston said.
In 2010, Charleston pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, following an FBI investigation into corruption which also ensnared other public officials in the county. Charleston, who in 2003 became the first black person to be elected a justice of the peace in the county, said he believed the prosecution was racially motivated.
With a population of about 45,000, located near Houston, Waller County is about 25% black, according to US census figures. It is attracting attention after the death in custody of Bland, a 28-year-old from Chicago who was stopped by police last Friday for failing to signal when changing lanes.
She was arrested for “assault of a public servant” after police said she became argumentative. Video shot by a bystander shows her being restrained by two officers.
She yells: “You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can’t even hear.”
One of the officers tells the man making the video to stop filming.
Royce West, a Democratic state senator from Dallas, wrote a letter on Thursday to the director of the Texas department of public safety, asking for more details about Bland’s arrest to be made public.
“My unconfirmed information is that Ms Bland … was followed some distance by a DPS trooper,” he wrote, adding that her death was “suspicious”.
Elton Mathis, the Waller County district attorney, told a news conference on Thursday the autopsy report found that Bland died from asphyxiation, that she hanged herself using a plastic bag and that video from the jail showed that no one went in or out of her cell until she was found unconscious on Monday morning.
But amid a nationwide climate of intense scrutiny on violent encounters between African Americans and law enforcement, family members have questioned the official version of events, saying she had no reason to kill herself.
“Based on the Sandy that I knew, that’s unfathomable to me,” Bland’s sister, Sharon Cooper, said at a press conference in Chicago on Thursday.
Another sister, Shante Needham, said Bland called her from jail on Saturday afternoon, to say she had been arrested but didn’t know why. She also said an officer had placed his knee in her back and she thought her arm had been broken.
“She was very aggravated,” Needham said. “She seemed to be in pain. She really felt that her arm had been fractured. I told her I would work on getting her out.”
An active social-media commentator on racial justice matters, Bland had just moved to Texas from Illinois and had been set to take up a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college in the county that was founded on the site of a former plantation.
It was the scene of a protest march in 2004, when thousands of students demanded the right to vote after Oliver Kitzman, then the county’s district attorney, questioned whether they should be allowed to cast ballots in local elections. His stance was perceived as an attempt to stop young black people who were likely to lean Democrat from voting. It prompted a civil rights lawsuit and a US Justice Department investigation.
“You have to dot your i’s and cross your t’s being black in Waller County,” said Herschel Smith, a black former community activist who is now a constable in the county, referring to a perception that African Americans were more likely to be stopped and investigated by police than white people. He said that despite the area’s ethnic diversity, its officials were overwhelmingly white.
“There has to be a culture of difference,” he said.
Smith described himself as a prime mover in efforts to oust Waller County’s sheriff, Glenn Smith, from his previous role as Hempstead’s police chief.
In 2007, Smith was suspended for two weeks without pay by the city council, ordered to take anger management classes and placed on probation for six months after residents made allegations of racist behaviour against him and four other white officers following an arrest in which he swore at and manhandled a black suspect.
The Houston Chronicle reported that he was fired in March 2008, after more accusations of inappropriate conduct against the police department including humiliating strip-searches of young black people. Yet later that year the Republican was elected as Waller County’s sheriff. He was re-elected in November 2012, the same month James Howell, a 29-year-old inmate, was found hanged in a cell at the Waller County jail in an apparent suicide.
Smith was previously chief sheriff’s deputy in another area notorious for racial divisions, Sabine County in east Texas, on the Louisiana border. It attracted national attention in 1988 when three white former police officers were found guilty of beating a black inmate to death in the county jail.
The sheriff told reporters on Thursday that he was not a racist and that the previous controversies were politically motivated.
“Black lives matter to Glenn Smith,” he said.