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Chapter Four— Whitecapping
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Chapter Four—

The white folk had a way of letting you know.
Gwendolyn Brown Hill
Sister of Willie Brown

It was one of those hot East Texas summer nights that never cool off, a night when people sit on their front porch until they can stay awake no longer. It was a night older blacks still talk about in hushed voices as if just remembering it still poses a danger. It began as a private dispute in a back alley, and it ended in a murder that ignited all of Mineola. Willie Brown, only ten years old at the time, remembers little detail about that night long ago, but the aftermath was seared into his memory forever.[1]

A half-century later, many of the details about that summer night can be pieced together from memories, skimpy newspaper stories, and affidavits contained in a tin drawer in the dusty attic of the Wood County courthouse.[2] On the night of Wednesday, July 5, 1944, James Bonner Christie, a white truck driver whose friends called him "J.B.," lost his life. Who really killed him will probably never be known.

The murder of Christie, and especially what followed, profoundly shaped Willie Brown's attitude about the relationship of blacks and whites in America. Much that followed in Brown's life—his involvement with civil rights demonstrations, his election campaigns, his self-image as an outsider, and even his going to California—was molded in the summer of 1944. As an adult, Brown was accused sometimes of having a "chip on his shoulder" about whites. He replied, "I don't have a chip, I got a redwood forest on my shoulder. It means it's permanent."[3] A major part of how it grew can be traced to July 5, 1944.


Late that day Christie and a friend, Harmon Powell, went looking for Listress "Lobo" Jackson. Christie and Powell were white, and Jackson was black—a fact that mattered more than anything else in the world. The two white men claimed that a Negro named "Adelle" owed $50 to Christie for a car and $22.50 to Powell's gas station. For some reason they believed that Jackson could lead them to Adelle. Earlier in the evening Christie had chased Jackson down a street in Mineola, cursing and threatening him.

Around 11 P.M., looking for Jackson, Christie and Powell came through a back alley to the kitchen door where Jackson worked at Cowart's Cafe in the Beckham Hotel. The Beckham, in the center of town, was about as upscale as it got in Mineola. A three-story brick building, it sat on the north side—the white side—of the railroad tracks facing the Bailey Hotel, on the black side south of the tracks. Blacks could enter only through the back alley, and then only as a maid, porter, or cook.

Christie wanted his money, and his earlier confrontation only made him angrier. He demanded that Jackson come outside to relay a message to Adelle. When Jackson came outside, Christie cornered him. "We have got you now," Christie told Jackson, stepping between him and the door. Jackson protested; Christie cursed him and told him he'd kill him if he did not give his message to Adelle. Hearing the commotion, Robert Crabtree, who went by the name "Barthie," stepped outside into the alley. He was Jackson's father-in-law, and he, too, was black. Poorly educated, Barthie Crabtree could barely sign his name.

Exactly what happened next is not clear. As best as can be pieced together, Crabtree was thrown to the ground and then almost immediately a scuffle ensued. When it was over, J.B. Christie—the white man—lay dead in a pool of blood, his throat slashed with a kitchen knife. Powell, the other white man, was beaten. At least one witness, Jackson's wife, said that Crabtree was struck to the ground and never had a chance to defend himself, much less kill Christie.[4] That night, however, the fact that mattered the most was that one, and possibly two, black men were arrested for murdering a white man.

In the days that followed, the Mineola Monitor could not have done much more to inflame whites if it had tried. The newspaper reported in a front-page story that the whites were attacked by Negroes as they were exiting the rear door of Cowart's Cafe. Why the whites would be leaving by the "colored" door was left unexplained.[5] The newspaper claimed that the Negroes had threatened the whites earlier in the day—not the other way around, as witnesses later swore in court documents. The newspaper graphically described the aftermath in the alley: "Blood stains on the ground and concrete at the scene of the murder told plainly a story of considerable scuffling and fighting during the affray." Finally, the newspaper gave a hint—but only a hint—of other trouble: "Because of the high feeling Wednesday night—still rampant Thursday morning—officers rushed the prisoner to an undesignated out-of-county jail."


The "high feeling" among whites made life a living hell for blacks in the days and weeks that followed. Young white toughs roamed the black neighborhood south of the railroad tracks shooting at homes. They torched Crabtree's house. They posted signs on trees and telephone poles reading, "No niggers in town after sundown."[6] They went about the business of old-fashioned East Texas "whitecapping."

The town newspaper never reported what was happening in the black neighborhood in the days following Christie's death. Instead, the Mineola Monitor ran bland editorials defending the wisdom of segregation. In one such rambling editorial, the Monitor concluded, "Losing our heads over the race problem will not solve the problem, and we can be thankful that members of both races in Mineola have been thoughtful enough to avoid trouble since the unfortunate incident of last week."[7]

But whites were losing their heads. A black waitress at the Beckham Hotel remembered that the hotel asked her not to come to work that week, fearful that she might become a victim of white retribution. Years later she told her story, ironically, in the lobby of the Beckham Hotel at a reception hosted by the hotel for the visiting former students of Mineola Colored High School. She did not find out about the killing immediately, but only later when she went home. "They never told me when I came to work because they felt like I wouldn't stay."[8]

Marcus McCalla, who was five years older than Willie Brown and lived around the corner, remembered that the well-to-do whites in Mineola warned the white toughs to bypass the homes of their maids and servants. Keeping Negroes out of town after sunset was, of course, absurd since so many families and businesses relied upon them for help. "They wouldn't just go by and shoot up everybody's house because these rich white people hired black people who raised the white people's kids," he said. "They were protecting their help. My grandmother worked for the rich people in town—you see, the rich people didn't go for that. They were the ones that kept things from getting out of hand."[9] But the wealthy were complicit in the violence by not stopping it completely.

Patty Ruth Newsome, who lived next door to Willie Brown and his family, remembered the numbing fear most of all. "There used to be truckloads of kids would come through here throwing things if you were out," she said. "I know I was so afraid. We would have to get in before dark. Mama would make us come in before dark and lock up because it seemed like they would kind of go from door to door."[10]

Willie's mother, Minnie Collins, working as a maid in Dallas, somehow heard about the trouble back in Mineola. She took the unusual step of telephoning her mother in Mineola to check on her family. Anna Lee had no telephone. She went across the street to take the call at the only house in the neighborhood with a telephone. When she picked up the phone, "Ma Dear was talking real low, she wouldn't talk loud because she thought maybe


somebody—the white people—were listening on the phone," recalled Lovia, who was with her mother in Dallas at the time.[11] Anna Lee whispered her reply to Minnie: "I'll tell you about it when you come down here." That's all she would say. "She didn't even want to discuss it on the phone. She was afraid, because [Crabtree's] house had got burned that night," Lovia remembered.

Decades later, a man who seemingly feared no one repeated the tale of terror of when he was ten years old.[12] "For many days and weeks, any car coming down the streets—if you were black, you got as far away from the roadway as possible because one of the retaliatory processes engaged in was to knock you off the roadway with the car—hit you," said Willie Brown, telling the story to a crowd of reporters on the floor of the California State Assembly. Asked if he was ever hit, Brown crossed his arms, rocked back on his heels, and replied, "Hell no. I stayed off the roadway. You know, I've been half-assed smart all my life."

Brown has told the story over and over all his life, although he rarely put the story in the context of the Christie murder. Being chased off the road was one story Willie Brown did not embellish. "You knew you were going to be hassled. You were constantly the object," Brown once told an interviewer. "You had to worry about the automobile approaching, because many times it was being driven by a white person, particularly a young white person."[13] And, he added, "Nighttimes were even worse in Mineola."

In May 1945 an all-white jury in Quitman recognized that Crabtree and Jackson were not culpable of murder, and it was not about to cause their execution. But the jury was not about to let them off, either. Crabtree, who was probably on the ground when Christie was killed, received a five-year suspended sentence, and Jackson, who was probably defending himself, was given a seven-year prison sentence.[14] Their sentences were light for the time—a tacit acknowledgment by the jury that they were not murderers and that times were changing. A few years earlier in East Texas, they probably would have been lynched. But the verdicts and sentences hardly represented justice for two men defending themselves against two town bullies. The white-inflicted terror on the black side of town subsided, but the fear it instilled did not. The ever-present white toughs were always lurking.

There was one more incident in the 1940s that touched Anna Lee's family directly. Itsie Collins came home for a visit, and on his way out of town he took Gwendolyn back to college in Tyler in his newest car, a Hudson Super Six. Collins was now a San Francisco gambler, no longer a familiar fixture in Mineola. During his visit Collins heard a few comments in town from whites who were bothered that his car was better than any of theirs. "The white folk had a way of letting you know," Gwendolyn remembered.[15] "It was the attitude once you came back in a good-looking car like that, because you were just not supposed to do that. And statements were made to him like,


'Itsie, you can never live here anymore.'" Collins paid them little mind. But then, as he drove out of town with Gwendolyn, the two were tailed by young whites. "We went through Lindale and they followed us almost all the way to Tyler. I was afraid, naturally," she said.

And Anna Lee fretted for her grandchildren. Most of all she was afraid for Willie. Her grandson was cocky and was prone to shooting off his mouth at whites. Her worries deepened as he became a teenager. He had a hankering for hanging around "uptown"—the small commercial center in Mineola that included places like the Beckham Hotel. He got a job washing dishes at the Henry Hotel, a flophouse up the street where brawls among whites were common.[16] He cut the grass at the Victorian mansion of a white dentist.[17] He shined shoes at a barbershop. Decades later, when Brown returned as an adult, he remarked that "the white people living there were just as evil looking" as in his youth.[18]

Brown was drawn uptown all the same. "He would always be uptown, and we would always be afraid for him," Lovia remembered.[19] Even as a young boy, to his grandmother's horror, Willie challenged the police when they raided the house looking for whiskey. Willie knew enough to ask for a search warrant. He did not know that his uncle, Itsie, was bribing the police and would take care of things later. "He'd talk noise. Back then, you just didn't talk back," Lovia said. "You would tell Willie to hush." But Willie Brown would not hush. The police were annoyed by the mouthy youngster. "Well, Anna Lee, you better talk to this smart boy," his sisters recalled the police telling their grandmother.[20] "She didn't want anything to happen to Willie, but Willie, he just said whatever come to his mind, whatever he thought," Lovia said. "She was always afraid because he would talk."

His taunts brought him perilously close to crossing an invisible line, as when a white man once asked him, "Say, junior, what time is it?" using a pejorative term reserved for black males. Willie Brown Jr. did not immediately answer. The white man asked again, repeating "junior." Finally Brown snapped, "You guessed my name. Now you can guess what time it is."[21] His sisters are still amazed that he was not beaten. Somehow he kept out of harm. It may have helped that he was physically small and not much of a threat. It may have also helped that he was Itsie Collins's nephew and Lewis Brown's son. The whites in Mineola generally respected Itsie, and they liked Lewis Brown, a solicitous waiter who remembered their names.

In later years Brown said he came to California to seek opportunity and the big-city life. But it is equally true that his grandmother wanted him out of Mineola for his own safety. "He had a way about him, and I think she was just really afraid. At that time, white men would do whatever they wanted to young blacks, especially to black males," Gwendolyn observed.[22]

Brown graduated from Mineola Colored High School in May 1951, exactly three years before the United States Supreme Court declared that racially


segregated schools such as his did not meet the Constitution's standard for equal protection under the law.[23] It took another twelve years before Mineola complied with the law and the colored school was finally abandoned. Not until 1966 could black children go to the same high school as whites in Mineola.[24]

From his grandmother's point of view, Willie Brown graduated from high school not a moment too soon. He stood second in his class of about a dozen, just behind his best friend, Frank Crawford. Brown later joked that the only B he received was for "comportment," an old scholastic term for good behavior.[25] Like many young men just out of high school, Willie Brown went through a period of indecision. That he wanted to go to college seemed set. That he wanted—and needed—to get out of Mineola was also certain. But where? He was "colored" and had graduated from a "colored" high school, and that made him ineligible for the University of Texas, the state's best public institution, which remained closed to "coloreds" by state law.[26] Brown could have gone to one of the black colleges in Texas, and for a time he seemed headed in that direction. Brown attended a two-week freshmen orientation camp at Prairie View A&M, an all-black school near Houston, which turned out good farmers and teachers but not much else.[27] But he hated the place, and he never enrolled. Brown found the rules constricting, there was never enough to eat, and he was put off that athletes dominated college life. "If you were unfortunate, and you were assigned to a table with football players, all of whom in many cases were friends, you may never get any food," he remembered. "I did raise a stink about it."[28] He was especially put out that the jocks got the girls. Brown left Prairie View and went to Dallas, where his mother lived, and worked for a few weeks in the library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a school he did not have a prayer of getting into.

Brown was a natural-born lawyer, but he stood about as much chance of acquiring a first-rate legal education in Texas as he did of becoming a fullback for the University of Texas Longhorns. When Homer Rainey, the university's president, suggested that the state could be more generous in its educational facilities for the Negro population, he was summarily sacked. By the late 1940s there were 7,701 white lawyers in Texas and only 23 black lawyers.[29] When the University of Texas was sued over the issue, the school set up a "separate but equal" law school in the basement with three rooms and three part-time instructors in 1947. The university was sued again in 1950. But for Willie Brown the court battles for integration in Texas would come too late.

Brown's father, in Los Angeles, offered to take him in, although it appears that his offer was never relayed to Willie. "They had planned for him to come to Los Angeles. But then they changed plans," Lewis Brown said.[30] A year before his death, Lewis hinted at the unresolved hurt from decades earlier. "I would take him in," the old man insisted, "give him a place to stay, and


help him through school and everything because I was working and she [his wife] was working. We was making good money here." But Willie Brown said he was unaware of the offer. "I don't ever remember that invitation," he said, looking taken aback when asked about it in an interview shortly before his father died.[31] "I don't doubt that he is sincere when he says that, but it certainly was never communicated to me and I'm not sure I would have accepted it because I didn't know him."

In truth, the pull was stronger from Itsie Collins, the flashy gambler from San Francisco. Besides, Anna Lee never trusted Lewis Brown anyway, and she was not about to entrust him with her bright grandson. But before she would let him go, Anna Lee made Willie promise that he would seek his education in California and not fall into Itsie's hustler life.[32] Brown readily agreed. "I had no other options," Brown explained. "The only option I had was to go someplace where somebody in the family was an anchor tenant. Because there was absolutely no money available for a college education and my uncle, Itsie, had always been lobbying my mother for years to get his hands on me. And that option was quickly exercised, and I came out with the intentions of going to Stanford and becoming a math professor."[33]

His mother, Minnie, exacted one more promise: that he would join a church in San Francisco.

Promises sealed, seventeen-year old Willie Brown packed his khakis—the pride of his wardrobe—and a few other belongings into a cheap cardboard suitcase from Sears and boarded a train bound for San Francisco in August 1951. He carried a shoe box filled with fried chicken, his only meal on the long trip. He could not afford to eat in the dining car. But the discomforts of the train did not matter to him at that moment. "I was only thinking about what California would really be like," he remembered.[34] "It was just a total whirl of excitement—absolutely, absolutely. I don't even remember looking out the windows of the train, I was so eager to get to California."

Soon after passing El Paso, the train crossed the state line out of Texas. As it chugged across the expansive New Mexico desert, the "Colored" signs came down in the train, and Willie Brown could go anywhere he wished.


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