The Last Black Man Burned at the Stake in Texas

On Saturday, December 2, 1933, a 30-year-old white woman named Nellie Williams Brockman was murdered near Kountze, Texas. Brockman had headed to town to visit a department store and run into trouble along the way. She was shot to death and her body and vehicle were found partially burned. Some folks claimed they had seen a shotgun-wielding black man in the vicinity and law enforcement officials mounted an intense search for the culprit, but turned up nothing.

A few days into the manhunt, the Kountze Police Department received a “secret” tip incriminating a young, African American ex-con named David Gregory. When Gregory, a preacher’s son, became aware of the police department’s suspicions, he fled to a nearby church. On December 7, Hardin County Sheriff Miles D. Jordan, Sr. and various other law enforcement personnel discovered Gregory hiding in the belfry of the church. When they ordered him to come down he refused and allegedly “flourished” a pistol (not a shotgun, the weapon the black suspect was reported carrying near the crime scene). Gregory was subsequently felled by a buckshot blast that rendered him unconscious.

Sheriff Jordan and his fellow officers transported Gregory to a Beaumont Hospital, but a portion of his neck and face were blown away. He was in critical condition and received emergency treatment, but the doctors indicated that he probably wouldn’t survive till morning.

Sheriff Jordan held out hope that Gregory would regain consciousness and his testimony would confirm the secret tip, but less than two hours after their arrival at the hospital, word was received that a mob had formed in Kountze and was headed towards Beaumont. Hospital authorities expressed their discomfort with harboring a suspect that could put the facility at risk and Sheriff Jordan calculated that their chances at keeping Gregory from the mob were slim, in or outside the hospital.

Sheriff Jordan snuck Gregory down a back elevator, placed him in his vehicle and drove towards Vidor (seven miles east of Beaumont), planning to double-back and take Gregory to a hospital in Port Arthur (thirty miles farther south). Gregory never regained consciousness and died not long after the sheriff’s car crossed into Orange County.

black_DVAs the mob was still active, Sheriff Jordan was unsure of what he should do with Gregory’s body. He considered a return to Beaumont unwise, so he drove to Silsbee (twenty-three miles north/northwest). At Silsbee another mob assembled and the local undertaker, fearing trouble, refused to accept Gregory’s remains. With limited options and operating under the assumption that the Kountze mob was still in Beaumont, Sheriff Jordan headed back west. When he entered the Kountze community, hundreds of white men crowded in front of his vehicle. The mob seized Gregory’s corpse and tied it to the back of an automobile. A fifty-car parade then dragged the body around Kountze for close to an hour, so long that a large bonfire that had been built to incinerate Gregory had burned out.

Denied a fire, the mob mutilated Gregory’s body, cut out his heart and re-fastened his corpse to a car and “bounced” it through the African American section of Kountze, reportedly screaming “Nigger for breakfast!” Members of the throng then delivered the mangled corpse to the front doorstep of Gregory’s mother, whom they belligerently summoned. When Mrs. Gregory appeared, however, she succinctly denied them her anticipated hysterics. She glanced over what was left of her dead son and said “You’ve done it right, white folks,” and went back inside.

The stupefied white mob retrieved David Gregory’s hide-less remains and dragged them to a new bonfire that had been built in a vacant lot not far from his home. As Gregory’s remains cooked, members of the mob drank coffee and ate sandwiches.

The next morning, African Americans who passed by the smoking embers were called over to “see what happened to David Gregory.” Newspapers later included a photo of Gregory and his smoldering remains in their reporting.

Several years after the Gregory burning, a local white man confessed to the murder of Nellie Williams Brockman on his deathbed.

David Gregory, like so many persons of color in Texas and across America today, was denied due process, found guilty in the eyes of the mob and sacrificed in the name of white infallibility. He was the last known African American burned at the stake in Texas, but dozens preceded him; his cruel, forgotten fate reminds us that denial and forgetfulness are staples of white entitlement and elucidates why we bristle so at threats to our historical amnesia. We white folk like to think well of ourselves–but we have not behaved particularly well in terms of race relations and our shortcomings continue to prevail today.

E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo, Texas and the author of Black Holocaust: The Paris Horror and a Legacy of Texas Terror (Eakin Press, 2015) Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious (History Press, 2013). He can be reached at: erbillsthinks@gmail.com. Read other articles by E.R..