December 7: A Shameful White Texan Anniversary

The last reported instance of white Texans burning an African American at the stake occurred eighty-three years ago today, December 7, 1933, near a black neighborhood in Kountze, Texas.

On Saturday, December 2, a 30-year-old white woman named Nellie Williams Brockman left her and her husband’s farm and headed to a department store in Kountze by truck. Somewhere along the way she ran into trouble and was apparently shot. They found her body next to the truck and both the vehicle and her corpse were partially burned.

After Brockman’s body was discovered, a few folks claimed they had seen a shotgun-carrying black man head into the woods not far from where the crime was committed. Local law enforcement officials mounted an intensive search for the suspect, utilizing platoons of armed volunteers and keen bloodhounds, but turned up nothing.

David Gregory

David Gregory

A few days into the manhunt, the Kountze Police Department became interested in an African American man named David Gregory. According to the San Antonio Express, Gregory, a preacher’s son, only became a suspect after a anonymous “tip”: “Cloaking their investigation in secrecy, officers said the tip was of such nature that to divulge it would greatly jeopardize chances of apprehending the fugitive.”

The Galveston Daily News indicated that the tip came after Gregory was suspected and that it’s source was one of the suspects’s aunts. Whatever the case, when Gregory learned that he was a suspect, he disappeared and at least six African American men (including Gregory’s brother) were arrested in an attempt to determine his location. The News suggested that the informer placed Gregory at an African American church in the small community of Voth (now part of the northwest section of Beaumont, just east of U.S. Hwy 96 and the Pine Island Bayou).

On December 7, Hardin County Sheriff Miles D. Jordan, Sr., Deputy Sheriff Ralph B. Chance, Jefferson County Sheriff W.W. “Bill” Richardson and Deputy Sheriff Homer French headed to Voth and discovered Gregory at the described church, apparently concealed in the belfry. When they asked him to come down he refused and “flourished” a pistol (not a shotgun, the weapon the black suspect was reported carrying near the crime scene). Deputy Chance subsequently felled Gregory with a shotgun blast, the buckshot tearing into Gregory’s face and neck and rendering him unconscious.

Sheriff Jordan et al took custody of Gregory and immediately transported him to a Beaumont Hospital. He was in critical condition and received emergency treatment, but the doctors indicated that he probably wouldn’t survive till morning.

Sheriff Jordan had hoped Gregory would regain consciousness so the investigation could record his statement, 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 subsequently conveyed 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 and the others snuck Gregory down a back elevator and placed him in Jordan’s vehicle. Jordan, Richardson and French (in two separate cars) eluded the mob and drove east toward 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. Sheriff Richardson and Deputy French returned to Beaumont and Jordan pressed on.

As a mob was out and in force, Sheriff Jordan was not exactly sure what to do with Gregory’s body. He considered a return to Beaumont unwise, so he turned and drove to Silsbee (twenty-three miles north/northwest). At Silsbee another mob had assembled and the local undertaker, fearing trouble, refused to accept Gregory’s remains. Members of the Silsbee mob confronted the sheriff, but he convinced them to let Gregory’s body remain in his custody.

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, an imposing throng of white men crowded in front of his vehicle. As reported in the Corsicana Daily Sun, Jordan described the scene thusly:

It was a sea of faces of silent but grimly determined men. I guess I might have got part of the way through by running over and killing a bunch of white men. I wasn’t going to do that to save a dead negro who was guilty of a most revolting crime.

As Sheriff Jordan would later put it, he was “one against four hundred,” and the four hundred seized Gregory’s corpse and tied it to the back of an automobile. A fifty-car parade of white men then dragged the body around Kountze for close to an hour, so long that a large bonfire that had been lit to incinerate Gregory burned out.

Denied a fire, the mob (according to the Orange Leader newspaper of Orange, Texas) “mutilated the body horribly in a savage demonstration of its spirit” (several accounts—including that of the Houston Chronicle—suggest Gregory’s heart was cut out and a 1972 account indicated it was nailed to a tree on Main Street) and then re-fastened it to a car and “bounced” the body through the African American section of Kountze, reportedly screaming “Nigger for breakfast!”

Members of the mob then delivered the mangled corpse to the front doorstep of Gregory’s mother, whom they summoned.

Mrs. Gregory appeared and succinctly denied the mob 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 white folks retrieved the hide-less grotesquery and dragged it to a new bonfire that had been built in a vacant lot not far from Gregory’s home. The conflagration was constructed of fencing removed from neighboring African American yards and as Gregory’s remains cooked, some members of the mob drank coffee and ate sandwiches. Several others started towards the jailhouse to lynch some of the other black men in custody. Sheriff Jordan met the vigilantes out front and informed them that the facility was well-protected and that they would have to go through him and his men first, so the mob reconsidered or just ran out of steam.

The following morning, African Americans who passed by the smoking embers of the lynching pyre were reportedly called over to “see what happened to David Gregory.” Some Texas newspapers included a photo of Gregory’s remains smoldering in their December 8 reporting.

By afternoon, the white citizens of Kountze had grown concerned about the possibility of African American retaliation or an “uprising,” so Kountze law enforcement personnel went through the black neighborhoods confiscating guns and knives. They stored the confiscated items at a local store until white trepidation passed.

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

It is important to recall this history because folks that look like me—white folks—got away with it. Folks who burned dozens of black men at the stake. Folks who committed racial expulsions and perpetrated wholesale massacres.

Today, we approve of voter suppression and summary execution and elect governors who hunt at places with names like Niggerhead Ranch. We have the upper hand and we maintain it assiduously. We feel it’s our birthright. And as our privilege and pseudo-superiority are increasingly questioned and challenged, we claim we’re being put upon, or wrongfully vilified. We consider criticism of our entitlement an act of subversion and sedition.

White fragility has its roots in white monstrosity. And since we white folks have never had to acknowledge much less atone for our catalogue of inhumanities here in Texas—particularly involving persons of color—ignorance must prevail. We feel our entire way of life depends on it.

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional & Nefarious and Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History. Read other articles by E.R..