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Looking in on the East Texas town three years after the murder of James Byrd, Jr.
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The narrow road outside Jasper where James Byrd, Jr., was chained to a truck and dragged to death winds deep into the East Texas piney woods. Grass has grown high in the ditch where his head and right arm were discovered one June morning in 1998; the rest of his body was strewn for several miles. Almost three years later, the scene of one of the nation’s most notorious racial killings—Byrd was black, his three murderers were white—is bucolic. Wildflowers dot the roadside. Just beyond a low-water bridge a black man and his young son bait their hooks for a pleasant afternoon of fishing. It’s as if the horrific crime that shook a town to its roots has already faded into the past. But no one in Jasper can forget the killing that turned the quiet burg of about eight thousand people—by most accounts a place where black and white residents got along quite well—into a national symbol of hate. “It’s a lingering mark on this town, like Dallas and JFK or Memphis and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” says Walter Diggles, the executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments. Out-of-towners on the way to the Sam Rayburn Reservoir or the Big Thicket used to stop at Texas Charlie’s, the restaurant Nancy and Charlie Nicholson owned; after the Byrd murder, people would drive on by, and business suffered. When the Nicholsons sold the restaurant and started Texas Heritage Provisions, which sells apple pies and other products as corporate gifts, one of their investors didn’t want to put Jasper on the label. The Nicholsons balked. “We’re going to support Jasper and be proud of the town,” Nancy, a former city council member, says.
Lingering perceptions aside, the mood in Jasper these days is more upbeat than it has been in years. The big news is the historical museum that’s moving into the old corner drugstore, plans for a “Circle of Peace” sculpture garden, and the prospect of new jobs. After losing several major timber industry employers, Jasper County’s unemployment rate hit 10.1 percent in March, one of the highest in Texas. Hopes have soared since Explorer Aircraft chose Jasper as the site to build utility airplanes and relocated from Denver. Explorer’s president, Don Joseph, says his company could bring more than two hundred jobs to Jasper. “The town needs us and we need the town,” he says. Others are relocating too. Mary and Jerry Silmon moved from Orange to buy the one-hundred-year-old Swann Hotel on Main Street and reopened it last July. Jerry calls the Byrd killing an atrocity, adding: “The people of this town came through with flying colors. We chose to be here.”
Even though some folks in Jasper would just as soon forget the Byrd killing and move on, most people I spoke with said it has brought black and white residents closer together. The Reverend Kenneth Lyons, the pastor of the Greater New Bethel Baptist Church, where the Byrd family worships, says Jasper is “a lesson, an example of how to deal with these things without rioting and being divisive.” Ricardo Ainslie, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who is working on a book about the impact of Byrd’s murder on the town, agrees. “Jasper has had to reflect on race relations in a way most people avoid,” he says. “This was a defining incident that has shaped the psychology of an entire community.” That something so brutal could happen in a town that viewed itself as racially progressive was doubly shocking. Mayor R. C. Horn, who is black, recently ran unopposed for a third term. Diggles and several other black residents are in leadership positions. “I expected to find an Old South, encapsulated community, but that wasn’t the case,” says Lorraine Peeler, a professor of human development at Empire State College in Buffalo, New York. The city asked her to conduct diversity awareness training in Jasper last year during a “weekend of healing.” “I was impressed with the way the town pulled together,” she says. “They kind of saved themselves.”
Not that it’s a utopia of race relations. Many black residents still worry about economic disparities. “African Americans want to be assured they get their share of jobs,” Diggles says. “There’s always concern about access to capital and loans for business development.” But he sees walls coming down—literally. In January 1999, in the cemetery where Byrd is buried, black and white residents tore down the fence that for decades had divided the cemetery between the races. It was another defining moment in a town that, Nancy Nicholson says, “will never look at race the same way again.”