The “N-word” Ranch
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I am hesitant to opine on things I don’t know much about, and so I am loathe to comment on the Washington Post story about what the Post describes as “his family’s secluded West Texas hunting camp.” The gist of the story, for those unfamiliar with the Post’s version,” is that there is a large rock on the property with the name “Niggerhead Ranch” painted, or painted over, on it. Below, I am republishing several paragraphs from the story. Everything in italics is from the Post’s story: In the early years of his political career, Rick Perry began hosting fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters at his family’s secluded West Texas hunting camp, a place known by the name painted in block letters across a large, flat rock standing upright at its gated entrance. “Niggerhead,” it read. [The story continues] Ranchers who once grazed cattle on the 1,070-acre parcel on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River called it by that name well before Perry and his father, Ray, began hunting there in the early 1980s. There is no definitive account of when the rock first appeared on the property. In an earlier time, the name on the rock was often given to mountains and creeks and rock outcroppings across the country. Over the years, civil rights groups and government agencies have had some success changing those and other racially offensive names that dotted the nation’s maps.
Ranchers who once grazed cattle on the 1,070-acre parcel on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River called it by that name well before Perry and his father, Ray, began hunting there in the early 1980s. There is no definitive account of when the rock first appeared on the property. In an earlier time, the name on the rock was often given to mountains and creeks and rock outcroppings across the country. Over the years, civil rights groups and government agencies have had some success changing those and other racially offensive names that dotted the nation’s maps. But the name of this particular parcel did not change for years after it became associated with Rick Perry, first as a private citizen, then as a state official and finally as Texas governor. Some locals still call it that. As recently as this summer, the slablike rock — lying flat, the name still faintly visible beneath a coat of white paint — remained by the gated entrance to the camp. (emphasis mine–pb) When asked last week, Perry said the word on the rock is an “offensive name that has no place in the modern world.” But how, when or whether he dealt with it when he was using the property is less clear and adds a dimension to the emerging biography of Perry, who quickly moved into the top tier of Republican presidential candidates when he entered the race in August. He grew up in a segregated era whose history has defined and complicated the careers of many Southern politicians. Perry has spoken often about how his upbringing in this sparsely populated farming community influenced his conservatism. He has rarely, if ever, discussed what it was like growing up amid segregation in an area where blacks were a tiny fraction of the population. In his responses to two rounds of detailed, written questions, Perry said his father first leased the property in 1983. Rick Perry said he added his own name to the lease from 1997 to 1998, when he was state agriculture commissioner, and again from 2004 to 2007, when he was governor. He offered a simple version of how he dealt with the rock, followed by a more elaborate one. “When my Dad joined the lease in 1983, he took the first opportunity he had to paint over the offensive word on the rock during the 4th of July holiday,” Perry said in his initial response. “It is my understanding that the rock was eventually turned over to further obscure what was originally written on it.” Perry said that he was not with his father when he painted over the name but that he “agreed with” the decision. In response to follow-up questions, Perry gave a more detailed account. “My mother and father went to the lease and painted the rock in either 1983 or 1984,” Perry wrote. “This occurred after I paid a visit to the property with a friend and saw the rock with the offensive word. After my visit I called my folks and mentioned it to them, and they painted it over during their next visit.” [The Village Voice, in a follow-up article, makes the point that, at one time or another, many American place names bore the offensive language]: [T]he word “N——” was used for hundreds of geographic places in their official government names across this country for centuries. Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen writes about how the U.S. Board of Geographic Names had changed many of these en masse 50 years ago (although, hilariously, they’d often just change “Nigger Creek” to “Negro Creek,” “Nigger Mountain” to “Colored Mountain,” etc.) New York State just got around to renaming “Nigger Lake” on government maps this past summer. * * * * I have provided a link to the Post’s story in the first paragraph of this story. I have never been to the camp, although I did talk to a mutual friend of Perry’s and mine earlier today who has been there and described it in rather spartan terms. He did not recall seeing the rock. I will say one thing about this story: I don’t believe Perry is a racist. I have never heard him say anything that would lead me to believe otherwise. Perry has had a black general counsel (Bill Jones, subsequently chairman of the Texas A&M board of regents) and a black chief of staff (Brian Newby, who also served as general counsel). He came of age at a school (Texas A&M) whose culture, among Aggies, was fiercely egalitarian. But I should add this: There has been a carelessness to the Perry campaign from the beginning. They don’t dot their i’s and cross their t’s. They give explanations after the fact that are not always credible. He has been running for office since 1984. Readers may remember that George W. Bush faced a similar crisis when he was running for president. There was a brouhaha over a plaque in the Supreme Court building that credited the Sons of Confederate Veterans (or some similarly named organization) for funding the construction of the building. Somehow, the plaque disappeared overnight. Perry had 27 years to get rid of that rock. Why is it still around? It’s not just me who is asking that question; people who knew Perry and had been to the hunting camp are quoted in the story as wondering the same thing.