BEFORE JASPER BECAME A SYMBOL, when it was still an ordinary town, a wrought-iron fence stood in its cemetery, dividing the graves of blacks and whites. How residents viewed the fence depended on which side of it they would someday be buried on. “It was just a rickety old fence that was supposed to keep out chickens and hogs when this was open land,” said realtor John Matthews, whose grandfather was the mayor of Jasper in the twenties. “It’s common knowledge that it wasn’t put there to keep out black people.” But where whites saw a benign relic, blacks saw something else. Chickens and hogs hadn’t had the run of Jasper for a long time, and still the fence remained. Coils of baling wire held up its rusted bars and prevented its sagging rail from giving way. In one place, its wobbly posts were held together with a coat hanger—anything to keep the fence from falling down.
Not until three white men chained James Byrd Jr. to a pickup truck in 1998 and dragged him to his death in the woods outside town did people start to wonder aloud why there was an immutable order to things in Jasper; why blacks were laid to rest only on one side of the fence, on the slope of a hilltop reserved for whites. “The incident,” or “the tragedy,” as locals gingerly call Byrd’s murder, forced this town to undertake the sort of painful introspection that few communities ever experience. Over the past five years, its residents—both black and white—have attended prayer vigils and town meetings and church services together, and they have had candid conversations with one another about race. They have worked hard to show that they renounce the ugly legacy of what happened here. Still, the stain lingers. When they travel beyond the Piney Woods, they know better than to tell strangers where they live. “East Texas,” they offer, and if pressed further, “Near the Louisiana state line.” More than one resident made a point of telling me, with equal parts self-defensiveness and civic pride, “Jasper isn’t the evil town everyone thinks we are.”
For outsiders, Jasper serves as a convenient scapegoat, sparing us the trouble of examining our own prejudices. But this town of 8,247 people is fundamentally no different from any other city or town in America, where the bigotry of a cemetery fence could be interchanged for the racial divide of an avenue or a railroad line. Only Jasper has had to bear the burden of publicly accounting for its sins. If there is hope to be had for racial healing anywhere, it is in the social experiment that has taken place here, where blacks and whites have tried to overcome history and forge a new path.
Seven months after Byrd was murdered, in one of Jasper’s many acts of contrition, the fence that had stood in the town cemetery since 1836 was torn down. Among the clergy and residents who gathered there that day, there was singing and prayers and promises of change. But five years later, even though the old fence has been dismantled, pieces of it remain. Here and there, rods jut out of the ground at odd angles; they protrude from tree trunks and lean against ruined stumps. In some places, wrought-iron bars still stand moored to the ground, impossible to unearth without cutting the trees down. The fence has become tangled in the roots of the cemetery’s oldest pines.
“I GOT THE CALL EARLY that Sunday morning,” said Jasper County sheriff Billy Rowles, nursing a cup of coffee in his office this fall. “There was a body out on Huff Creek Road, and there were tire tracks all down the pavement. I remember thinking this was going to be the easiest hit-and-run we’d ever worked; we would just follow the skid marks all the way to the guy’s house. So I went out there and started following the trail. There were some dentures lying in the road, and farther down there were keys and some loose change. Well, I kept walking, and I got to looking closer at the skid marks, and I saw they weren’t tire tracks at all. It was a trail of dried blood. I followed it for almost three miles.”
Rowles had seen his share of gruesome crime scenes in his 27 years as a Texas state trooper, but nothing rivaled the sight of the body that had been dumped on Huff Creek Road. Later, investigators determined that the victim was James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old former vacuum-cleaner salesman and father of three children who had lived for years off disability checks. A hard drinker, Byrd was a familiar fixture around town, where he was often seen walking the streets or accepting rides. He had been beaten, sprayed in the face with black paint, and bound by his ankles with a logging chain. Evidence showed that he had been conscious for much of the dragging, having fought to keep his head above the pavement. His elbows, heels, and backside had been skinned to the bone. His knees and genitals were ground away. His head had been severed from his body when it hit a culvert, as had his right arm. Even though Byrd’s wallet was found at the crime scene, his body was so badly disfigured that positive identification had to be made through fingerprints. Even a hardened investigator like Rowles was stunned by what he saw. “I had dreams about him screaming,” the sheriff said. “I would hear the sound of his body dragging against the pavement.”
Jasper County had elected its share of sheriffs in years past who had subjected the black community to, at best, benign neglect, but Rowles was a new kind of lawman. At first glance, he looked to be of the old school; he was always dressed immaculately in a pressed shirt and a tie, starched blue jeans, a white Resistol, and ostrich-skin boots. And he did things the old-fashioned way, beginning with campaigning for sheriff on