On a recent spring morning, I drove north on U.S. 59 away from Houston’s teeming traffic and crossed the quiet west fork of the San Jacinto River. Mile by mile, the city slowly gave way to the country. I passed barbecue shacks, prayer tabernacles, and a dirt-bike track where a Confederate flag waved boldly in the breeze. My destination was Cleveland, a poor Piney Woods timber town of about eight thousand people that, besides being the most disgraced community in America right now, happens to be my hometown.
My father used to say that when he crossed the San Jacinto he felt at peace because he was almost home. But despite the clear radiance of light streaming through the double wall of soaring pines, I felt nothing but unease. These days, little binds me to Cleveland—my mother, father, and brother are all dead—but my memories of the place are strong. The Cleveland of my childhood was a small hidden spot where people were shut off from the outside world and hemmed in by a cordon of trees, a community where racism permeated every aspect of our lives. I can recall sitting in church and listening to the white people around me argue about whether black people had souls. That was a long time ago. But some of that old ugliness still hangs like smoke in the heavy boughs of the trees.
You have to take home where it is, but the stigma of shame associated with Cleveland is particularly awful these days. This month, the first of nineteen black boys and young men from Cleveland, ranging in age from 14 to 27, will go on trial on charges in connection with the rape of an 11-year-old Hispanic girl, also from Cleveland. According to the police, the girl was raped on at least six separate occasions last year, between September 15 and December 3. Not since 1998, when James Byrd Jr. was savagely beaten by three white men in nearby Jasper and dragged to his death behind a pickup truck, has a crime branded a single town so thoroughly—or terribly. As with the Byrd case, the reactions to the crime have mutated into something larger, something that is no longer just about the victim and her unimaginable suffering.
The crime was of such monstrous proportions that it initially proved challenging even to discuss. The New York Times caused an uproar when, in a March 9 story on the incident, it quoted various locals who noted that the victim looked “older than her age” and dressed in a style “more appropriate to a woman in her twenties.” A national petition demanding an apology from the Times quickly collected 47,000 signatures. Eventually the paper sent its reporter back to Cleveland for a follow-up, this time focusing on the victim, who was described as “an outgoing honor roll student, brimming with enthusiasm, who went on hikes and planted trees with a youth group here.” Meanwhile, Vanesa Brashier, the editor of the Cleveland Advocate, had received scores of angry letters condemning the town (one said that Cleveland deserved to be hit by a nuclear bomb). Tensions flared. Two white men in a pickup truck were seen driving through the center of town shouting, “Niggers, go home!” Quanell X, the controversial Houston community activist, descended on Cleveland to hold a meeting, over the protests of the local police, who urged him to cancel because of “racial unrest between black and Hispanic groups.”
The idea of racial unrest in Cleveland was all too familiar, but the fact that it was between black and Hispanic groups was a new twist. When I was growing up, there were approximately zero Hispanics in Cleveland. Today, Anglo students make up 49 percent of the city’s schools, black students 14 percent, and Hispanic students 36 percent. Jobs in the local industry, timber, are increasingly held by young Hispanic men—although it might be more accurate to say, “what jobs there are.” The one thing a majority of Cleveland’s students, regardless of race, have in common is financial insecurity: Seventy-three percent live at or below the poverty line.
As I drove into the city limits, I saw the first glimpse of Cleveland’s effort to respond to the bad press. A recently erected sign declared “Welcome to Cleveland, Texas. One City Under God! Be blessed going in and going out.” The second of those sentiments was easy to doubt. I had arrived on the weekend before a municipal election that, like every aspect of life in Cleveland, had become racially charged. In fact, it was fair to say that it had become a flash point for all the anger and frustration that had boiled over following the news of the rape. On the ballot was an initiative to recall three black members—Barbara McIntyre, Durlene Davis, and Cedric McDuffie—of the five-member city council. Though the recall effort began in October 2010, before the crime was reported, McIntyre, a 51-year-old realtor who has served six years on the city council, claimed the recall was motivated by racism. “They want to recall us because of our race, not our ability,” she said. “There is white backlash from the rape case. The leaders of this effort are using negative fallout from this tragedy to unseat the first majority-black council in Cleveland’s history.” Stan Jones, a longtime dentist and former mayor who led the recall effort, said financial mismanagement—not race—was the issue. The council members were “spending money like inebriated sailors,” he told the Houston Chronicle. (The city’s coffers are currently low, with only about fifty days of operational budget on reserve, as opposed to the one hundred days state officials would prefer to see.)
Either way, the painful fact that the leadership of Cleveland’s first majority-black city council was being called into question at the very moment that nineteen young black men were being put on trial for a horrendous crime had dredged up all sorts of ancient prejudices. Miranda Clay-Brown, the press secretary for McIntyre, cautioned me against driving through Cleveland’s black neighborhood, Precinct 20, on my own. Anger toward the media was running high and on a couple of occasions reporters poking around over there had been pelted with rocks or physically intimidated. Clay-Brown—who grew up in Precinct 20, went to high school with some of the accused, and graduated from Sam Houston State University with a degree in journalism and business—offered to show me around. A little after noon we crossed FM 787, the road that divides whites and blacks in Cleveland. We rolled into the neighborhood that some people in town still call the Quarters, a racial slur left over from the early 1900’s, when black workers who lived there toiled like slaves for East Texas timber barons. This is the area where, according to warrant affidavits, three of the defendants brought the eleven-year-old girl last November and repeatedly sexually assaulted her.
We drove by wooden shacks where older residents perched on porches. We passed the small blue house on Travis Street where, according to testimony in the police affidavit, a nineteen-year-old named Timothy D. Ellis had ordered the girl to take off her clothes, telling her that if she didn’t he would “have some girls beat her up.” According to the statement, she “engaged in sexual intercourse” with several other men at this small blue house. She heard one of them talking on the phone, inviting other men to come over and have sex with her. When Ellis’s aunt arrived at the house, the crowd fled through a rear window, taking the girl with them. Her panties and bra were left behind.
They took the girl down the street about a block to an abandoned trailer, which sits askew on a seedy lot on Ross Avenue. Clay-Brown and I slowly drove past it. Here the assaults had continued, and the boys made cell phone videos of them, according to the girl’s statement. The next week the videos went viral at Cleveland’s high school, which led to the initial arrests. (Eight of the defendants are students in Cleveland schools.)
We continued through the streets, spotting some of the defendants, who were out of jail on bond. A gag order prevented them from talking to anyone about the case, so Clay-Brown and I looked up some other people in the neighborhood. “It’s not that we don’t sympathize with the young girl,” Clay-Brown said as we waited at a light. “It’s just that our neighborhood is so small. We all grew up together. For nineteen of our young men and all of their families to face this kind of thing is just tragic. Everybody’s hurt, not just the girl.”
We stopped to talk to her mother, Linda Harrison Clay, who told me that most people in the neighborhood support the accused. “African Americans in Cleveland have always gotten the short end of the stick,” she said. “I seriously doubt whether these boys can get a fair trial. I’m for justice, but I want to know why that young girl’s parents haven’t been charged with negligence.” During our conversation, Clay told me that she’d known my mother, who had been a schoolteacher. When Cleveland’s schools desegregated, in 1967, Clay had transferred from the white to the black school, where she had been my mom’s student. Tempers were high that year. Clay’s older sister was part of a walkout from the high school, and Clay told me that she too had wanted to stage a walkout from her elementary school. “Your mother took me aside and told me I was smart and I should never leave school,” said Clay. “I thought about it. And I didn’t go.” It’s been 44 years since then, but this particular day it felt as if nothing had changed. Cleveland was back to us versus them.
But opinion was by no means uniform. Danny Lee was a star football player in Cleveland and attended Lamar University on a football scholarship. He still lives in Precinct 20 and has served on the Cleveland school board for fifteen years. “I know all these boys, and it breaks my heart,” said Lee, a tall, fit man with a deep, strong voice. “But this is a matter of right and wrong. The boys will have to answer for what they did.”
The next day I attended the Greater Cleveland Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon (menu: fried catfish, fried chicken, french fries, hush puppies, and coleslaw). The event was held at the new civic center, an impressively spacious building, and I went as the guest of Mayor Jill Barnett Kirkonis, a petite, polite 58-year-old blonde who is an old family friend. She showed me the signs of recent progress; in addition to the civic center, there was a new city hall and a new high school. “Before all this happened,” Kirkonis said with a heavy sigh, “Cleveland was on a roll.”
Inside the civic center, a crowd of about two hundred people (bankers, pharmacists, teachers, preachers) had gathered to honor this year’s “student ambassadors,” a notably diverse group—one Hispanic, three blacks, and four whites—of high-achieving high school kids. The president of the group was a Hispanic girl named Cynthia Donjuan. In her pressed khakis and crisp collared shirt, with a broad smile exuding youthful optimism, Donjuan seemed like the antidote to the hollow boosterism on the sign I’d seen at the city limits. She’s headed for Lone Star College–Kingwood in the fall to study nursing. If Cleveland has a chance to heal from the tragedy, it will be through the success of people like Donjuan.
Most of the Hispanics in Cleveland attend St. Mary’s Catholic Church, on Houston Street, and I stopped there the next day. The priest of St. Mary’s, Eric Groner, has refused to comment, but several of his parishioners, who did not want to be named, expressed anger. “Everybody is upset,” said one woman. “How can anyone blame an eleven-year-old girl for her own rape?” Another woman told me that Hispanics are reluctant to speak out. “Many in Cleveland are recent arrivals, looking for low-paid work in the timber industry. Some are undocumented, and they are afraid to express their opinions for fear of deportation,” she said. “The community is in shock.”
Two days later, the community spoke. Not only did voters recall all three council members, but every single black candidate on the ballot lost, including Lee, who was running for reelection to the school board. (One black official remains on the city council.) “The citizens have made a decision,” said McIntyre, who was unseated by a vote of 593 to 454. “Unlike the leaders of the recall effort, we will not try to undo the will of the people.” Nonetheless, the recall will exacerbate tensions just as Cleveland prepares for a fresh wave of public scrutiny from the upcoming trials.
On my way out of town, I paused for a moment at the sign. “Welcome to Cleveland, Texas. One City Under God! Be blessed going in and going out.” As I crossed over the San Jacinto River, headed back to my new home in San Antonio, I found myself hoping, against the odds, that someday it might be true.