Carolyn Williams, a 66-year-old great-grandmother who has lived in Paris for over forty years, was used to lonely protests. For years, she had attended demonstrations against police brutality and racial discrimination in the northeast Texas town featuring just a handful of other people. Sometimes she was the only one. In late May, when she decided to organize a protest in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, she wasn’t sure if anyone else would join her. Nonetheless, she posted her plans on Facebook, crafted a sign demanding “Justice for George Floyd,” and made her way to the downtown plaza, determined to speak out, even if she was the only one who showed up.
But when she reached the plaza, she found that two other women, one Black and one white, neither of whom she had met before, were already there, holding their own homemade signs. Throughout the evening, others trickled into the square, and by the end of the night, about twenty protesters had gathered. To Williams’s surprise, roughly half were white.
“To see a man get killed with a cop on his neck, it was devastating,” she said. “It wasn’t nothing that you could stay home and be quiet about.”
Black Lives Matter, a global movement that first emerged in 2013, was far from quiet. In the wake of Floyd’s killing, as many as 26 million Americans took part in demonstrations across the country. But something was different in this chapter of the movement, and it wasn’t just that demonstrators wore masks to protect one another from the coronavirus. The protests weren’t limited to Texas’s big, liberal-leaning cities; they also popped up in even the smallest, most conservative corners of the state, including some with violently racist pasts. The day after Williams’s protest, more than 70 gathered in Longview, the site of one of the notorious race riots of the “Red Summer” of 1919 that swept dozens of American cities. On June 2, a large group marched in Stephenville, where, in 1922, Black bodies had been exhumed and relocated to a Black-only cemetery. And on June 6 in Vidor, an East Texas town that’s more than 90 percent white and is known for having open Ku Klux Klan activity as recently as the nineties, at least 150 attended a BLM demonstration.
That May protest in Paris wasn’t a one-off. Williams and other activists have since organized several more demonstrations, including one on June 4 that attracted about 100 marchers along the perimeter of the plaza. For Black activists in Paris, a city of 25,000 that was largely bypassed by the civil rights movement of the sixties, the protests were both welcome and overdue. “A march in Paris, Texas, is an indicator of the possibility of change, more so than a march in New York or Chicago,” said Dwight D. Watson, the author of Race and the Houston Police Department and a retired professor of African American history at Texas State University. “Give me Paris, Texas, and I’ll give you a changed world. Because if it’ll change there, it’ll change everywhere.”
Organizers in Paris, the seat of Lamar County, are attempting to overcome an infamous—and gruesome—past. A few years after the Civil War ended, the federal government sent Colonel DeWitt C. Brown, a representative of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, to Paris to assist recently emancipated people. By the time Brown arrived, white gangs and a newly established outpost of the Klan had launched a campaign of terror against Black residents and their Republican supporters. Brown, who survived several attempts on his life before his superiors instructed him to close his office in 1868, reported to the bureau that “the cup of bitterness [was] over-flowing.” White residents were resentful over the defeat of the Confederacy and the new social status of emancipated Black people. Locals warned him that as soon as he left town or was killed, the region would be “perfumed with dead niggers.”
As the Black population in Paris gradually increased and a Black middle class emerged, racial tensions grew. Between 1890 and 1920, white mobs lynched at least nine Black men in Paris—one of the worst sites of racial terror in Texas during a period of extraordinary violence. The killing of seventeen-year-old Henry Smith, in 1893, made national headlines and is credited with inspiring decades of spectacle lynchings. After the handyman was accused, without evidence, of killing the three-year-old daughter of a former cop, Smith fled for his life. He was eventually captured, and instead of being tried in a court of law, he was tortured for two hours by a mob of white Parisians who then burned him alive in front of a crowd of 10,000, many of whom scrambled to grab his body parts for souvenirs.
Then, in 1920, brothers Herman and Irving Arthur decided to leave the cruel conditions of the tenant farm they labored on. When the white farm owner, John Hodges, confronted them on their way out of town, a violent altercation ensued that ended with Hodges and his son shot dead. Authorities eventually caught the brothers in Oklahoma before returning them to Paris. A white mob stormed the jail and dragged them to the fairgrounds, where the two men were burned at the stake in front of three thousand spectators. Fearing for their safety, thousands of Black residents fled Lamar County over the next decade.
In recent years, civic leaders have tried to promote the image of a prosperous, racially diverse town that’s moved beyond its violent past, but a string of recent incidents has contradicted that message. In 2006 Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville sentenced Shaquanda Cotton, a fourteen-year-old Black student at Paris High School, to as much as seven years in prison after she was accused of shoving a hall monitor. Outraged Parisians compared her punishment with that of a white girl, also fourteen, who had been sentenced to probation by Superville for setting fire to her family’s home. In 2008 two white men were charged with murdering Brandon McClelland by running him over and then dragging his body for forty feet. The men were released after a prosecutor dropped the charges, citing a lack of evidence, despite the blood and tissue found on the underside of the truck. In 2010 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Black employees at the Turner Industries pipe factory in Paris “were subjected to unwelcome racial slurs, comments and intimidation, racial graffiti, nooses in the workplace and other symbols of discrimination.”
Chris Dux, a retired hospital CEO and the chairman of the Lamar County Republican Party, blames the town’s racial tensions on a handful of local racial justice advocates. “The Black Lives Matter movement is setting race relations back fifty years or more,” said Dux. “They want to blame people today for things that happened a hundred and fifty years ago.” He argued that the public school system provides Black children excellent educational opportunities and that the numerous interracial couples he’s seen in Paris prove that allegations of widespread racism in town have been exaggerated.
Today, Paris has no statues, monuments, or plaques that acknowledge its racial conflicts. But a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier watches over the grounds of the Lamar County Courthouse. Erected in 1903 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as part of their crusade to commemorate the “Lost Cause,” the monument also features the busts of four Confederate leaders, including Robert E. Lee.
Like so many struggles for racial justice, the fight in Paris has centered in part on symbols. Brenda Cherry, a longtime civil rights leader, tried in 2017 to have the statue relocated from the courthouse to the former home of Confederate major general Sam Bell Maxey, a state historic site. Cherry, who is now 62, rallied a small group of Parisians to lobby the Lamar County Commissioners’ Court to petition the state for permission to make the move.
On the day of the vote, in June 2017, two dozen monument defenders, many of them carrying Confederate flags, filled the courthouse to hear Superville announce the decision of the all-white court: on a 2–2 vote (one commissioner was absent), the petition request was rejected. The monument would stay. Cherry says she was one of just two attendees—the other was a white man—who spoke that day in favor of the statue’s relocation and recalls at least one monument defender throwing around the N-word in her presence in the meeting room. Other Parisians attacked her with racist vitriol on social media. It was clear: without more white support, the monument wouldn’t be going anywhere.
By the time Parisians took to the streets this May and June, longtime friends Taisley Scroggin, a 27-year-old health insurance agent, and 32-year-old Latrel Lacy, a sleep tech, had been discussing race and class inequality for years. Even though Scroggin and Lacy are white, they were nervous about speaking out.
“In a town like this, it’s kind of a scary concept to stick your neck out,” said Scroggin, a preacher’s kid who grew up in the Dallas area but moved to Detroit, just outside Paris, when she was in high school. “But I think, finally, we’re feeling a little emboldened. That revolution is happening right now, in front of us. There’s not time to decide anymore. You either get with it or you get gone.”
They attended the protests organized by Williams and Cherry but wanted to do more. So on June 10, they sent a letter to the commissioners’ court requesting the relocation of the Confederate statue. “The courthouse, a symbol of justice, should not specifically be highlighting the values of the Confederacy,” they wrote.
The next day, Scroggin and Lacy posted the letter on change.org, and within a couple weeks, the petition had almost two thousand signatures, most of whom are Paris residents, the women say. Soon after, two counterpetitions appeared on the same site; one of them warned that “you cannot change history” by removing statues. Those petitions each have about eight hundred signatures.
A member of Paris’s Historic Preservation Commission, Dux thinks the statue should stay put, but he allows that the addition of a sign could help educate passersby about the Confederacy. “Removing the statue doesn’t remove what happened a hundred and fifty years ago,” he said. But Scroggin and Lacy counter that they are confronting their heritage with eyes wide open, not denying history. “We felt that it was extremely important that white women put it up, so white women should take it down,” Scroggin said of the statue. Cherry, who grew up in nearby Blossom but had to be bused to Paris during grade school because there wasn’t a Black school in her town, welcomes the young pair’s contributions. “I’ll probably do civil rights work and social justice work until the day I die, and if white people are willing to help, I’m more than glad to have that help,” she said.
Cherry, who is Paris’s most well-known activist, has developed a reputation for stirring up trouble and has for years been the target of online abuse and stalking. “You have to be willing to lose something if you do what I do. I’m willing to lose it all,” she said.
Both Scroggin and Lacy say they understand the risks of speaking out. Scroggin worries about her job, and Lacy, who has a son and two stepchildren, has ordered security cameras for her home. (During one BLM protest in Paris, opponents parked nearby and poked guns out of the windows of their vehicles.) But the women note that their Black neighbors face much worse every day. The two friends have launched an activist group they’re calling the Paris Collective. It currently has seven members, six of whom are white. Scroggin and Lacy plan to use their social media platforms to educate other Parisians on a variety of injustices, from the history of racial inequalities in the area to the mistreatment of migrant children in detention centers elsewhere. “People are starting to see how systemic racism has affected their own community and people that they know and love, and they’re starting to address their own internal racism,” said Lacy. Next, the group hopes to convince city leaders to invest in the predominately Black side of town by encouraging business development and fixing streets in need of repair.
Watson was surprised by the size of the protests in Paris but is skeptical about the staying power of a movement driven in part by the revolutionary zeal of newly inspired activists and wonders if “the pain of change” could “stymie actual change.”
But things in Paris are already changing. On July 5, one day before the hundredth anniversary of the lynching of the Arthur brothers, descendants of the Arthurs and the family of the white farmer, John Hodges, gathered at the Red River Valley Veterans Memorial for a remembrance ceremony organized by a coalition of local pastors and by Melinda Watters, the great-great-granddaughter of Hodges.
During the ceremony, Watters read a letter of apology to the Arthurs’ descendants. “I’m writing to you, a hundred years belated, to say that I lament the monstrous lynching and murder of Herman and Irving Arthur,” she said. “I’m sorry for the ways that the white community, my family and myself, have been complicit in both my biases against Black people and in accordance with a system that continues to disproportionately allow violence upon their bodies.” The coalition also announced that it is working to establish a community memorial in Paris to honor the Arthur brothers.
Another recent incident revealed both Paris’s persistent racial animus and the ability of the Black Lives Matter movement to effect change. In late June, video circulated on social media of a violent encounter between a sixteen-year-old Black teen and a white man. The teen and his brother were walking by a gas station where the man—who has not been publicly identified by police—was pumping gas into his truck, which was marked with a “Beshirs Construction” decal. There was an exchange of words, with some activists claiming the man used a racial slur. What happened next is captured partially on video: the two got into a brawl in which the man landed several blows before the teen ended the fight by slamming the man to the ground, knocking him unconscious. Robert Jameson, a 58-year-old white man whom Paris police describe as a “bystander,” then entered the fray. According to the police, Jameson produced a handgun, told the sixteen-year-old to drop the pocketknife he was holding, and ordered the brothers onto the ground at gunpoint before driving off.
Police arrived shortly thereafter but didn’t make any arrests, to the anger of the boys’ family members and friends, who soon arrived at the gas station and video-recorded the aftermath. After footage of the altercation circulated on social media, dozens of Parisians, including Williams, Cherry, Scroggin, and Lacy, assembled in front of the Paris Police Department to demand the arrests of Jameson and the man who fought the teen. The demonstrators then marched on the gas station, spreading out across the road and blocking traffic—a tactic often used by protesters in big cities but virtually unheard-of in Paris. Standing with linked arms, the protesters chanted, “No justice, no peace.” Several cars bullied their way through the crowd, but the protesters quickly reassembled.
A few days later, the police arrested Jameson on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlicensed possession of a firearm by a felon. Jameson, who could not be reached for comment, was released on $20,000 bail. Later that week, the protesters notched another victory: the city council announced that it would seek to end a contract with Beshirs Construction, the company that employed the man who threw the punches.
On July 4, a couple hundred Parisians gathered in a park for the Peace and Power Rally, the largest yet of the recent BLM events. Between the food stands and dance music, there was an air of jubilee, but organizers also wanted to capitalize on the anger over the fight at the gas station. In an open forum, attendees—who dressed mostly in black—brainstormed ways to pressure local officials to make arrests, and Scroggin worked a booth where people could register to vote and sign the statue removal petition. Despite the new energy, Cherry worries that no jury in Paris will find Jameson guilty, and she doesn’t trust authorities to fairly investigate the other man. However, she’s also confident that nothing would’ve happened if she and others hadn’t put forth a simple but radical proposition: Black Lives Matter. Even in Paris, Texas.
Katie Nodjimbadem is a writer from El Paso whose work has recently appeared in Smithsonian, Air Mail, and Texas Monthly and on newyorker.com.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Paris Is Yearning.” Subscribe today.