Paint Creek, Tex. — 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.
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.
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.”
“Ever since, any time I ever saw the rock it was painted over,” Perry said.
Perry’s version of events differs in many respects from the recollections of seven people, interviewed by The Washington Post, who spoke in detail of their memories of seeing the rock with the name at various points during the years that Perry was associated with the property through his father, partners or his signature on a lease.
Some who had watched Perry’s political ascent recalled their reaction to the name on the rock and their worry that it could become a political liability for Perry.
“I remember the first time I went through that pasture and saw that,” said Ronnie Brooks, a retired game warden who began working in the region in 1981 and who said he guided three or four turkey shoots for Rick Perry when Perry was a state legislator between 1985 and 1990. “. . . It kind of offended me, truthfully.”
Brooks, who said he holds Perry “in the highest esteem,” said that at some point after Perry began bringing lawmakers to the camp, the rock was turned over. Brooks could not recall exactly when. He said he did not know who turned the rock over.
Another local who visited the property with Perry and the legislators in those years recalled seeing the rock with the name clearly visible.
“I thought, ‘This is going to embarrass Rick some day,’ ” said this person, who did not want to be named, fearing negative consequences from speaking on the subject.
The hunting camp was simple in the 1980s, just a cabin with a long table for cleaning fish and deer, a few bunks and a porch set along a riverbank in Throckmorton County. There was a sprawling pecan tree and a water tank for showers, an arrangement that got more elaborate as the years went on.
The camp is secluded, situated on a vast, 42,000-acre ranch that reaches into three counties and is owned and managed by the Hendrick Home for Children Trust. Various parcels of the Hendrick ranch, as it is known, have been leased out over the years for grazing cattle, oil drilling and, since the mid-1970s or so, hunting. All sorts of people have been on the winding, rocky ranch roads over the years — cowboys, ranchers, hunters, fishermen, oil workers, power company workers, wildlife biologists, real estate agents, tax assessors, surveyors, locals and outsiders who have visited the hunting camps that dot the property.
This story is based on interviews with more than two dozen people, including residents, hunters, ranchers, government officials and others who live in Haskell County, where Perry’s boyhood home of Paint Creek is found; in neighboring Throckmorton County, where the hunting camp is located; and elsewhere in Texas. Ray Perry did not respond to numerous attempts to reach him for comment. The campaign declined a request to make him available.
Most of those interviewed requested anonymity because they fear being ostracized or other repercussions in their small community. Some are supporters of Perry, whose parents still live in Paint Creek. Others, both Democrats and Republicans, are not. Several spoke matter-of-factly about the hunting camp and its name and wondered why it held any outside interest.
Of those interviewed, the seven who said they saw the rock said the block-lettered name was clearly visible at different points in the 1980s and 1990s. One, a former worker on the ranch, believes he saw it as recently as 2008.
As he campaigns for the presidency, Perry often tells of growing up in this tiny community, where farm fields vanish into the horizon and old houses are often abandoned these days rather than sold.
In interviews and speeches, Perry has talked about learning self-reliance from his father, a cotton farmer and county commissioner for many years, and his mother, Amelia, a homemaker. He has talked about a childhood centered on Boy Scouts, school and church.
“Where I grew up was way out in the country,” Perry said in his responses to The Post. “There weren’t many people at all. That’s just the way it was. To some extent college, and to a great extent the Air Force, expanded my worldview. I traveled all over the world — Asia, Europe, Northern Africa — and witnessed the diversity of other peoples and societies.
“I judge folks by their character and ethics. As Governor, I represent a big, fast-growing and diverse state. My appointments and actions represent the whole state, including our growing diversity, such as appointment of the first African-American Supreme Court Justice — whom I later appointed to Chief Justice — and the first Latina Secretary of State.”
But until he joined the Air Force, Perry has said, Paint Creek “was the only world that I knew.”
It was a mostly white world. In 1950, the census counted about 900 black residents out of a population of about 13,000 in Haskell County, numbers that have declined steadily. Most blacks worked as maids or field hands and lived in an across-the-tracks neighborhood in the city of Haskell, the county seat, about 20 minutes from Paint Creek.
Throckmorton County, where the hunting camp is located, was for years considered a virtual no-go zone for blacks because of old stories about the lynching of a black man there, locals said. The 1950 Census listed one black resident in Throckmorton County out of a population of about 3,600. In 1960, there were four; in 1970, two; in 1980, none. The 2010 Census shows 11 black residents.
Mae Lou Yeldell, who is black and has lived in Haskell County for 70 years, recalled a gas station refusing to sell her father fuel when he drove the family through Throckmorton in the 1950s. She said it was not uncommon in the 1950s and ’60s for whites to greet blacks with, “Morning, nigger!”
“I heard that so much it’s like a broken record,” said Yeldell, who had never heard of the hunting spot by the river.
Racial attitudes here have shifted slowly. Haskell County began observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day two years ago, according to a county commissioner. And many older white residents understand the civil rights movement as a struggle that addressed problems elsewhere.
“It wasn’t the same issues here you were dealing with,” said Don Ballard, the superintendent of the Paint Creek school district. “Certainly were no picketing signs. Blacks were perfectly satisfied with what was happening.”
It is within that context that many people explained the name of the hunting camp.
“It’s just a name,” said Haskell County Judge David Davis, sitting in his courtroom and looking at a window. “Like those are vertical blinds. It’s just what it was called. There was no significance other than as a hunting deal.”
The name “Niggerhead” has a long and wide history. It was once applied to products such as soap and chewing tobacco, but most often to geographic features such as hills and rocks.
In 1962, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names changed more than a hundred such names, substituting “Negro.”
“Typically these were in areas where African Americans were not all that common,” said Mark Monmonier, a geography professor at Syracuse University who wrote a book on the subject of racially offensive place names.
The federal action still left many local names unchanged. In Texas, Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady, lobbied to change the name of a mountain in Burnet, Tex., that had the same name as Perry’s hunting spot. In 1968, it became “Colored Mountain.” In 1989, the Texas NAACP began lobbying the state legislature to change many more names, such as “Nigger Creek” and “Niggerhead Hill,” although there has been resistance from private landowners, according to news accounts.
In his responses, Perry said the managers of the Hendrick ranch appealed in recent years to federal officials to rename Niggerhead, although the name does not appear on U.S. topographic maps. Monmonier could not find it in a database maintained by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. That suggests renaming the property would be a simple matter for its owners or possibly state officials, Monmonier said.
Chuck Wilson, the manager of the Hendrick ranch, said that particular parcel is now called “North Camp Pasture.”
“It was given the name several years ago,” Wilson said in an interview last week. “Probably, I’m thinking, about five years ago.”
The camp is tucked deep into a rocky, hilly area. It is possible to fly into the area in a small plane, as Perry sometimes did. There are two ways to drive there, from the west by a long, rocky road or from the east by a more passable road that crosses the adjacent ranch and ends right at the camp, about a football field away from the rock. Both of those roads are private. Wilson declined to grant permission for a reporter to visit the camp and instructed workers not to speak to journalists.
It is possible that guests approaching from the east would not see the rock at the gated entrance. In his responses, Perry said he and his guests used the eastern entrance in later years.
“The rock was at the entrance we used in the 1980s,” he said. “We stopped using that entrance in the 1990s, and entered only by Watt Matthews’ ranch where there was a grass landing strip.”
Approaching from the western side, drivers would eventually reach a long, metal gate where the rock stood to the left.
“It just said ‘Niggerhead,’ ” said one person who said he saw the rock in the 1980s and did not want to be named, because he still lives in the area. “That’s all that was on it.”
The rock was about five feet across and three feet tall, smooth and relatively flat, the word in block letters stretching across its surface, said the former worker from the Hendrick ranch, who said he had seen the rock numerous times over the past 30 years.
“I was just so taken aback that it was so blatant, so in your face,” said a person from the Dallas area who visited the camp once in 1990 or 1991 and did not want to be named in a story potentially critical of Perry. “It was just, ‘whop.’ It was a big rock, big enough to write that whole thing out.”
Longtime hunters, cowboys and ranchers said this particular place was known by that name as long as they could remember, and still is.
“The cowboys, when they were gathering cattle, they’d say they’re going to the Matthews or Niggerhead or the Nail” pastures, said Bill Reed, a distributor for Coors beer in nearby Abilene who used to lease a hunting parcel adjacent to the Perrys’. “Those were all names. Nobody thought anything about it.”
When Rick Perry returned to Paint Creek from the Air Force in the late 1970s, Ray Perry, a county commissioner at the time, was determined to introduce his son to people who could bolster a future in politics, Reed said. Ray Perry once borrowed Reed’s hunting lodge, which was big enough for large groups, to host a party for 75-or-so people in the late 1970s or early 1980s, an event Reed described as a political coming out party.
“He was bringing in political leaders, important figures, business leaders . . . big-money people out of Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, where all your big money comes from,” Reed said.
He and others said that the Perrys used their own cabin for smaller gatherings and that some who went there may not have been offended by the property’s name.
“You know, Texas is a little different — you go where it’s comfortable,” Reed said. “. . . It would have been one thing if they had named it, but they didn’t. So, it’s basically a figure of speech as far as most people are concerned. No one thought anything about it.”
Rick Perry was elected to the state legislature in 1985. Soon after, he began hosting spring turkey shoots and other hunts for supporters and fellow legislators.
Perry was a Democrat serving on the appropriations committee at the time. He was also in the process of forming relationships that would lead to his switch to the Republican Party when he ran for agriculture commissioner in 1989. In two interviews, Brooks, the former game warden, said he could not recall who came.
“One year there’d be four or five. The next might be eight or 10, something like that,” Brooks said. “They’d cook, fish, might kill a wild hog and eat it. They’d just go there to relax and enjoy themselves. He was a very gracious host and, in my opinion, well thought of.”
Brooks said he saw the rock laid down flat by the gate soon after Perry began bringing lawmakers there. Brooks could not recall exactly when. He did not know who moved the rock.
The other local who visited the ranch with Perry during those years recalled the rock standing upright with the name visible. He said it was painted over years later; he was not sure exactly when but recalled remarking about the change with friends.
“We kind of laughed about it,” recalled this person, who said he would probably vote for Perry if he wins the Republican nomination. “My recollection is that it was several years ago. We were laughing because he had it painted. Because it had always been there. You couldn’t miss it, right there at the gate going in. We laughed about, ‘Rick’s covering his tracks.’ ”
Perry estimated that he hunted on the property “about a dozen times” between 1983 and 2006. As he rose through the ranks of Texas politics, the rustic camp was renovated, according to people who saw the place in recent years. A second story was added to the old cabin, along with brown wood siding and an outdoor staircase. A bathhouse was added, and power lines, and a low pipe fence was built around the cabin. A new sign had been posted. It read, “Perry’s Camp.”
The rock remained by the gate, the name brushed with a thin coat of white paint. The paint was slightly faded, according to the person who saw it recently.
“That’s something that sticks in my memory,” this person said. “It was kind of a sloppy job. It wasn’t doing what it was intended to do.”
As recently as this summer, the rock was still there, according to photographs viewed by The Washington Post.
In the photos, it was to the left of the gate. It was laid down flat. The exposed face was brushed clean of dirt. White paint, dried drippings visible, covered a word across the surface. An N and two G’s were faintly visible.
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Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.