HEMPSTEAD, Tex. — Elton Mathis never expected to be famous when he was elected Waller County district attorney nine years ago, working in an office just 15 miles from the town where he was born. The last two weeks changed all that.
Now Mathis can be seen on television screens across the nation, and his name will forever be linked to Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman who drove here from Illinois for a job interview and wound up dead in the Waller County jail.
Bland’s death earlier this month is shining a national spotlight on a small corner of Texas that was already facing an uncomfortable struggle to come to terms with an ugly history of racism. Lynchings were once rampant in Waller County. And as recently as 2004, Mathis’s predecessor was arguing that students at historically black Prairie View A&M University did not have the right to vote locally.
Mathis casts himself in the vanguard of efforts to change the place, even as he battles charges of racism himself and his staff endures death threats. At 39, he is one of the state’s youngest district attorneys, and he claims to be part of a more “progressive” generation.
“The county’s in growing pains,” Mathis said in an interview. “You have a newer generation that sees things different than possibly our grandparents did. . . . We’re trying to get rid of a lot of those vestiges of the Old South that are negative.”
Above all, Mathis said, that means resolving questions about Bland, who was found dead in a jail cell July 13, three days after a Texas state trooper pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change then jailed her on charges of assault. Officials have said Bland committed suicide by hanging, but family and friends have questioned that finding, saying the young woman was delighted by the prospect of working at the university here, where she graduated in 2009.
To Bland’s friends, her arrest was a classic case of “driving while black” and her death further proof that talk of a more progressive Waller County is just that — talk.
“The difference between now and then is then white people didn’t hide or deny what they did,” said Holice Cook, 37, an old friend who was looking forward to playing pool with Bland. “In this county, they’ve been hanging and killing Negroes since the Civil War.”
That past is available for all to see in a display cabinet at Prairie View A&M, where a caption below a grainy black-and-white photo explains that the college sits on the site of a former plantation.
The land was purchased in 1878 to educate “colored youth,” while elsewhere in the county African Americans were still being treated distinctly differently. Between 1877 and 1950, Waller County was among the Texas counties with the highest number of lynchings, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative.
More recently, in 2004, Oliver Kitzman, then the county’s district attorney, claimed Prairie View students were not automatically eligible to vote locally. He denied any suggestion of racism but eventually apologized for actions he said were “understandably perceived” by some students as “threatening.” Ultimately, a federal court order cleared the way for students to register in Waller County.
While Mathis insists that all evidence points to Bland taking her own life, he said he “understood” why “some of the bad things” about the county’s past might lead people to suspect otherwise. So Bland’s death is being investigated as if it were a homicide, he said, and race is being considered as a potential motive.
“That’s why we are putting additional levels of scrutiny and time and resources into this case,” he said.
Mathis has also criticized Brian Encinia, the trooper who arrested Bland. A video shot by a dashboard camera shows Encinia becoming confrontational when Bland refused to put out a cigarette, trying to pull her from her car and threatening to use his stun gun, saying, “I will light you up!”
Mathis said he was “not happy” when he saw the video. But his opinion of Encinia’s performance is not universally shared. Over at the jail, a two-minute drive from the courthouse, Sheriff Glenn Smith, 56, hardly sounds like a member of the county’s new generation.
A burly Republican in cowboy hat and boots, Smith has a habit of referring to himself in the third person. For example: “Black lives matter to Glenn Smith.”
But Smith holds a starkly different view of the notorious traffic stop. He sides with Encinia, saying the trooper did a “fine job.”
“He was certainly legal, in his parameter there, and she needed to obey what he was requesting her to do,” Smith said, though he conceded that the trooper might have been “a little nicer” or tried to “de-escalate” the situation.
Smith, who runs the jail where Bland died, also harbors no doubts about what caused her death. He readily offers tours of her cell to news reporters to debunk speculation about a secret entrance. The beige-walled cell, past a booking counter with a hand-painted sheriff’s badge, appeared untouched two weeks after her death.
Asked who was to blame for her death, Smith was unequivocal.
“Herself,” he replied. “I mean this with all due respect to the family that lost Sandra Bland.”
Smith said he is also convinced that the county’s days of racism are over.
“The average citizen goes about their life seven days a week enjoying it, everybody working together, eating in restaurants together and socializing,” he said. “I just don’t think it exists.”
But both Smith and Mathis have faced direct charges of racism. Bland’s friend LaVaughn Mosley, who mentored Bland during her undergraduate days, has called on Smith to resign, claiming he has “a past checkered with racism.”
The primary claim against him dates to 2007, when Smith was Hempstead’s chief of police. A witness to an arrest claimed Smith pushed him and told him to “get out of my face” or go to jail, too.
“The guy construed obviously that I was a racist because he was a black man,” Smith said, adding that the city council decided it was “not the way the police chief should act.”
The council suspended him for two weeks without pay, and Smith attended anger management classes. A year later, when race relations “weren’t any better,” Smith said, he was fired.
Back at the courthouse, Mathis, too, acknowledged troubling behavior. Last year, he sent a text message to the Rev. Walter Pendleton, a black pastor in Hempstead, after Pendleton sought a breakdown of county prosecutions by race.
“My hounds ain’t even started yet dumb ass,” Mathis wrote. “Keep talking. When I talk people will listen. Keep talking and I will sue your ass for slander. It works both ways. ‘Dr.’ Take your fake Dr. ass and jump off a high cliff.”
Mathis defended the text, claiming Pendleton had not made a neutral request for statistics but had argued he did not “prosecute white people,” which riled him.
“I was angry when I sent those,” he said. “I’m entitled to be human and to have emotion and defend myself.”
Still, Mathis insisted that the county has made progress. Hempstead now has its third black mayor, and Mathis has set up a hate crimes task force to ensure minorities have a “champion” in the criminal justice system, he said.
“Have I seen racism here? Of course I have,” Mathis said. He said he has heard elderly white people “use the n-word” and African American people “make negative statements” about whites.
The county still has “de facto separate funeral homes, separate barbershops, separate cemeteries,” he said, choices “that blacks and whites both make.”
Changing such habits takes time, Mathis said, adding that he can do little to speed the process. So he presses forward on the Bland case, set on proving that her death, while tragic, bears no connection to Waller County’s darkest days.
And if investigators conclude Waller County was somehow responsible for Bland’s death?
“That would be a huge setback,” Mathis said. “For everyone that lives here — and the progress I feel the community has made.”