Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Niggerhead: Rick Perry's Family Hunting Camp

The mainstream media has been burying the lead, so The Konformist will put it in the headline: the "racially charged name" of Rick Perry's hunting camp is Niggerhead. From The Washington Post:
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...

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.”

To read the full story:

At Rick Perry’s Texas hunting spot, camp’s old racially charged name lingered
Stephanie McCrummen
October 1, 2011

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