Sandra Bland, Black Women, and Texas Law Enforcement

This post is part of our online forum in honor of Sandra Bland, coinciding with the third anniversary of her death. The forum includes historical and contemporary perspectives–and creative pieces–on Black women’s susceptibility to state-sanctioned violence. 

(Photo: Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr)

I first heard the name Sandra Bland during the summer of 2015. On July 10 of that year, Texas state trooper Brian Encinia pulled Bland over. She was leaving Prairie View A&M University, where she had just signed papers to accept a new job. Although a Chicago native, Bland was not new to Texas. She had graduated from Prairie View A&M in 2009. Founded in 1876 to educate former slaves, Prairie View is approximately fifty miles northwest of Houston in a town that is largely Black. Encinia stopped Bland that day because he said she didn’t signal before changing lanes, but the situation quickly escalated.

The transcript of Bland’s arrest provides an account of what happened next. When Encinia asked Bland to put out her cigarette, she responded, “I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?” Bland continued to challenge Encinia when he told her to step out of the car. “I don’t have to step on out,” Bland replied. As Encinia continued to demand that she leave her vehicle, Bland continued to assert, “You don’t have the right to do that.” Encinia then drew his taser and commanded, “Get out of the car! I will light you up! Get out!” After Bland left the vehicle, he placed her under arrest. She was eventually taken to Waller County Jail. Three days later, Bland was found dead in her cell, with suicide listed as the official cause of death.

As I watched the footage and read the transcript of the encounter, I kept thinking of the similarities between Sandra Bland and Sara Travers, a Black woman who had her own nightmarish run-in with a Texas law enforcement official a century earlier. The encounter between Travers and two Houston police officers led to an open rebellion in the summer of 1917.

Sara Travers lived in the San Felipe district, the Black-majority section of Houston’s Fourth Ward. Established in 1865 as “Freedman’s Town” in the months following the Civil War, the neighborhood was an early center of political and cultural life for Black Houston in the early twentieth century. But the residents of the San Felipe district faced a constant white presence in the form of law enforcement officials. Lee Sparks and Rufus Daniel were two of the most notorious police officers. Sparks had lived in Houston for around five years after moving to the city from nearby Fort Bend County, and he had earned a reputation for violence and abusive language during his time on the force. He typically referred to the residents of the San Felipe district as “n**gers,” which was one reason they thought of him as a “brutal bully.”

On the morning of August 23, Sparks and Daniels saw two young Black men shooting craps in an alley, so they chased them through the neighborhood while firing shots from their guns. Sparks thought one of the men had taken refuge in a nearby home, so he burst into the front door of the residence and found Sara Travers ironing. Sparks asked, “Did you see a n**ger jumping over that yard?” Travers answered that she had not.

While Sparks searched her house, Travers told her neighbor she thought the officers “were shooting at crap-shooters.” Sparks overheard the conversation between the two Black women and called them “God damn n**ger bitches.” He then retorted, “I’m from Fort Bend and we don’t allow n**gers to talk back to us. We generally whip them down there.” He slapped Travers, causing her to scream so loudly that Officer Daniels also entered the house. Sparks instructed, “Take her and give her ninety days on the Pea Farm ‘cause she’s one of these biggity n**ger women.” Travers later recalled that she was barely dressed when the officers led her outside. She was barefoot, and wore only an “old dress-skirt and a pair panties and a ol’ raggedy waist.”

The commotion involving Travers and the policemen attracted a crowd that included a Black soldier stationed at Camp Logan, Private Alonzo Edwards. When Edwards tried to negotiate for Travers’s release, Sparks pistol-whipped the soldier and had him sent to jail along with Travers. “I beat that n**ger until his heart got right,” Sparks boasted. “He was a good n**ger when I got through with him.” Later that afternoon, another Black soldier, Corporal Charles Baltimore, confronted Sparks and Daniels to inquire about the arrests. Sparks retorted, “I don’t report to no n**gers,” and then beat Corporal Baltimore to the ground. Baltimore tried to escape by running into an empty house, but Sparks pursued him while firing from his six-shooter. Baltimore also wound up in jail that afternoon, along with Travers and Private Edwards.

When they heard news of the events in the San Felipe district, soldiers at Camp Logan began to plot revenge. At 8:30 p.m., a group of soldiers ignored the commands of their white officer, raided the ammunition tent, and left camp. They specifically sought out police officers as they marched through the city. Officer Rufus Daniels was one of the twenty people who died that night, struck by soldiers’ bullets. The original instigator of the violence, Lee Sparks, survived the night. He sat at home due to a twenty-four-hour suspension following his activities that morning.

In the aftermath of their rebellion in Houston, soldiers accused of mutiny and murder stood trial at three separate courts-martial. The military eventually executed nineteen members of the Twenty-fourth Infantry, and forty-one soldiers received life sentences.

The violence of August 23, 1917 spurred local activism in Houston, and the issue of gender was central to Black protest. For example, writers for the Black-owned Houston Informer used the newspaper to highlight the problem in local neighborhoods. Editorials often focused on the effects of violence on Black women. Drawing on local memory of Sara Travers’s altercation with law enforcement, a 1923 editorial in the Informer reminded readers, “Two local police officers were taking advantage of a defenseless and helpless colored woman and were placing her under arrest attired only her house garments – she was virtually nude and even not properly dressed to come out on her front porch.”  Their activism made police brutality a gendered concern.

Nearly a century later, a different confrontation between a Black woman and a Texas law enforcement official reminded me of the legacies of the Houston rebellion. The circumstances of Sandra Bland’s arrest felt eerily similar. Lee Sparks called Sara Travers “biggity” in 1917. Like Travers, Bland also dared to question a police officer’s actions, and her defiance against Brian Encinia irritated him. At the end of the dash cam footage of the traffic stop, he radioed to a superior that, “She wouldn’t even look at me. She was looking straight ahead, mad. You know.” Although separated by almost one hundred years, Sparks and Encinia used similar allegations of inappropriate comportment to justify the arrests of Black women.

During the summer of 2015, a panel on CNN erupted when a former New York City detective said of Bland, “she was arrogant from the beginning, very dismissive of the officer” as justification for her arrest. As Texas-based columnist Tara Trower Doolittle wrote, “At the end of the day, regardless of how the forensic investigation turns out, Sandra Bland is dead because she was an uppity Black woman who did not know her place in East Texas.” Other commentators echoed this sentiment. Ebony magazine said that Bland’s cause of death was “being an uppity Black woman.”

The three women of color who turned the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter into a grassroots movement have also worked to address the issue of police violence against Black women. Alicia Garza said in May 2015, “Black women are actually more prone to be abused by a police officer than by anybody else.” Just two months after making that statement, the arrest and death of Sandra Bland served as a reminder of a longer history of confrontation between law enforcement officials and Black women. A century after two police officers sent Sara Travers to jail, the accusation of “arrogance” can still be used to justify arresting a Black woman in the United States.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Tyina Steptoe

Tyina Steptoe is an associate professor of history at the University of Arizona. Her work focuses on race, gender, and popular culture in the United States. She is the author of the award-winning book, 'Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City' (University of California Press, 2016. She is currently working on a project that examines race and sexuality in rhythm and blues music. Follow her on Twitter @TyinaSteptoe.