The 69-year-old white man with the goatee appeared agitated. “We don’t want you around here stirring up trouble with the Blacks,” he said, his voice getting louder.
The man, who refused to give his name, and seven of his friends—several clad in Trump campaign shirts—were gathered for a coffee klatch at Herschel’s Restaurant in the small town of Pittsburg, Texas, 128 miles east of Dallas. I was there reporting a book on Texas history and wanted to learn more about Willie McNeeley, a Black man who recalled in a 1941 edition of The Dallas Express, an African-American newspaper, about being castrated by a white mob here. Outside of McNeeley’s chilling written account and a news story in The Dallas Express, little information exists about the incident.
One could be forgiven for thinking the country is, in some ways, beginning to more thoroughly reckon with its racist past and present in the last few years, with Confederate statues falling, a national lynching memorial, and Congress holding a hearing on reparations for slavery. But my interviews with more than a dozen residents of Pittsburg (population about 4,700) belie such a reckoning, at least in this small Texas town. The interviews suggest that the memory of what happened to McNeeley, and other Black citizens of the area, may be fading, but racial hostility—which had been seemingly subsiding for decades—is front and center in the age of President Donald Trump.
The violent mob that attacked McNeeley provides one example of the scourge of racial violence that Black Americans, particularly in the South, have long understood. These brutal examples of racism color the history of towns such as Pittsburg; it simmers beneath the surface, even if present-day locals haven’t heard McNeeley’s name or don’t know the gruesome details. It’s a situation exploited by Trump, evinced in his defense of white nationalists, his calling African nations “shithole countries,” and aggression toward Black people at Trump rallies.
When I told the goateed man that I simply wanted to understand what happened to McNeeley and how white and Black residents get along nearly eight decades later, he slammed his hand on the table.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with what’s happening with Blacks today,” he said. “They think because their great-great-great granddaddy was a slave that we owe them something.”
He looked across the table at a man wearing a shirt that read, “Trump 45, find your safe space snowflake.” Behind the man, a wall-mounted television was turned to Fox News.
“These Blacks don’t want to work, [they] live off handouts, and walk around with their pants hanging down to their knees,” the goateed man said. “It makes me sick.”
On a Sunday evening in August 1941, Willie McNeeley, 42, was driving his car north from Pittsburg when he spotted a woman on the side of the road. McNeeley didn’t recognize the woman, but he assumed she was Black. He stopped his car. Now, closer to the woman, McNeeley realized she was white, he recalled in his Dallas Express account published two months after the castration.
McNeeley, knowing the anger he might generate among the white male residents of Pittsburg if they caught him driving around a white woman, demurred, and began to drive off.
He was most likely aware of some of the gruesome lynchings of East Texas Black men who had been accused of assaulting white women—among the most notable were Henry Smith in Paris in 1893, 19-year-old Ed Lang in Rice in 1916, Lemuel Walters in Longview in 1919, and 42-year-old Dave Tillis in Crockett in 1932, to name a few. At least 335 Black people were lynched in Texas between 1877 and 1950, more than in all other states except Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. While there aren’t comprehensive statistics for the number of black men castrated by white mobs, experts say that white men’s fear of black male sexuality lead to a constant threat of violence, including castration, from the time of slavery to the mid-twentieth century.
But this woman pleaded with McNeeley to give her a ride.
“Her begging was so touching and she was so convincing that I suppose I became weak and let her ride,” McNeeley said in the 1941 newspaper account.
Shortly after allowing the woman to ride with him, a tire on McNeeley’s car flew off. He swerved into a ditch. McNeeley got out and inspected the damage.
A few minutes later, a sheriff arrived on the scene. The sheriff hauled McNeeley to jail, where he spent the night before being let go. But in court a week later, the county attorney, claimed that McNeeley had intended to be “intimate” with the woman.
“Never in my life had I even entertained the thought of being intimate with a white woman,” McNeeley said.
Still, he was fined $100 for "vagrancy" and placed in a cell with several Black men. That night, one of McNeeley’s cellmates looked out the window and saw a group of white men approaching. “Some of the younger men in the cell began crying,” McNeeley said.
The mob of men, handkerchiefs covering their faces, entered the jail, opened the cell, and demanded McNeeley and one of his cellmates, 23-year-old Harold Venters, step forward.
The men “told me to stand over in the corner with my face to the wall while they began working on Venters,” McNeeley said.
The men castrated Venters. Then they turned to McNeeley.
“Somebody put a hat over my face, and then began the worst ordeal, the worst pain, that I have ever experienced,” McNeeley said.
The coffee meeting dispersed at Herschel’s, and I headed a few blocks down the road to a café located in an Exxon gas station. There, I encountered a group of Black men sitting together over coffee. I approached them and asked if they would talk to me about McNeeley.
“I’ll talk to you, but I can’t give you my name,” a 71-year-old man said. “We have to live here.”
The man knew about the castration, but hadn’t personally known McNeeley. Instead he described a different case of racial violence: In 1921, he said, a white mob burned a Black 19-year-old at the stake for allegedly assaulting a white girl in Leesburg, a tiny town seven miles east of Pittsburg.
“Racism isn’t any better than it used to be,” the man added. “It’s just hidden more now.”
The teenager was named Wylie McNeely, according to a report published in the African-American newspaper The Hutchinson Blade. Despite the striking similarity of the victims’ names, reports from African-American newspapers corroborate the man’s account, and confirm that both events happened.
“Waiting the arrival of automobiles, bringing the object of their lust, the crowd jested and joked with one another, and in some cases lots were cast to determine who should have the choice souvenir,” reads the account in The Hutchinson Blade. “A thousand wild men and women rushed to get a glimpse of Wylie McNeely.”
It’s understandable that a 71-year-old Black man in small-town Texas would be hesitant to talk with a reporter, said Stephen Marshall, professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “McNeeley’s castration is an example of how white people used violence to sustain political and economic dominance and to send a message to Black people—step out of line, and this could happen to you.”
Racial violence helped ingrain a sense of racial superiority among white people that persists today, Marshall said. And while McNeeley’s castration may not be unique, he added, the existence of a first-person newspaper account from a survivor of such violence is remarkable, and it may prevent the staggering act from being consigned to the ash heap of history.
As for the supposed reckoning with America’s history of racism, only a fraction of white Americans are attuned to the need to honestly grapple with racial history, Marshall said. Just as many citizens have mobilized behind the political agenda of white nationalism.
“We’ve made undeniable progress in regard to race relations since Willie McNeeley was castrated,” Marshall said, “but there has been an incredible backlash and a recommitment to disenfranchisement and political inequity.”
On a humid evening in September, I met Pittsburg resident and amateur historian Carolyn Anders at her ranch house on the west side of town. Anders, a white woman and 69-year-old retired teacher, said she hadn’t heard of the 1941 castration but knew about the 1921 lynching. She’s trying to learn more about the event, she said.
“My dad told me he saw the man burned alive when he was a little boy,” Anders said. “He said he never forgot the horrible smell.”
There may be a racial reckoning in cities such as Austin, Anders said, but outdated views on race persist among some Pittsburg residents. (It's a situation made worse by Trump’s race-baiting. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump won 70.5 percent of the vote in Camp County, where Pittsburg is located). Anders added that the response to her research on the 1921 lynching reflects backward racial views. “I’ve been told ‘you need to leave it alone,” she said.
She suggested I speak with Chuck Johns, a 73-year-old former member of the Pittsburg City Council and the local school board. Pittsburg, like anywhere, has residents with divergent racial views, Johns said, but racial tension has steadily improved in the town. And despite two stories about the castration in The Dallas Express and mention of the event in books, he said he isn’t sure if the castration even happened. “Something of that magnitude, I think I would have heard about it.”
Like Johns, Pittsburg’s 68-year-old mayor, David Abernathy, said he hadn’t heard of the castration. Abernathy agreed with Johns about racial tension in the community. “There are [other] places around here where prejudice is a lot more prevalent,” he said.
The day after meeting Anders, I visited with eight residents of a Pittsburg nursing home. The residents—two Black, the rest white—shared stories of a bygone era, when almost everyone in the town worked on a farm.
Lucile Evans, an affable 81-year-old Black woman, said she grew up pulling cotton. She knew of the castration in 1941 and the lynching in 1921, but didn’t know any of McNeeley’s relatives. Evans said racism has improved some.
“In the old days, white people used to call us nigger to our face,” she said matter-of-factly.
None of the white nursing home residents professed to know about the castration or the 1921 lynching. All of them said townspeople used to get along well.
“It’s a small place so we all knew each other,” 87-year-old Ruth Calvery, a white woman, said. And then she said: “We had good Black people back then.”