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Out in a rural stretch of Texas northwest of Houston, Waller County was born of plantations, cotton fields and slavery. More than a century ago, state lawmakers planted there the state's first public college where Black students could pursue higher education.
Since its founding as the Alta Vista Agriculture & Mechanical College of Texas for Colored Youth, tens of thousands of students, most of them Black, have passed through the school now named Prairie View A&M University.
And for much of that time—long after equal voting rights became the law of the land—the county's predominantly white power structure has thrown up hurdles to keep those Black students from voting, or to limit their ability to wield meaningful political influence at the ballot box.
Year after year, decade after decade, the students of Prairie View A&M have fought back, striving to realize the full and fair value of their franchise.
Three generations of Jayla Allen's family have been caught up in that struggle.
When her grandfather was a student in the 1970s, Waller County systematically prevented Black students from registering to vote.
When her parents attended in the mid-1980s, the county's majority white leadership divided the campus among several county precincts, forestalling the students from voting as a bloc in ways that could disrupt the local balance of power.
When her older sister was there in the early 2000s, the local district attorney flagrantly threatened to prosecute Prairie View A&M students who voted in Waller County, erroneously claiming they weren't legitimate residents.
And after Jayla Allen herself arrived on campus in the fall of 2017, she and other students faced a more subtle, but still substantial, hurdle as the county limited their access to polling places during early voting while making it relatively easier in other, whiter parts of the county.
The barriers students faced evolved over the years, but a pattern emerged. As one hurdle was removed—sometimes after federal courts stepped in—another followed, a new link devised to lengthen the chain of disenfranchisement. The county over time employed the full range of tools in the voter suppression lineup, excluding, intimidating and marginalizing the students of Prairie View A&M.
"The picture that's been painted is very clear, and that is that Prairie View A&M, the second-oldest historically Black university in the country, is continuously having to fight for voting rights for its Black and brown students," Allen said. "We're still fighting for equal voting rights but also to see that these Black students in a majority white county with majority white elected officials are being accounted for."
Like students before her, Allen's chapter in the struggle meant looking to the federal courts for help. She became the lead plaintiff in what has become a drawn-out lawsuit alleging that Waller County violated the constitutional rights and federal protections for Black voters by setting up a lopsided schedule that offered students fewer opportunities to vote early than the county's white residents.
The ongoing legal case, set in a place with a dark history of discrimination, is playing out at the onset of a modern reckoning over racism and its byproducts, including voter suppression.
To this day, officials in Waller contend the litigation over the 2018 early voting schedule is not a continuation of past suppression tactics. They balk at today's Waller County being painted with too broad a brush based on a history in which current leaders say they played no part.
Although he grew up in the region, County Judge Carbett "Trey" Duhon didn't arrive in Waller County until 2005, when his family bought a 10-acre plot on the northern end of the county and he opened his law practice in the area.
Since taking the helm of the county in 2015, he's come to realize how the county's decisions today are tormented by its past. But he rejects the notion that there's any overlap and argues county leadership has actually moved to expand access for students during his tenure.
"I don't have any connection to the history of Waller County," Duhon said at an October 2020 trial in the current legal case. "I understand the history. I understand the perception is there, but when do you actually get out from under that cloud so that … you're recognized for doing the right thing?"
But to Allen and some Black residents, the links between past and present appear evident. Although progress may come, in Waller County it comes slowly.
Frank Jackson knows that arc of history well. Raised in the farming community of Luling, he wasn't allowed to learn with white children until the local high school was integrated, many years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional.
He moved to Waller County to attend school and would go on to be elected a Waller County commissioner and then mayor of the city of Prairie View for 14 years. But he graduated from Prairie View A&M in 1973 without ever being allowed to vote. Decades later, he would mentor Allen as she pushed back on the county.
"One of the things that I've come to realize is that culture changes slowly," said Jackson, a longtime administrator for Prairie View A&M. "You can change public policy overnight, take a vote administratively by the Legislature, but the culture that it affects changes very, very slowly. It's like turning a ship."
Roots in Reconstruction
Prairie View A&M's history is interwoven with the nation's twin struggles over injustice and power. Students today attend classes on the grounds of what was the Alta Vista plantation, where hundreds of people were once enslaved.
The Texas Legislature established the public college in 1876 through the efforts of state Rep. William Holland of Wharton County and state Sen. Matthew Gaines of Washington County. Both men were born to mothers held as slaves, and they served in the Texas Legislature during the brief span of Reconstruction when numerous Black Texans were elected to public office. Thirteen years after the passage of the 13th Amendment, the first class of just eight students started at Alta Vista Agriculture & Mechanical College of Texas for Colored Youth.
The college was founded soon after Waller County itself was established. Initially, the majority of the county's residents were Black, but white people would methodically work for decades to keep Black residents at the margins. There was the White Man's Party. Lynchings. Poll taxes. The Ku Klux Klan.
Local efforts to neutralize Black voting power found support at the state Capitol, where the Texas Legislature in 1923 enacted laws limiting primary elections to white voters. Shortly after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to level access to voting, the Legislature reciprocated with a requirement that voters reregister every year—a response to the loss of poll taxes to suppress turnout among voters of color.
The early resistance to allowing Prairie View A&M students to vote, and the legal fights that ensued, began playing out shortly after the 26th Amendment was ratified in 1971, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 and expanding the possible electorate in places with universities, like Waller County.
In the 1970s, the county began targeting Black students in a more tailored fashion. In order to register, they were required to fill out a questionnaire proving they were "bona fide" county residents. For years, legions of students were either forced to prove their residency in administrative county hearings that hardly ever went their way or shut out of elections entirely.
The students barred from voting then were contemporaries of Allen's late grandfather, Fred Allen Jr. By the time students and the U.S. Department of Justice successfully overturned the questionnaire in the courts, Fred Allen completed two master's degrees at Prairie View A&M—the first in guidance and counseling, the second in educational administration.
The lawsuit over Waller County's registration questionnaire eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1979 affirmed it was unconstitutional, in effect guaranteeing the rights of students across the country to vote where they attend college. The decision came down a year after the elder Allen completed his studies and returned to Dallas to pursue a long career in education.
The Supreme Court's ruling vanquished Waller County's illegal questionnaire, but the fight for Prairie View A&M's students was far from over.
For the next four decades, they would repeatedly be forced to battle the county's elected officials for access to the ballot box. As county officials came and went, the echoes of voter suppression sounded through succeeding generations of Jayla Allen's family.
In the 1980s, while Allen's father studied business administration and her mom social work at the university, the county diluted the voting strength of Prairie View A&M students by carving up the student body among various precincts. By the 1990s, in part because of the U.S. Department of Justice's intervention, students were able to vote together. But the Justice Department would have to step in again in 2002 after the county drew up a redistricting plan that federal officials found would harm voters of color.
In 1992—just before a runoff election featuring two Black candidates, including Jackson, who was taking on a white 16-year incumbent—the county district attorney attempted to prosecute more than a dozen Prairie View A&M students for voter fraud. Amid student protests and national scrutiny, the charges were later dropped.
Just little over a decade later, a different district attorney, Oliver Kitzman, published an open letter in a local newspaper advising the county's election administrator that Prairie View A&M students were not automatically presumed to be county residents. In defiance of the Supreme Court's 1979 ruling, the letter included a threat to prosecute "illegal voters" who cast ballots in Waller but didn't meet the district attorney's residency interpretation.
Allen remembers learning about the threat from her older sister, who attended Prairie View A&M at the time. It fueled her realization that students face what she called a "generational disparity" when it comes to who is welcome to vote in Waller County.
When Kitzman's incendiary letter was published, students turned to the county's past and began to understand the threat as another link in the county's long chain of efforts to keep them from voting.
"After we received the letter, we started digging. That's when the history came to us," Brian Rowland, who was a Prairie View A&M student at the time, would later testify at an October 2020 trial in the latest voting rights lawsuit.
Rowland was one of four students who, along with the local chapter of the NAACP, sued Kitzman in 2004 after the district attorney stood by his threat even though the Texas secretary of state and the state attorney general each indicated he was wrong, and the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation into his actions.
"You had students who were indicted … maybe less than 10 years ago. So it was real. It wasn't just the threat of you could," Rowland, by then a member of the Prairie View City Council, said at trial. "You had examples of how real students at Prairie View were indicted and had to be bonded out. Now, it later got dropped, but if you're a student, I mean who would want to go through that experience just to vote?"
The case was ultimately settled with an apology and affirmation of students' voting rights from Kitzman. Kitzman, who served as a district judge before his stint as district attorney, resigned later that year to care for his wife who was terminally ill, according to his obituary; he died last month.
In the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, students would again need help from federal officials to protect their right to register to vote. That year, the Justice Department sued Waller County over its rejection of voter registration applications—most from Prairie View A&M students.
Then, Texas was still subject to the Voting Rights Act's oversight rules, which required the state and local governments to prove that changes they made to election procedures would not harm voters of color. In a consent decree to settle the case, Waller County officials admitted they had rejected the applications using new practices that had never been cleared by federal officials. The settlement required the county to justify each registration rejection through 2012.
Ahead of that year's presidential primaries, the Justice Department also stepped in after county officials planned to drastically limit early voting, reducing half a dozen sites around the county down to one single location—a roughly two-hour walk for students without cars.
Over the next few years, the voting pendulum would seem to swing the students' way as they secured expanded access to voting, beginning with the creation of a long-sought-after election day polling place on campus in 2013.
But their gains were repeatedly weighed down by appeals to the county commissioners court to reconsider proposals that diminished opportunity for students.
Ahead of the 2016 primaries, the commissioners court initially approved a plan that drastically limited early voting to just two locations for the entire county. The county courthouse, 6 to 7 miles from campus, was selected for voters living on the northern end of the rural county that's shaped like a backwards seven. The second polling location was to be placed on the county's southern end in a town more than 20 miles from campus.
The commissioners retreated from that plan after local outcry.
"I don't believe for one minute that anybody intentionally tried to prevent the students from voting, and I believe that you all know that in your hearts," County Commissioner Jeron Barnett, the only Black official on the court whose precinct included the university, said at the time.
Backed by the university's vow to address lingering questions about access for non-students, the Prairie View A&M community continued to push for early voting on campus. As people lined up to cast their ballots at the student center on campus, it seemed momentarily that momentum was on their side.
In her grandfather's footsteps
In reality, student access to voting remained far from secure when Jayla Allen arrived at Prairie View the next year.
Allen originally traced out a path that split from the family's ties to Prairie View A&M, considering attending other historically Black colleges or universities like Howard University in Washington, D.C., or Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But after her grandfather died the year before she finished high school, she felt drawn to the school he had attended decades earlier.
It would take just a year for her to inherit the legacy that comes with being a Black college student in Waller County.
In the fall of 2018, Allen and other students realized the county's early voting schedule left Prairie View residents with far fewer days and hours for voting than other population centers in the county, and zero opportunity to vote in the city during the first half of the early voting period.
Waller County is a Republican stronghold where no official elected countywide is Black. Its 55,000 residents sprawl across rural flatlands and small cities. Although white people are no longer in the majority, they still make up the largest racial group. The county's population is roughly 43 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, and 24 percent Black.
In the town of Prairie View, the vast majority of residents are Black, and many of them are also college students. The university reached its highest enrollment—roughly 9,500 students—the semester of the early voting schedule dispute.
See also: To prevent abhorrent state-run voter suppression and police brutality, look to local action beyond election years
At a commissioners court meeting five days before the start of voting in 2018, Duhon, the county judge, acknowledged the early voting schedule wasn't fair to students. Prairie View had five days of early voting. In two of the three other towns that serve as population hubs, with many more white residents than Prairie View, early voting would run during all 12 days of the early voting period. In the third town, early voting would be available for 11 days.
"I do think there is an inequity," Duhon said, going over the early voting hours in other areas.
Despite that acknowledgement, students left the meeting with no more access than they had when they piled into the county courthouse to protest the schedule.
Over the course of just an hour of discussion, the commissioners vacillated between suggesting additional voting hours at alternative sites—some miles away from the university—and shooting down the prospect of any additional days of voting altogether. Students took turns at a podium explaining they needed a nearby polling site not just because of convenience but out of necessity as they balanced classes, extracurricular demands like work schedules and lack of transportation.
The one thing those in the room seemed to agree on was that matters involving early voting had in recent years become a perennial fight. Each time, the court signed off on a proposal put together by the county election administrator and the party chairs. Each time, students were left out of the drafting process.
"If we're tired of hearing that same broken record, then we have to be the people that come to common grounds to be willing to fix that issue," Kendric Jones, then a student at the university and a City Council member for Prairie View, told the court.
But the five-member court waffled and ultimately voted to make no changes; Duhon's and Barnett's votes were recorded as nays.
Days after the meeting, Allen and other students sued the county. The county's actions had denied student voters—most of them Black—an equal opportunity to vote compared with the county's non-Black and non-student voters in a "continuation of Waller County's decades-long pattern of unconstitutional racial and age-based discrimination" against Prairie View A&M students, the lawsuit alleged. They asked a federal judge to order the county to set up an early voting site on campus that would offer weekend hours.
"It's an untattered line from pre-1960 to the present to what they tried to do to these students at this institution and this Black city in a majority white, older county," said Leah Aden, the deputy director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the students. "There are just some people who can't get it right."
In an emergency meeting two days later, the commissioners court voted to extend hours on the three days the student center was previously scheduled to host voting during the second week of early voting. And in a city without public transportation and where many students don't have cars, the court added five hours of weekend voting at Prairie View City Hall—a two-and-a-half-mile walk one way from some student housing.
To cast their ballots during the first week of early voting in 2018, students organized volunteer carpooling to run their peers to the county courthouse in Hempstead. Prairie View A&M President Ruth Simmons also chartered a bus for students looking to vote that first week, paying for it out of pocket.
"You're creating barriers that only certain people who look a certain way and of a certain background are having to jump over," Allen said in a recent interview. "The rest of the county aren't jumping over those. It's always been the students of Prairie View. It's not that we wanted a polling location sat in our lap; we just wanted fair and equal access to one with the appropriate days and hours."
When the election came and went, the county unsuccessfully sought to have the lawsuit dismissed. In a filing with the court, the county's lawyers argued neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Voting Rights Act guaranteed parity of early voting hours. And although they described the students' goal to increase early voting hours on campus as "laudable," they suggested the effort should be pursued through "active and timely participation in the political process, not a lawsuit."
But the students pressed forward with their lawsuit, hoping to protect their access in future elections. They asked for expansive relief from the court, including parity or at least adequate early voting hours across the county and a requirement that the county ensure that a representative for the students was part of the process of setting future schedules. And perhaps most notably, the students wanted the court to pull the county back into federal guardianship of its voting decisions to ensure they didn't harm voters based on race—an extraordinary measure that's hardly been invoked since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 ruling that freed jurisdictions with a history of discrimination from federal oversight.
At trial last fall, Duhon cast the commissioners court's 2018 decisions as a balancing act to provide early voting access to everyone in the county "to the best of our ability." In fact, he'd point out, it had been the local chair of the Democratic Party who asked to push early voting at Prairie View to the second week, noting concerns that voting would conflict with homecoming events. (Duhon declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation.)
He reasoned that because the student center on campus was frequented by students—some passing through multiple times a day—hosting early voting there for two or three days "affords them multiple opportunities" to cast their ballots.
"So any suggestion that we are trying to take away or disenfranchise or put any impediment in the way of these students being able to vote, it's simply not true. It's offensive to me," Duhon testified.
During his testimony, he invoked the commissioners court's role in establishing early voting on campus in 2016—a point he also made at the 2018 commissioners court meeting when he argued the court had a record of expanding the voting rights of students.
Over the course of nearly two weeks, the trial would pingpong back and forth between the days in which Black residents of Waller County weren't allowed to vote at all and the 2020 presidential election, for which early voting began before closing arguments wrapped up.
To the plaintiffs, the early voting schedule for last year's general election underscored why federal intervention was once again necessary in Waller County—it offered no early voting on campus.
In 2019, the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature passed a broadly crafted law that banned the use of temporary polling places—like the one used to bring a few days of early voting to the Prairie View A&M campus—that didn't run for the entirety of the early voting period. Waller County, like many counties across the state, was forced to either shutter early voting places it couldn't run for the usual two-week period or find the money, equipment, and staff to make them permanent.
Faced with that choice, the county opted to reduce early voting to four sites, placing one in each commissioner's precinct. In Precinct 3, which encompasses the university campus, the Waller County Community Center was selected.
In court, Aden, the students' lawyer, argued that the county has "been on notice" since 2013 that the community center, on the far end of the university's footprint, is not as easily accessible to students who lack transportation or who can't make the 2-mile walk round trip on foot from student housing on campus.
Jones, the student and council member, had reiterated that point at the 2018 commissioners court meeting during which Duhon asked him "as a student and as a student leader" whether the community center was accessible to students.
"What is accessible to you guys is not actually accessible to us," Jones replied. Testifying for the plaintiffs at trial, Jones explained that early voting at the community center, which was hardly known to students, wasn't an equal replacement for the polling site that used to be housed at the student center, a hub of campus life.
Through closing remarks, county representatives and their lawyer indicated that the students were not seeking equitable access but preferential access over the community, including residents who have to travel longer distances to vote.
"You know, I understand the students want it to be right there," Duhon said at trial. "It's convenient. I don't fault them for asking for it, but I also cannot give them what nobody else in this county gets within reason."
To Priscilla Barbour, the demarcation sketched by the county between the community and the students amounts to a false choice.
Barbour is a former president of Prairie View A&M's student government association and was at the forefront of the effort to bring voting to campus in 2013. Like other alumni, she's fluent in the county's history and the manner in which Black residents were deprived of their humanity and then long relegated to second-class citizenship. While testifying during the trial, she apologized for becoming emotional as she tried to draw the line from that treatment to the present day in which students are denied as an equal part of the community.
"[Waller County] was the last standing place of the Confederacy in the state of Texas, and the place that once enslaved Black people now educates them to become the top engineers, nurses, attorneys, architects, teachers in the country," Barbour said.
"Whether they are there for four years or 40 years, they deserve equal access to the polls," she said. "It should not be a battle every time that they request it."
The arc bends slowly
The students didn't get early voting access they sought in time for the 2020 election, but some change came to Waller County in November.
Barnett, the Precinct 3 commissioner who represented the university and opposed expanded early voting on campus, lost his seat. He was replaced by Jones, the student and Prairie View City Council member who in 2018 petitioned the commissioners court to reconsider the early voting schedule.
Prairie View Mayor David Allen didn't run for reelection. He was replaced by Rowland, the City Council member and onetime plaintiff in the lawsuit against the district attorney who threatened to prosecute students voting in Waller County.
It's a glimpse of the sort of reconfiguration of Waller County government Duhon laid out in an interview with The Washington Post in 2019, describing some residents' political perception of students: "I think there's always been this fear that if all the students voted, and they voted in a certain way, they could take over the county."
Allen has since graduated from Prairie View A&M with a degree in political science. She continues to draw inspiration from her grandfather, who put his two master's degrees from Prairie View A&M to good use over the 32 years he spent in Dallas schools as a teacher, coach and administrator.
She remembers him as a man of service and community, recounting the stories she heard at his wake from former students who recalled how he went above and beyond to serve as a father figure to many and a fierce advocate for all.
Now back in Dallas, Allen is working through a service program in local schools for students who are low income and at risk of dropping out. She's also waiting to hear back from law schools to which she's applied.
She still has a foot in Waller County, taking up advocacy and organizing work on campus to make way for the sort of change students helped push through in November. But those outcomes shouldn't be mistaken for progress, Allen argues.
Despite some of their well-established ties, Prairie View A&M students today still lack what they didn't have in the 1970s—roots in the community and the regard that comes from that as a full constituent. Students come to Waller County seeking an education, and most move on after a few years to pursue their careers.
Until county officials truly account for students in their decision-making, any election wins are merely a temporary indication that students are doing the work to overcome the hurdles they're still forced to face, Allen said.
Yes, that encompasses access to voting, she said, but it's also about being appraised equally as citizens and members of the community.
"I think it's very interesting how you have such a huge population that lives in this county, yet when decisions about how many days or hours are made, those students or representatives of those students are not at the table," Allen said. "Our voices are not being heard. We're not being thought of."
The question of whether the county offered students less opportunity in 2018 remains unresolved, with a ruling from U.S. District Judge Charles R. Eskridge still pending. At the trial's closure, the judge requested that the parties try mediation, citing what he described as a "breakdown in communication" that led to the filing of the lawsuit.
His instructions came during a relatively rare closing statement in which he offered a somber view of the matter before him. Eskridge invoked a question that had come to mind throughout testimony from a 1997 opinion penned by the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—whose death, he noted, came just before the start of the trial: Is this conflict really necessary?
If a settlement wasn't reached, Eskridge said, it was unlikely there would be any "satisfaction" no matter who prevailed; the discord between the county and the students would likely remain intact.
"I will rule, but there will still be this distance and distrust between the sides," Eskridge said. "And it may actually make things worse after the ruling than before."
An agreement to settle the case ultimately was not reached. The students and the officials of Waller County await Eskridge's ruling.