Tea Cakes in East Texas

BLM Tyler Texas 1992

A police officer who killed an 84-year-old black woman during a drug raid last January will not be indicted, a grand jury decided after the officer testified his gun discharged accidentally.

Black leaders in Tyler, however, expressed disappointment over the Smith County grand jury’s decision Friday about Kilgore officer Frank Baggett Jr., 28, after three days of investigation.

Where were the Texas Rangers and what did they have to say?  They got the policeman acquitted for one. 

Baggett, who was the last witness to testify, told the panel that Annie Rae Dixon died when his gun fired accidentally as he kicked in the door of her room.

The shooting on Jan. 29 was the third involving police within two months in Smith County and led to a large demonstration at the courthouse on Feb. 10.

Mrs. Dixon, a retired maid, was in bed when Baggett and other members of a drug enforcement unit from neighboring Gregg County raided her rural home near the county line.

Authorities said the officers raided Dixon’s house because an informat told them Dixon’s granddaughter had sold him crack cocaine at the house.

The informant, according to records, told the officers about some of the occupants of the house but did not mention the grandmother, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia a few weeks earlier.

Prosecutors and black leaders became concerned because the raid produced no drugs or criminal charges. They also said the Dixon house was 100 feet beyond the jurisdiction of Gregg County police.

The FBI and Dixon’s family have sued Baggett and the Kilgore Police Department over Dixon’s death.

‘Oh my, my. That’s kind of a sad business I’m very disgusted,’ Ernest Deckerd, president of the Tyler chapter of the NAACP, said from Nashville where his group is holding a convention.

Deckerd said there would have been a demonstration if the NAACP leaders had been in Tyler.

‘It’s a sad day in this nation when things like this begin to happen. This was no accident,’ he said.

Kilgore police declined comment.

Baggett has worked six years at the department and was chosen officer of the year in 1990 and 1991. After the shooting incident, Baggett was assigned to desk duty.

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For as long as any one can remember, the railroad tracks that run through Tyler have separated blacks from whites, and the town fathers handled problems between the races quietly, if they were handled at all.

But this summer, black anger over several cases of perceived injustice by the police and the courts has broken the quiet. Protests have been loudest over the fatal shooting of an 84-year-old black woman by a white police officer in a botched drug raid.

The victim, Annie Rae Dixon, was bedridden with illness when police officers with guns drawn burst into her rural home near here on Jan. 29. At a public inquest in June, the officers testified that the shooting was accidental, and the inquest ended in a hung jury. On July 10 a grand jury of 8 whites and 2 blacks voted not to return charges against the officers; two people on the grand jury had been dismissed.

Suddenly the deep piney woods of East Texas are no longer insulating Tyler, which proclaims itself “Rose Capital of the World,” from the tensions that afflict so much of the nation. And now people of all races in this city of 82,000 people are beginning to wonder how much they have in common with the citizens of Los Angeles, whose agonies they watched on television last spring. ‘Too Mad to Keep Quiet’

“Used to be that when the police did something bad to a black man, people would just talk about it under the shade trees,” said Ernest M. Deckard, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “But that’s over now because, even if we aren’t like L.A. yet, a lot of folks, a lot of young folks, are getting too mad to keep quiet.”

Tyler, 85 miles east of Dallas, is unlikely to return to its historical calm for some time because on Aug. 22 the state board of the N.A.A.C.P. will hold a rally here to protest the Dixon case, the deaths last year of two local black men while in police custody and several other East Texas cases involving blacks.

The Dixon case intruded into an unrelated case five days after the grand jury decision, when three black jurors refused to go along with nine whites in convicting a black man accused of kidnapping, robbing and sexually assaulting a white woman.

All the jurors in that case insisted they weighed the charges on the merits, but several admitted later that the Dixon case had come up in their deliberations and that the debate became heated along racial lines.

“I am 100 percent convinced that there was an element of protest in the way the black jurors forced a mistrial,” said David E. Dobbs, the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the case.

Since the trial, one of the black jurors, James Hawkins, has frequently spoken out on injustice to blacks and angrily confronted the chief of police, Larry Robinson, at a community meeting called to address such concerns.

Sitting on a cracked wooden chair in his family’s ramshackle corner store this week, Mr. Hawkins said of the trial: “I think that brother might have been guilty. We just said, ‘Reasonable doubt,’ just like they did on Annie Rae.”

It was obvious that the Dixon case had become a symbol of longstanding grievances to many black customers at the Hawkins store as they escaped the scorching afternoon heat to chat by an electric fan. ‘Found the Courage to Confront’

A middle-aged woman in a neat print dress complained about having to go to south Tyler, the predominantly white part of town, to pay a gas bill.

“Just like with Annie Rae, we are second class,” she said.

“Hey baby, you know it, and we’re going to make them know it,” Mr. Hawkins said.

It seems paradoxical that so much resentment is flowing from the actions of the Smith County District Attorney, Jack Skeen. In May 1990 Mr. Skeen became something of a hero to blacks in East Texas when he successfully prosecuted three white former lawmen for the murder of Loyal Garner Jr., a black man who was beaten in a jail in Hemphill, Tex., and later died in a Tyler hospital.

“In the Dixon case he didn’t show the same willingness to take on law officers,” said Andrew Mellontree, a Smith County Commissioner and the highest-ranking black elected official in Tyler. Mr. Skeen has repeatedly said the death of Mrs. Dixon received a full and proper investigation.

At the inquest, the police officers said the raid was based on an informant’s tip that drugs were being sold at the house, although none were found and no drug charges filed.

The officer who shot Mrs. Dixon, Frank Baggett of the nearby city of Kilgore, testified that he held his gun parallel to the floor as he kicked in her bedroom door and that the gun discharged accidentally when he stumbled. Expert witnesses said that proper procedure was to hold the gun at a 45-degree angle up or down to avoid just such a shooting.

“People can’t accept the idea that a 84-year-old grandmother gets shot in her bed and it’s not even worth a negligence charge,” Mr. Mellontree said. “But what’s really particular about this is that so many of our black brethren have found the courage to confront the establishment when for so many years they would not break the taboos. Tyler’s facade has been shattered.”

A conservative and generally prosperous city, Tyler, the county seat of Smith County, is the administrative center for the oil and timber industries in East Texas, and it is home to huge rose nurseries. On the south side of town, handsome Victorian houses on deep lots bespeak another era as do the aged clapboard cottages jammed together on the north side.

“When I came here it was like going back in history,” said the Rev. David A. Galloway, an Episcopal minister who last year helped found Tyler Together, a racial unity and community development group. “Tyler still had the Southern ethos of gentility.

“I come from Atlanta where the races go toe to toe all the time. But here people do not know how to handle anger. My worry is that lines are going to get drawn in the sand which will be hard to erase.”

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