CONROE — As the sun sets on a spring evening in late March, light shimmers through the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church’s purple-hued stained glass — reflecting the diversity inside.

A balding Black man with a graying beard and purple-checkered shirt silences his phone. A middle-aged white couple with roots in Ohio and New York chat with an older Black woman who sports a flower-printed hair wrap. Another white man with a Santa Claus-esque beard jokes around with a Black woman holding a clipboard full of discussion questions. 

In total, about 15 people are gathered at the congregation nestled in Duggan, a historically Black neighborhood in Conroe. But the folks assembled are not there to worship. 

The group of Montgomery County residents has convened to watch and discuss an episode of “The 1619 Project,” a six-part Hulu documentary series about slavery and racism in America.

Across six Tuesday evenings this past spring, the small but determined group of Montgomery County residents used the series to launch conversations about discrimination and personal accounts of prejudice — a rare undertaking in the deeply conservative region.

In doing so, they challenged themselves to reckon with the racist history of their community and educate their neighbors about its lingering effects. 

“The whole idea is to start a dialogue,” said John Tindall, who helped create the group. “The county is segregated and seldom do the two spheres of influence cross.”

But despite their noble intentions, they continue to struggle with connecting to the broader community and organizing around a shared vision. 

It’s an uphill battle given the political tenor of Montgomery County, a bastion of the Republican Party that hasn’t embraced the social justice movement that has captivated other swaths of the country. 

While the region has diversified amid its explosive boom — its population has grown from 50,000 in 1970 to 620,000 in 2020 — it remains majority white with few elected officials of color in positions of power.

  • Carl White, president of the NAACP Montgomery County branch
  • Ariesha Bonner, communications chair for the NAACP's Montgomery County branch
  • Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church in Conroe
  • People gather at a church to watch a series about justice and race on a screen.
  • People gather at a church to talk about justice.

Equity through conversation

It was Tindall’s idea to watch “The 1619 Project.”

A Magnolia resident for the past 13 years, Tindall keeps his white and gray speckled beard past his chin, which, when paired with his rose-colored eyeglasses and Pink Floyd T-shirt, makes him look like a hippie Santa Claus.

Tindall has watched Montgomery County hasten its transition from a majority rural to increasingly suburban county during his decade-plus residency.

“I have a soft spot for the underdog,” he said. “I’m white, and seeing the racial disparities we still have in Montgomery County — a lot of white folks don’t realize what some of the lingering effects of slavery and race suppression are.”

So the 59-year-old Tindall reached out in the spring to his friend Carl White, a Conroe native and the president of Montgomery County’s NAACP chapter, to pitch him on watching “The 1619 Project.” 

White, who met Tindall during a volunteer U.S. Census count for unhoused people in Montgomery County a few years ago, thought it was a great idea. He and his wife, Gloria, are Black and Conroe natives.

Their activism dates back to 1988, when their son, Roderick, was accused of starting a fight after a Conroe High School football game and expelled. The Whites said that Roderick, one of a handful of Black students in Conroe High’s freshman class that year, had gone straight home with them after the game.

Within a few years, the couple had established a community parent action committee, Carl White ran for Conroe City Council for the first time, and they re-established the local NAACP chapter. Carl White has run for council several times since 1990, losing each race.

“Black advancement is a problem for some folks,” White said during one Tuesday night discussion in March after watching the fourth episode of “The 1619 Project” about capitalism. “Politicians don’t want white and Black folks talking together — that’s a threat to them.”

The duo agreed on hosting discussions about the documentary series based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalistic endeavor, which has been generally championed by progressives and dogged by conservatives. Their callout mostly attracted NAACP chapter members, a smattering of more progressive county residents and a few newcomers.

Searching for interest

After watching the last episode of the documentary series, titled “Justice,” which focuses on generational wealth and reparations, the group was divided over what to do next.

After six weeks of watching “The 1619 Project” pioneer Nikole Hannah-Jones explore the construct of race, whether the U.S. is a police state and how Black music — from Motown to funk to R&B and hip-hop — has shaped American culture, the attendees grew in knowledge.

But they still remained small in numbers and grew frustrated with the best way to attract new members. 

“How do we get people to care?” Ariesha Bonner said, pausing. “Outside of us?”

The Montgomery County NAACP community coordination chair, who led discussions after each episode, was torn. She wanted to continue having similar conversations, but struggled with how to connect to people outside of the group.

Ariesha Bonner, the Montgomery County NAACP’s communications chair, facilitates an open discussion about race after watching an episode of “The 1619 Project” on March 14 at Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church in Conroe. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

“Is it worth trying to ask the commissoner’s court if they would make a proclamation acknowledging Juneteenth?” Tindall asked the group. “I mean, we’re so close to Galveston.”

“What about acknowledging the anniversary of Joe Winters’ lynching?” he added.

Bonner sighed.

Tindall was referring to the brutal mob lynching of a 20-year-old Joe Winters, a young, Black man burned at the stake in downtown Conroe after being accused of assaulting a teenage white girl in 1922. Winters’ lynching was depicted in two photographs, one of which was captioned “A LARGER CROWD … THAN THE CIRCUS.” The building in the background of the picture still stands today as a beauty salon on Main Street.

Winters’ death was one of 12 Montgomery County lynchings documented from 1887 to 1945, according to a Sam Houston State University database.

Over 100 years later and less than a mile away from the scene, Bonner stood in Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church and addressed Tindall’s suggestions to connect with the all-white commissioner’s court.

“These are big jumps,” Bonner said. “It has to start with a conversation and come from a place of passion. How do we get them to have an emotional connection to a Black person?”

They ultimately landed on continuing the conversation. 

Every Wednesday since April 19, a combination of seven people — Tindall, the Whites, Bonner and her husband, and the local Democratic Party’s treasurer and her husband — have met for “Conversations in Black and White.”. 

Their discussions have touched on the likelihood of getting progressive legislation on the ballot in Montgomery County, where former President Donald Trump received 71 percent of the vote in the 2020 election. Carl White agreed that while the national social justice movement ignited by George Floyd’s death in 2020 was a catalyst for many advocates, enthusiasm has died down.

“All the momentum that took place is gone,” he said. “All issues lie in the laws, you see. People don’t mind coming out to support our parade or protest, but you have to change policies.”

Navigating difficult territory

But before laws are passed, Jeff Littlejohn, a white man and Dallas native, believes there has to be an acknowledgement of the past.

Littlejohn, a history professor at Sam Houston State University who spearheaded the “Lynching in Texas” database, said the first step in addressing racism is recognizing the role it has played throughout history.

That’s difficult territory to navigate in Montgomery County.

The county historical commission’s chair, Larry Foerster, a white man who has lived in Conroe for 45 years, has worked closely with county residents like Carl White. He believes you can’t ignore the history that shapes so much of Texas, including racism, lynchings and segregation.

“But if you focus on the legacy of people under severe circumstances to the exclusion of everything else, you become embittered,” Foerster said. “So we can’t ignore it. But I don’t like to dwell because it discourages young people of all colors.”

Foerster says progress comes in the form of county residents like John Meredith, a 73-year-old white man who has led the renovation of the Conroe Community Cemetery, a Black cemetery in Conroe’s other historic Black neighborhood, Madeley Quarters.

The land is the final resting place of Conroe’s early Black residents, many of whom were the first generation freed following the Civil War. It was designated a “Historic Texas Cemetery” by the Texas Historical Commission in 2021.

Standing near the grave site of Montgomery County’s only known Buffalo soldier, Luther J. Dorsey, Littlejohn struggles to describe the challenge of affecting change.

“So much of being a white guy from the South is feeling a certain responsibility to advocate and educate other white leaders,” he said.

That sense of responsibility pushes people like Tindall to continue “Conversations in Black and White” — blasting out weekly emails and Facebook posts, encouraging conservative and liberal friends, family and strangers alike to come to a meeting.

For Tindall, projects like the Conroe Community Cemetery clean-up, while laudable, are merely surface level. They don’t address the root causes of racism in the county.

For 30 years, the cemetery was neglected. It was overgrown by brush and twisted limber until a historian recording grave sites in the neighboring Oakwood Cemetery — previously restricted to white families — noticed a headstone peeking out behind the grass.

Tindall won’t wait another three decades to finally catch someone’s attention.

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Céilí Doyle covers the region’s suburbs and rural communities for the Houston Landing. She comes to Texas by way of the Midwest, most recently working for The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio through the...