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'Gentle Giant' Escapes Klan Fear in Vain : Violence: Bill Simpson was the only black person in one of the meanest towns in the South. He left it to be gunned down by a suspected black gang.

September 03, 1993|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — Bill Simpson was killed the day he left klan country.

He couldn't take it any more in Vidor, Tex. There had been too many threats, too many nights of wondering if the whites of Vidor would decide to use the darkness as a time to take him out.

So Simpson left Vidor on Wednesday, the last African-American to live in what is known as one of the meanest towns in the South, where the common wisdom for a black man is to be gone by sundown.

He went to nearby Beaumont. And there, as he was standing on the street late Wednesday night, he was gunned down in an apparent act of random violence. Authorities blame suspected black gang members. All that fear in Vidor, only to have his life end when he thought those long nights of danger were over.

Bill Simpson was a homeless manual laborer who became a minor celebrity in these parts because of his willingness to move to Vidor, a town that, as far as anyone can remember, had not had a black resident for 70 or more years. It was known as "Bloody Vidor" and had a reputation for being a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan.

No black in his right mind would have moved to Vidor, was the common wisdom. Few even stopped there for gas.

But then came a court order last September in which U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice ordered the desegregation of public housing projects in 36 Texas counties. One of those places was the 70-unit Vidor Villas on the outskirts of town.

When word got out that Vidor was about to be desegregated, the klan went to work, holding rallies and urging that the town of 11,000 be kept all white. Town leaders went to work as well, holding a prayer service in an effort to maintain calm. The story of Vidor spread throughout the country.

Into this came Bill Simpson, a giant 7-foot man with a noticeable limp from a construction accident. Simpson was not the first black to move to Vidor in the wake of the desegregation order. That title was held by John DecQuir Sr., 59, who moved into Vidor Villas last February. Simpson had come a month later by a somewhat circuitous route. Oddly, it was a church in Vidor that led him to the town last March.

Central Baptist Church of Vidor has a small congregation, but each week a contingent of its members travel to Beaumont to minister to the street people of that small city. They fed Bill Simpson, whose injuries had kept him from finding work to keep a roof over his head. But he was not like some of the others on the street who preferred that kind of existence. He wanted help.

The church members brought Simpson back to Vidor. He stayed in the homes of various congregation members for the next several weeks before the Orange County (Tex.) Housing Authority approved his request to live in Vidor Villas. And, with some fanfare, he became the second black person to break the color barrier in Vidor.

"He was just a gentle giant," said Central Pastor Kenneth Henry. "I never, ever saw him express any anger."

At first, things seemed to be going well. Simpson attended church and would regularly make his way to the soup kitchen there. But then, as time passed, the situation at Vidor Villas grew worse.

The epithets became more graphic. Someone called in a bomb threat. Police had to be stationed in the housing project 24 hours a day. Two black women who moved into the project with their five children in July left a month later after all of their numerous job applications were turned down.

DecQuir moved out, leaving only Simpson, who by then had stopped going outside for fear of becoming a target. Finally, he decided it was time to move on.

"I've had people who drive by and tell me they're going home to get a rope and come back and hang me, physical gestures, derogatory words," Simpson told an Associated Press reporter Tuesday as he was preparing to leave.

On Wednesday he was gone, back to Beaumont and to his death. At about 10:45 p.m., Simpson was standing on the street talking to a woman named Lydia Faye Washington.

Four black men drove up in a dark colored car, apparently bent on robbery. One of the robbers first shot the woman in the leg, then turned and fired at the 300-pound Simpson. Police said he was shot at least five times.

Washington, the woman talking to Simpson, identified the killer as someone she knew. A 19-year-old man was arrested Thursday for the slaying, police spokesman Butch Pachall said. "This appears to be a random, senseless robbery," said Beaumont spokeswoman Zena Stephens.

"It's just a loss. There's no other way to put it," said businesswoman LinMarie Garsee, who had befriended Simpson and rented him a house in Beaumont. "Everybody is shocked. I mean, total shock."

Garsee said he had spoken with great relief after leaving Vidor and returning to Beaumont, six miles away. Simpson, a Los Angeles native, had lived there before.

Unopened boxes of Simpson's belongings were strewn about the house Thursday. His hat was where he had left it--on the bed he never slept in.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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