Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) is a place where many African American students come to become adults by embracing the Black college experience. As a graduate of PVAMU, the harsh realities of the countryside never became more evident to me than when I heard the news of my fellow PVAMU alumna Sandra Bland.
28 year-old Illinois native Sandra Bland was hired for job at PVAMU on July 10. She was leaving campus grounds when she was pulled over by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper for an improper lane change. Bland was arrested outside of the Hope AME Church located nearby, for allegedly assaulting a public servant. According to the trooper the encounter escalated after she allegedly refused to put out her cigarette, the New York Times reported.
Bland was found dead in her jail cell three days later, allegedly having committed suicide by asphyxiation. The case is now being investigated as a potential murder however, and could be turned over to a grand jury.
Close family and friends called the idea of Bland committing suicide “incomprehensible”. As a fellow student at Prairie View, I had known her via association with mutual friends and Bland always had a smile on her face.
“I remember the first day I met her on the yard in the phases, we became good friends,” said Timothy Chatman on Facebook.
“ I knew her [and] harming herself she would never do.”
She was an active member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority and very outspoken against racism. She created weekly videos called Sandy Speaks discussing today’s social issues.
“When you think through the circumstances that have been shared with us to this point, it is unimaginable and difficult for us to wrap our mind around,” Bland’s older sister, Sharon Cooper told the Chicago Tribune.
Located about 45 minutes outside of Houston, the college city of Prairie View is a slowly evolving country town. Hempstead, its neighboring city, has pretty much the same dynamics of most small towns… small grocery stores, a few gas stations planted outside the campus, open fields with the closest major hospital being 20 minutes away. I cannot say that racism was never an issue for students in the area when it came to interactions with residents and police. Everyone knew to be aware of Waller County police officers when it came to traffic stops and interactions.
“This really hit close to home now and it brings back all the memories of my run ins with the police in Prairie View,” said DeVon Marie on Facebook, who recalled his own incident with police in the area. He immediately had to call his mother after his friend was arrested, he said, since he knew how law enforcement was.
There has always been a precarious relationship between Waller County and students from PVAMU. For years we had to fight for the ability to vote in the county. I vividly remember walking 7 miles in protest to the Waller County Courthouse for that very reason.
Bland isn’t the first alleged Waller County suicide jail cell death. In 2012, James Harper Howell IV was also found dead in a Waller County jail cell. Like Bland, he was arrested for assaulting a police officer. In reports of Howell’s death, jailers said they routinely checked on him and that there was no indication he would “engage in suicidal behavior”.
Meanwhile, Alana Taylor, one of Bland’s sisters, told Black Greek Life news, “Suicide would be the last thing on her mind as she was on the brink of starting a new chapter of life: a new job, a strong cause to fight for and a thick network of support.”