A conversation from The Diane Rehm Show archives with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In 2007, he talked to Diane about his belief in the power of music to cross borders and bridge backgrounds.
In this rebroadcast, we hear one of Diane’s all-time favorite interviews. And judging from the response we got, it was one of yours as well. In 1986, Diane spoke with Albert “Race Hoss” Sample. He grew up under very difficult circumstances and wound up in a Texas prison, where he spent 17 years until he won his release. He spoke of the cruelty and brutality he experienced there, which he relived in an autobiography, “Race Hoss: Big Emma’s Boy.” He died in 2005. Diane said talking with Mr. Sample, hearing his story, moved her greatly. She hopes it will move you, too.
- Albert "Race Hoss" Sample Author of "Race Hoss: Big Emma's Boy," lived in Texas until his death in 2005
MS. DIANE REHMGood morning and welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show" on 88.5 FM. If ever a man was groomed for prison, it was Albert Ray Sample. His mother, Big Emma watched her father slay her mother in a fit of rage. She was taken in and raised by impoverished hard-hearted relatives. To survive, she became a prostitute and proprietress of a popular gambling establishment in the East Texas oil fields.
MS. DIANE REHMWhen Albert came along, all of Emma's rage and frustration were taken out on him. At the age of 4, he hustled tricks for Big Emma, bootlegged whiskey and watched for crooked dice. He quit school in the 5th grade. When he was 12, he left home for good and eventually, ended up in prison, Retrieve, a place for incorrigibles, a place where brutality and inhumanity turns the inmates into hungry wolves.
MS. DIANE REHMIn his book, "Racehoss, Big Emma's Boy," Albert Ray Sample tells how, after 17 years of incarceration, he was released and became the first ex-convict to work in the Texas governor's office. In 1976, he received a full pardon and restoration of his civil rights. It's good to meet you, sir.
MR. ALBERT "RACE HOSS" SAMPLEYou, too, Diane. Thank you for having me.
REHMBig Emma related a lot of her world to you very early on, didn't she?
SAMPLEShe sure did. I had a role to play in the house. I was the lookout man. I was her confidante. I was everything to Emma that I could be and she started using me as a integral part of our operations when I was 4 years old. That's what I remember.
REHMYou cared a lot about her.
SAMPLEI loved her. She...
REHMShe cared a lot about you in her own way.
SAMPLEAbsolutely. And I say that -- I don't say that -- take that lightly because after -- Emma did come back to me. You know, she was gone a while, but she came back. She could've kept right on going. She came back.
REHMI feel as though, having read your book, I have learned so much about people and difficulties and hardships and things that human beings can and, in fact, do survive, but it really takes an extraordinary amount of strength to get through them. And what she survived, that is watching her father kill her mother, you don't erase those things.
SAMPLENo, not in a short while, maybe not in -- ever. I know that that took its toll on Emma's heart. It just shut her down. And after Grandma Duck got through with her, there wasn't hardly much left of a heart, there was no -- Emma couldn't love -- love-love. She could give it enough to gain from it, but she was afraid to. She had been hurt so badly, I don't think she could've -- she couldn't have loved anything with all of her heart, even if she wanted to.
REHMWhy do you think it was so difficult for Grandma Duck to deal with Emma?
SAMPLEWell, Emma looked just like her father and she reminded Grandma Duck of the man that killed her daughter. And she really abused her incessantly, all the time. I mean, she singled her out to abuse her more severely than, say, the rest of the three sisters of them that had to move in with Grandma Duck after their mother was killed. And then, after Grandma Duck got so old and couldn't do it, she just simply unleashed the rest of the family on the four Barnes girls that had to live there with them.
SAMPLEAnd then, Emma stayed there until she was 15 years old and then she ran off to the oil fields in East Texas and became a prostitute.
REHMYou father was a white cotton...
SAMPLECotton broker, yes. He was a white cotton broker. He was a business man in that city and Emma was married to a black man when I was born. And his name was Allen Sample and everybody called him Blue because of his complexion. He wasn't black. He was blue surge. That's even blacker than black. And when I was born, one look is all it took and he knew that I wasn't his child.
REHMHe just walked right out the door.
SAMPLEAnd he split right then. And if there was one man or one person that I felt like Emma cared some for, it was him. And when he left, well, naturally, Emma blamed me. If you hadn't have showed up, if you hadn't have come along -- and every time I get a man, you run him off. He takes one look at you and out the door he goes. And she would really knock me around because of that, when she'd start reminiscing, after I was 3 or 4 years old, when she'd start thinking about her past and things, well, I was the closest thing to her.
SAMPLEI was in hand reach and she would take out all those frustrations on me.
REHMSo there was absolutely no pride whatsoever in the fair color of your skin.
SAMPLENo, ma'am. Not for me, it wasn't. I had to fight to get to school. I had to fight to get away from school. Most of the kids could always poke fun and say the ugly things to me. Your mama likes white men and stuff like that. And I wished that I was black. I used to wish that my skin would just change into where I'd be black as the ace of spades and maybe they would like me then. So after going to school under those conditions, like that, having to fight to get there and my shoes had done got too little and my stomach used to sound so bad sitting in there growling.
SAMPLEI'd be hungry after Emma left, got ran out of town by the Klan when I was 6 years old and I didn't see her anymore until I was 10. So I was abandoned there in that city of Longview with nowhere in the world to go and I started living in the room with an old drunk. He name was Wino. Everybody called him Wino and he'd let me sleep on some of his old raggedy quilts over in the corner of his room. And I tried to keep going to school for a while after Emma was gone, but my overalls done got too little and I didn't have school money and things like that.
SAMPLEAnd I don't say it out of self pity and things like that. I'm just telling you the way it was and I said, well, the hell with this, you know. I ain't gonna sit up in here and I'm starving to death and my feet are cold. So I just said I wasn't gonna go no more and I didn't. I just spent the rest of my time dodging from the truant officer and ducking the police the best I could.
REHMYou know, as I was reading the early part of the book and considering how Big Emma felt about you and the color of your skin, it sort of surprised me that she hung around even as long as she did or that she held onto you as long as she did.
SAMPLEI was all she had. She didn't have no -- we were stuck together, you know. Emma had sisters in Dallas. That's only 124 miles from Longview. And she never saw any of them. They were very -- they were not close at all. And I was there all the time around the clock. She could see me when she could see nobody else and I always reminded her of the bad stuff. And when she got angry, that was the first thing she'd say to me is that you peckerwood, you know, and call me all of that kind of stuff and wouldn't never allow me to call her mama.
SAMPLEShe definitely -- she whipped me a lot of times about calling her mama. She wanted me to call her Emma only, that’s -- she wouldn't let me do it any other way.
REHMShe also didn't like it when you were looking kind of over her shoulder or looking at her eyes or around when she was rolling the dice or playing cards or pulling up a bad hand, then she took out after...
SAMPLEYeah, she said I brought the jinx on her, yeah, I made her jinky. I was bad luck, that's what she said.
REHMAnd yet, she wanted you there.
SAMPLEYeah. Well, somebody had to watch for the police. Somebody had to sell that whiskey. And I would've a whole lot rather been right there close with her than to have been outside playing. She was a beauty to be around when she was okay. And when she was not okay, she was just like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And when she was the latter, she really -- she was a very brutal person to me.
REHMRace, why did the Klan come after her in particular?
SAMPLEWell, Emma and her youngest sister, the one that was born on the roadside when her father killed her mother, Elzado, was living over on the west side of town with a white man, just blatantly living with him and this was back in the '30s and that was a definite no-no. And Emma was also slipping around with the hardware store man in town. He was a very prominent citizen, community leader and things like that. And his wife found out that he was sneaking around with Emma and she went to the sheriff and told him that this nigger whore was about to take -- destroying my family.
SAMPLEAnd so the Klan came and picked -- well, the sheriff's deputies came and picked Emma and Elzado up and took them jail. And then, the Klan came down and took them out of jail and they literally let them run for their lives. If they hadn't have caught a freight train when they was running, they probably would've killed them. So she really didn't have time to stop and get me, but they passed by me, Diane. I was on the courthouse lawn when that happened, hid under a bench.
SAMPLEAnd when her and Elzado came running by me, I could've -- they was close enough, I could've reached out and touched them. And but they didn't have no time to tarry. They was running for their lives. And it was four years later when I saw her again.
REHMSo you pretty much had to fend for yourself for that time.
SAMPLEI did. That's -- I didn't have no choice. I didn't know where to go looking for her and I didn't know what to do but one thing and that was wait. I know to stay right here. Somehow or another, someday I believed she'd be back. And I learned how to hustle early. Followed the milk trucks around when they put milk on the front porches of people's houses, I'd steal a bottle or two of it. Dancing on the street corners for nickel and dimes and things like that, sleeping under bridges, under pool tables, just wherever I could find shelter.
REHMYou're listening to my 1986 interview with Albert "Racehoss" Sample on "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll be right back.
REHMThis is a rebroadcast of my 1986 interview with Albert "Race Hoss" Sample. And just to let you know, this segment contains some offensive language, so listener discretion is advised.
REHMWhat about the community out there, Race? I mean they...
SAMPLEWell, I was -- I guess, Diane, what made that period in my life so dark for me is that it was happening on both sides. I -- black folks seemed to reject me as much as -- well, I didn't have no business being with the white folks and I couldn't go with the blacks. And so I was alone. I didn't have no friends. There was nobody to go to. And it was just fortunate that this old drunk, wino, let me sleep in his place. That really was like home. It was the only home I had for four years. And it was tough on both sides. I didn't know which way to turn. You know, who do I go to? And what do I tell them?
SAMPLEEverybody in town knew it anyway. Everybody that saw me, they'd look at me and then I could hear them saying ugly things as they passed on by. You know, they run that boy's mama out of town, by messing with them white folks and sleeping with them white men? You know, he ain't nothing but a peckerwood hisself. So I heard that all of my life. And it just made me withdraw into my own self. And I talked to Alonzo. He was my confidante. He'd tell me about the railroad trips he used to take. He was an old retired brakeman. And the towns and the places he had been. And he could paint such pretty pictures, it was almost like I was there myself.
SAMPLEBut I remember so many nights that I'd be laying on those old raggedy quilts and he'd be passed out drunk. And I still wouldn't take no chance of letting him hear me cry myself to sleep every night, hoping, you know, that she'd hurry up and come on back. Because it was tough. And I'd hold my mouth and stuff so he wouldn't hear me. But I sure did. I cried every night.
REHMAnd then she finally came back.
SAMPLEAnd she came back. That's where she found me. And my hair was long as Tarzan's. And I don't know when I'd had a bath. And I remember when I woke up and I saw her standing there. God, she was so pretty to me, I thought that it was an angel or something, that I was still asleep and dreaming. And, God, she had all, a pretty dress and stuff, and all them diamonds and things on her fingers. And you know what, just looking at her, I forgot all about my condition. I was just so glad to see her. And she took me out of there. But nothing had changed. She continued to abuse me, just like she did before she left. So when I was 12, I ran off too. And I went to New York and...
REHMYou got on the trains yourself.
SAMPLEYes, ma'am. I caught a freight train out of Longview and went all up the East Coast. I've been all -- Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, shining shoes in Grand Central Station and sleeping in parks and on benches and in Father Divine's Temple. It's wherever I could find shelter. And the next time I saw Emma, I was in the military. And that was a very -- that was a real tragic day that I hit her when I came home on furlough and she started abusing me and calling me half-white S.O.B. and things like that. And I struck her. And then I went back to my base and finished my stint in the military. And less than six months after I was out of the Army -- I got an honorable discharge out of the Army -- and less than six months, I was in prison.
SAMPLEAnd it was many, many, many, many years before I ever saw her again.
REHMYou started getting in trouble with the law awfully early.
SAMPLEEarly, yes, ma'am. I was about 15 years old when I really got started.
REHMAnd, finally, a judge said to you, you go into the military or you're going to go to jail.
SAMPLEThat's right. Well, I chose the Army that time. And after I got out -- you know, it might have been better if he'd a sent me on to jail then. Maybe I'd a got it over with. But I went to jail -- I went to the Army and then got out and it seemed like I never could get out of jail no more. My whole life was spent in jail after that. After I got out of the Army, I went right in the penitentiary.
REHMFor doing what?
SAMPLEArmed robbery, by assault. My first offense was burglary and I got a two-year sentence for that. And I got paroled out after I'd served a year. And I didn't last but 38 days and I was right back in the penitentiary. I had violated my parole and I had to serve the rest of that two years. And then I was out about a year and 18 months -- year and eight months. And I was back in there with 20 years and had served -- excuse me -- approximately 14 months on that 20-year sentence and they come and took me out and -- on a bench warrant, and took me to some more counties. And I ended up with 30 years from all of the other cases that I had pending against me.
SAMPLEAnd so the 14 years that I had served in the beginning, I lost that. So when I came back to prison, I started all over again in 1955 with a brand new 30-year sentence.
REHMRace, you're a thinking man now. There were -- there was a thinking man somewhere then. What were you thinking? That it was easier to continue with the life you had begun for yourself because you didn't know anything else? That it was easier to be in jail, to be in prison?
SAMPLEWell, that was a way of life, Diane. Crime was all I knew. I -- well, I quit school early. No skills. Just a hustler. And I guess every hustler in the world is dumb enough to think he ain't going to ever be caught. And it seems like every time I ever did anything, I got caught. And it was all I knew to do. And I had gotten to the point where I wasn't afraid of jail. I'd been punished as much as just about anybody. And the physical part of it just didn't seem to bother me that much. I wasn't afraid to go to jail, which made me take a lot more dumb risks than I normally should have, because I wasn't afraid to go to jail. I'd been in some kind of jail all my life, some form of prison. With Emma was just another type of prison in a way.
SAMPLEAnd then going to jail when I was four years old and then when I -- by the time I was 15, I had a jail record that was two feet long. And most of them were for assaults.
REHMYou were in that jail when you were four years old because your mother was taken in for being a bootlegger.
REHMAnd she took you with her.
SAMPLETook me with her. The Sheriff took me with her. They took me along because Emma used me as a part of the con game. She told them, she says, look at him. Says, what -- which one of these niggers around here do you think would keep him and not be mean to him? If he was one of your kids, would you want to leave him with them? So they said, well, just put him in the car. We'll take him on with us. So they put us in cells across the hall from each other, where we could see each other.
REHMAnd you had to stand up on a...
SAMPLEI stood on a apple crate, where I could see her over in her cell. And, God, she started screaming and hollering.
REHMShe made the biggest fuss.
SAMPLEShe was the biggest fuss. And we raised enough Cain until they come back up there and let us out.
REHMAnd put her out. They didn't want to have anything to do with that.
SAMPLEThat's right. She just went berserk up there. And she -- I remember when we got out on the front of the courthouse and we was walking down the step, she said, you see that? I told you that wasn't nothing. I told you they wasn't going to keep us in there. You thought I was scared, didn't you? No, Emma.
SAMPLENo, I wasn't. I knew she was scared to death. But she was just using me to help out. She told me, she said, don't let me do all the hollering. Help me holler, you know? And we both were screaming and stomping on the floors and stuff. And they came and let us out. It worked.
REHMAlbert Race Sample is with me. And the book we're talking about, just published in paperback, is called "Racehoss: Big Emma's Boy." It's quite a story. He spent many a year in prison after that stint as a four-year-old, a good part of his life. And then, after he was let out -- really, quite another story. Race, when you think about it, it seems as though prison then became the only home you knew. I mean, it was very familiar to you.
SAMPLEI was a good convict.
SAMPLEYes, ma'am. I sure was.
REHMRight from the start.
SAMPLEWell, convicts and inmates are two different things. The inmate is snitches, your weaker convicts, weaker prisoners, they're the people with jobs and these kind of things. The guys in number one hold squad was convicts and they're different. Punished all the time, attitudes are so bad it ain't even funny, willing to kill at the drop of a hat. And that's the crew that I worked in. That was where they put me in the incorrigible number one hold squad.
REHMWhy'd they put you there?
SAMPLEBecause I had a long, hard record from the streets. But then I remember what Captain Smooth said. He told me, he said, you stand your yellow ass over against that wall. He says, I tell you what. He says, I'm going to put you in that number one hold squad, where you can start doing some of that 30 years you brung down here. And I'm telling you, that was like sentencing me to a hell within a hell. And I was the smallest man in that squad. And he put me in that specifically with the hopes that I wouldn't make it, that I couldn't keep up, that I couldn't do that work like them other guys that had been in that for years. But I fooled him. I sure did.
REHMYou sure did fool him. In a sense, that brutal education became your internal liberty in a way.
SAMPLEAbsolutely. That's the truth. I worked from not being able to hardly keep up even out on a turn rows or keep up picking or chopping or stripping or none of the work, the agricultural-type work that we did -- moved from that to becoming the pacesetter in that squad, the lead role, as we called it. The number one hand in that squad under a boss named Boss Band, who had killed 16 men in his guard career. And I was always scheduled to be number 17. I remember one time, Diane, we were working. It was so hot. Boy, I'm telling you, I thought just any minute I was going to drop right on my nose. And he called me back. And I had seen him kill two guys in the squad already.
REHMYou had seen him do it?
SAMPLEYes. Baby Raper and Rape Head. He didn't like their names, their nicknames. They were named that before he took over the squad. So he killed them, just because of that. And he called me back and he said, oh, Racehoss, he says, you ever wondered how come I ain't done killt you? I said, oh, lord. No, sir, boss. He said, well, I'm going to tell you why. He says, I don't let nobody pick the niggers I kill. I likes to do that myself. I said, yes, sir. Oh, lord, boss. Go on the way. And he spared me. He spared me because the convicts in my squad were tried to job me to him, you know, try to outwork me and stuff like that, to make him kill me, you know? And it didn't work because I wouldn't let them keep up with me no more.
SAMPLEAnd he gave me that name, my name, Racehoss. I was named by...
REHMBecause you were so fast in that...
SAMPLEYes, ma'am. I was able to do or die. I mean there was no alternatives under Boss Band. And your fastest gait was too slow. He didn't know but two words and that was go ahead, all the time. Hey, you wasn't working near fast enough. So I got so physically -- in such good physical condition. And then once I learned the techniques, I was just like an automatic person out there, like a robot. Mind empty. All I had on my mind was getting to the end of that row, because I had to go catch another one. And me and another convict that was in that squad named Old Railhead Shorty, we was racing one day, chopping cotton. And I beat him to the end. And Boss Band called us back and told us to stop, because I had won.
SAMPLEAnd then he rode his horse over there and he just parked it and sat there looking at me. And he started agitating me. He says, where'd you learn how to chop cotton like that? I said, right here in this penitentiary, boss. Where you from? I just knew he was going to start some more of that, what do your dad -- what color is your daddy and your momma and all that stuff like Boss Deadeye used to do. But I told him I was from Longview, Texas. He said, well, they ain't got no cotton to amount to nothing up there. I said, no, sir. He said, I was watching your row, when you all was going down through there. He said, you was racehorsing down through there pretty good. He said, I ain't never seen a nigger clean a row like that before.
SAMPLEHe said, and I think that's what I'm going to call you from now on, Old Racehoss. He says, and when I call you that, nigger, you better answer me, you hear me? And I said, oh, lord, yes, sir. And from then on, everybody called me Old Racehoss. And I became the cotton-picking champion. What a title. I was the best cotton picker in the whole Texas prison system. We had a contest between the Clemens' unit, the Ramsey units, which were two other all-black camps that were across on the other side of the Brazos River.
SAMPLEAnd they got their best cotton pickers from those units and we met up on Ramsey and we had a shoot out. Of course all the wardens and things were betting cigarettes and cigars on us. And the winner was going to get a carton of cigarettes. And the losers would get packs, so far and so on down. And I picked 865 pounds of cotton that day. And the closest man to me had 740 or something like that. And I left them swinging. But I also remember the time that I weight -- the first weight I had was 35 pounds and how the -- that boss wanted to blow my brains out because I hadn't picked but 35 pounds. And I guess if Captain Smooth hadn't a stopped him, he was going to kill me. That was a real insult.
SAMPLEBecause Captain Smooth and every prison guard on the retrieve had a philosophy about that. There ain't no such thing as a nigger that can't pick cotton.
REHMRace, one man in that same cotton-picking brigade cut his own hand off or had it cut off...
SAMPLEYes, ma'am. Sure did.
REHM...to get out of it.
SAMPLEOld Gil Flood (sp?) , sure did. We were cutting timber. We were clearing the bottomlands down near the Brazos River, in the swampy part of the farm. And the tension, the pressure on this guy was -- I mean, Boss Band was riding him all day long, threatening to kill him every breath. And he knew that he -- he told him, he says, if you come out here in the morning, he says, I'm going to kill you. And he -- and everybody knew that he meant that. And he walked -- this guy walked over to the tree where we were cutting around it. It was four of us cutting -- four people cut around one tree with axes. And he walked over there and asked somebody would they cut his hand off? And I thought he was just kidding.
SAMPLEBut he took his hand and laid it up on that tree and Old Badeye, another guy in our squad, he hit him right across the knuckles with that double-bit axe, just like this -- almost nailed his fingers up in there. He hit it one lick and cut it off. And I remember Old Glow Dean dropping to his knees. He never said a word. He just (makes noise) and just was there. And they took him on to the building and I never did see him no more. I guess they shipped him off to another camp. But he was saying, when he was over there, he said, man, I got to get away from this, man. I can't take it no more.
SAMPLEAnd I seen him break a lot of men. A lot of men, I seen them just go stark raving mad because he harassed them and punished them so much. I mean, they just couldn't take no more.
REHMYou're listening to my 1986 interview with Albert "Race Hoss" Sample on "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll be right back.
REHMThis is a rebroadcast of my 1986 interview with Albert "Race Hoss" Sample, and just to let you know, this segment contains some offensive language, so listener discretion is advised.
REHMWhat about the men who, reaching out in one way or another, became lovers? Was there kindness between them?
REHMThe men who became lovers with one another?
SAMPLEOh yes, they -- the bonds of that -- those kinds of relationships in the penitentiary is almost phenomenal. I've seen men that love other men in the tanks and show more affection toward them than I imagine most people do toward their wives. I mean, that's what they were. They became their wives, and they were very close. Most of the trouble in the penitentiaries, anywhere in the United States, it don't necessarily mean Texas, anywhere, 99 percent of the trouble starts between the homosexual activities and the food. These are the two main problems that create stuff in the prisons is the food and those kind of activities, but they really do sacrifice for one another.
SAMPLEYou know, guys get money and cigarettes and things sent to them from their folks who's out here trying to help them out and stuff, and soon -- as fast as they get it, they take and give it to some other guy.
REHMBut I would think there'd also be a fair amount of jealousy that goes along with it.
SAMPLEOh yes, plenty of fights.
REHMYou've got some pretty brutal acts in there.
SAMPLEPlenty of fights, plenty squabbles, and, well, that's most of your killings and things result from those kinds of things because they -- nobody don't want you talking to his mate, that's for sure.
REHMHow did the beheading happen?
SAMPLERed Wine, that was this convict's name, he had been battering and abusing a little convict that they sent down there, his name was -- well, his prison name was Dumpling, and he was just 21 years old when they sent him to The Hell, as we called Retrieve, and had no business whatsoever being classified to the unit that we were on. They -- he would have been a whole lot better off if they'd have sent him to a first-offender farm, and then he should have been with people more of his age.
SAMPLEI qualified for the unit even though I was young, but I had a bad record. This guy was a first offender. He had never done -- that was the first time he'd ever been in prison. And one day in the mess hall, Red Wine was sitting on the end bench at the mess hall table, and customarily the flunkies, after you've gone through the line and got your plate full, well, they bring the whole steam table pans around to give seconds if anybody wants them.
SAMPLEAnd when this old Dumpling got behind Red Wine, he reached under his apron and got a -- pulled out a meat cleaver from under it and hit him one time, just like that, and his head fell out there in the aisle, where it was like a cabbage, plop. And the warden had this picture of this incident hanging over the back of his desk. You could not walk in his office and not see that picture.
SAMPLEAnd nobody in the mess hall quit eating. They had a picture there of guys sitting right across, in front of him, they just kept -- blood skeeting out of his head, where his head used to be, and he hit him so hard that the Lucky Strike cigarette that he had between his fingers was still there. You -- the smoke was still going up. You could even see it on the photograph that they took of it.
SAMPLEAnd old Dumpling was doing two years when they sent him there, and he had already served some time on it, and the warden punished him by making him do all of the two years, whereas he normally would have gotten out in 14 months and 12 days. He had to end up doing the whole 24 months. And that was all there was to it. But he -- he could sure sleep on the tank after that. But that -- God, that was -- that was -- that was really something, and we only had 15 minutes to eat.
SAMPLEAnd it was during those periods of time when inside of me nothing mattered. I didn't care nothing about his head laying down there, you know. I just was hoping somebody would get it out of the way so we wouldn't have to step on it maybe when we come out. That's the kind of attitude that I had before some other things happened in my life.
REHMWhat did happen that somehow caught you up?
SAMPLEWell, I had never been afraid of the dark the whole while I was in the penitentiary. They saw to that. They kept me in the dark a lot. I did almost two and a half years in solitary confinement, all total. So I wasn't afraid of going into solitary. I'd been hung up on the cuffs and strung up on the bars where my toes just touched the floor for days and days, and that warden had it dead set in his mind that he was going to -- he was going to break Old Red if he could.
SAMPLEBut somehow I hadn't got to that point yet, and this time when they put me in solitary, and I really shouldn't have been because I hadn't done nothing but what he told me to do, we had a man, Old Mr. Meebs, (sp?) the guy that I was working for in the education department, I signed some papers just in order to get them off some reports that the warden was -- demanded that they be finished and sent on in, and there was only one left, and it was mine, so I just signed it and put it on in the mail, and he accused me of forging his name and all that kind of stuff and had me put in solitary.
SAMPLEAnd this time when I was in there, and solitary is pitch-black dark, you can't see your hand before your face, you can't hear nothing, and there's a concrete slab made from the wall that you sleep on, you're buck naked, no face basin, no commode, you get a half-a-biscuit a day and a half-a-cup of water, and on the seventh day you get a square meal.
SAMPLEAnd I was sitting on that slab, and I was thinking about how my life was, where you at, look at this, look at you, this all you going to ever amount to is a bug in a matchbox. And I started crying. And I was rocking myself. I was sitting there like that, and I was just -- I was so frustrated, and I was -- I was on the verge of giving up. I knew I was going to throw up both hands if they opened that door, I was going to say you won, you won, you won, you know, leave me alone, you know what I'm saying. That's exactly what I felt like I was going to do.
SAMPLEAnd I lowered my head and, God, the tears was bouncing off of that concrete on my feet, and I was sitting there crying, doing something that I had almost forgot how to do. And I cried out for the first time ever in my whole life. I had never prayed. I had never asked God for nothing. I had never been to church. And I sure had never read a Bible. And I just hid my face with my hands, and I cried out. I said God, please help me.
SAMPLEAnd I could see a little glimmer of light in between my fingers, and I didn't see nobody in there, but I knew there was something inside of there with me. I could feel it. I could feel it all though my body, and it was saying to me, don't you worry about a thing, but you must tell him about me. And I laid back on that slab and put my hands under my head, and I stayed in there 28 days, and them was the finest 28 days I ever spent in my life.
SAMPLEI didn't care if they never unlocked the door, I didn't care if they fed me or not because I felt loved, and I felt like something cared about me and that I was -- I was somebody, that I was a human and that everything was going to be okay. And I knew it, I knew it, and I was so ashamed when they turned me out. I went back on the tank, and I was -- I was on the verge of just blurting it out and telling them what had happened, but then I thought you better not because they'll sure say you're crazing, you done cracked up, Race, and they would have sent me to the funny farm.
SAMPLESo I never said a word until I got out. In 1972, I got out, and in 1974 I had the opportunity to go see the old warden that I was under for all those years, and he the first person in the world that I ever said that to, and I told him, I says, I said, do you remember that time when you put me in solitary, when Mr. Meebs run me in. He says, yeah, I remember it. I said, well, God come to me that time, I said, and I just had to tell you that.
SAMPLEAnd he said, I'm sure glad I had something to do with helping you get your heart right, old Race Hoss. I believe you're going to make it this time. I said, yes, sir, I'm going to make it, but that's where you're wrong, warden, you didn't have (bleep) to do with it, and sipped that glass of lemonade that he give me, and my life ain't never been the same, Diane, it ain't. Everything, it's been so pretty because I can see it. It's so pretty, things that I never thought about, or I never -- feelings that I never felt, I had never felt, love and stuff.
SAMPLESo many years I had forgot that there was anything in me, and I loved Him just like -- like always.
REHMOnce you did get out, Race, you got a job on a newspaper pretty quickly, which was part of the condition for your parole, part of the condition for you staying out of prison.
REHMAnd within a year and a half you were general manager.
SAMPLEGeneral manager, that's right, and I had never been inside of a newspaper before in my life.
REHMAnd with this less-than-fifth-grade education.
REHMHow'd you do it, Race?
SAMPLEI worked my butt off, for one thing, and I've always been easy to learn. And I just looked at where I was working and what I could do to make it better, and I started doing that, and the publisher recognized it. And it as if though I was a person she'd been waiting on to come there to that place and increase the circulation by about 65 percent, and started making her a lot more money. And after the newspaper, I start -- I was writing the editorials in the newspaper then, and I started writing them about crime and punishment and what do you want your prison system to do, what do you expect it and these kinds of things.
SAMPLEAnd the governor, Dolph Briscoe, got in touch with me and told me he would like to talk to me in Austin about a new program he was fixing to start. And I said me, me, the governor wants to talk to Race Hoss? I couldn't believe it. And I went up there, and he told me, he said I've got about 2,000 applicants for this job, he said, but you're the man I want if you'll take the job. He said I really would like for you to have it.
SAMPLEHe said, I've been reading your stuff, and I like your approach to this. He said I like your ideas and things. He said I believe you'd do -- you'd be just the man I want. So I took that job, and that was directing the Controlled Substance Act Program, which resulted in 476 convicts being released from the prison system, and I became the bridge between them and the community, helping them get jobs and get them back with their families, doing just whatever I could to give them a shot.
REHMYou must have been scrambling to do that.
SAMPLEOh you bet, you bet.
SAMPLEI contacted 10,000 employees in -- employers in the state of Texas, all over Texas.
REHMWilling to take a chance?
SAMPLEYes, ma'am, they were. I found -- that was so surprising to me is that most of the times when I -- after I talked to them about a man that I had lined up as a potential employee for them, they were quite willing to give him a shot. And I used to tell my clients when I was meeting them at the walls, when they were releasing them, I said now, you see, you can't say no more than nobody wants to give you a break. I said a man's waiting on you, he's waiting there, he'll be at the bus station to pick you up when you get there to take you home to your job.
SAMPLEAnd most of the made it. I only lost six people out of 476, that's -- six of them were re-involved in the criminal justice system. And then I was appointed to direct the Water and Waste Water Construction Division, and I had about 480 employees working under me, putting in all the sewer lines, water lines, et cetera, in the city of Austin. And that's the job that I resigned to stop and give myself enough time to write that book.
REHMRace, the prisons are getting fuller and fuller.
SAMPLEFuller and fuller.
REHMThe numbers of crimes committed, violent and otherwise, going up, up, up.
SAMPLEUp, up, up.
REHMIf you had a magic wand, what would it be that you would do to improve the system?
SAMPLEI would -- if I had a magic wand that could improve the system, I would wave it one area, treatment. I'd wave it to make sure that you're not treated less than a human being and that I would do nothing -- if I had a system, I would do nothing to destroy the dignity of the people in my charge. You see, if there's one speck of decency in a human being, and you take that away, pray tell me what are you going to build anything else on? I mean, the whole foundation is shot.
SAMPLEIf you totally dehumanize him, what are you going to build your self-help programs on, your AA, drug abuse, don't do this and don't do that. You're just talking to a wall. There's nothing there that can understand that and that can work it from the inside out, and that's where it has to start. I would do away totally with the agricultural system as it exists today and go into more mechanized kinds of ways to do that so that it could spend more time in classrooms and in a learning environment, and I'm talking about all the way from how to be nice and polite like a man should be and courteous and respectful all the way to learning how to read and write.
SAMPLEI'm talking about refurbishing this whole person because I feel that if we don't do that, then we --- all we need to do is buy oil, we can just buy us a squirt can and stand there and make sure that we keep enough on the hinges of the doors as it revolves, as they walk out and turn around and walk right back in.
REHMAlbert "Race" Sample, and they book we've been talking about is called "Race Hoss: Big Emma's Boy." It has just been published in paperback by Ballantine Books. Thank you so much for being here. It was a real pleasure to talk with you.
SAMPLEThank you, ma'am, Diane.
REHMThe interview you've just heard was originally broadcast in 1986. It is one of our Diane Rehm Show all-time farewell favorites. I hope Albert "Race Hoss" Sample's story touched you as much as it did me when I first interviewed him. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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