Albert ‘Racehoss’ Sample’s Memoir Is A Testament To Thriving After Trauma

Recently reissued “Racehoss: Big Emma’s Boy” recounts Sample’s life, as the son of a black woman in the sex trade, through his time in prison and ultimately working for the governor and for prisoners’ rights.

By Joy DiazJune 12, 2019 11:48 am, ,

An older man dressed in black stands tall in the middle of a dimly lit stage in front of a simple wooden bench.

“I was born on a Friday, 3:20, the seventh day of February, in Longview, Texas, sleeping and snoring right behind the old jailhouse – Gregg County, Precinct No. 1, right next to the railroad tracks. Called my house a ‘shotgun house’ because you could stand in the front door and shoot straight through it with a shotgun and not hit a d**n thing.”

This is from a 1999 performance by Albert Race Sample at the University of Southern California. His performance captivated the audience; his stories, both funny and tragic, were part of a one-man show based on his 1984 memoir “Racehoss.”

The book was recently reissued.

Sample is one of many masterful storytellers from Texas, including Barbara Jordan, Dan Rather and Willie Nelson. But he’s likely lesser known than the others.

His story is not a fairytale, but it is remarkable. Sample is the child of a black mother and a white father, and he grew up in 1930s East Texas. He went from poverty to prison to getting a pardon, then to working in the Texas governor’s office.

Sample died in 2005, and his widow Carol says, “The stories just flowed out of him, like water.” She was his first editor.

In the DVD recording of his performance at USC, I can see how the audience responds to his performance. He looks kind of like my own father – a light-skinned black man, the child of a black woman and a white man.

His upbringing by a single mother is central to his story. She did illegal work to support him. Her name was Emma. She was a whiskey bootlegger and a prostitute. One night, the cops came and arrested her and Sample.

“I was 4 years old the first time I ever got busted and put in the friggin’ jail! Oh, I thought it was such fun!” Sample says in his performance, spurring the audience to laughter.

But the fun moments in Sample’s life were few. Emma was troubled and abusive toward her son. When he was little, she would lash him mercilessly with a metal hanger. Still, as the “man of the house,” he was also his mother’s protector.

Even as a grown-up, the memory of a particularly violent night with one of her customers was still painful for him to recollect.

“And I helped her get up. She said, ‘Baby, you ain’t ashamed of your ma, ain’t you?’ ‘No, ma’am, I ain’t ashamed of you, Emma,’” Sample recounts during the performance, sobbing.

Sample and his mother had to keep a lookout for police and for the Ku Klux Klan. He recalls how, on one occasion, Klan members dragged his mother and aunt out of the house, and then told them to run so they could shoot them like wild game.

“And Emma and Aunt Zelda started running,” Sample recalls.

But then they got away; both women escaped by hopping on a train. The problem was, they left Sample behind. For the next four years, the 6-year-old lived on the streets, relying on strangers until his mother’s return.

Sample eventually joined the military. But once he was discharged, he had trouble staying out of prison. He was eventually sent to Reprieve in Angleton, then a prison for black men. It’s now known as the Wayne Scott Unit.

“I had been classified as an incorrigible, unsalvageable human being,” Sample says.

Prisoners gave him the nickname Racehoss – a play on “racehorse” – because he was fast and strong.

His stories about his 17 years in prison mirror the ones in official reports from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, formerly the Department of Corrections: inhumane working conditions; inmates picking cotton year-round; and brutal discipline, that, according to Sample, included hanging prisoners by their hands or feet for hours at a time. Many prisoners resorted to self-mutilation to cope, or to get themselves sent to the prison clinic for relief. Prisoners were also punished by months in solitary confinement – their only food was one biscuit a day and a glass of water.

“I got put in solitary again. This time, it wasn’t the same,” Sample recalls.

Sample remembers a pitch-dark room covered in feces. He wanted out and he started hurting himself, furiously.

But then, he says, out of the blue, he stopped and prayed.

“I didn’t hardly get the words out, and there was light in there – the softest, most beautiful feeling came over me. Didn’t see nobody, but I sure knew something was in there with me,” Sample says.

Carol Sample says her husband was convinced God visited him in that room. That was also his last stint in solitary.

“That changed him,” Carol says. “For the first time in his life, he felt loved. He said, ‘I didn’t come out glowing like Moses. But I knew something had changed in me; I was not the same man anymore.’ And he was not.”

Right after, he experienced things that could be viewed as miracles, especially considering what he had been through. He got a desk job in prison, then, within days, he got an early release.

Sample settled in Houston where he started writing editorials for the weekly newspaper the “Houston Forward Times.” In it he promoted the virtues of rehabilitation. Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe read one of his editorials and offered him a job because no one in the governor’s office had a background like Sample’s.

That was important, especially at the time, because in the 1970s, hundreds of inmates charged with marijuana possession were about to be released from prison because their charges had been reduced to misdemeanors. Briscoe needed someone to help him transition them back into society. He chose Sample for the job.

“Four hundred and seventy-six people needed his help in that program,” Carol Sample says. “He had one year to get all of these people to transition out. There were four people who went back to prison after the program ended. So it was deemed a huge success at that time.”

Eventually, Sample and his wife moved to Austin where his life continued to change for the better in many ways. In 1976, he received a full pardon. And because of his access to politicians and people in power, his life was very different from what most people normally experience after prison. That’s why, for the next 30 years, Albert and Carol advocated for the rights of prisoners in hopes that they, too, could experience the transformative power of love and second chances.