Opponent says Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins wore blackface in 1983 college trespass

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins speaks during the Texas Democratic Convention at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas on July 15, 2022. Jenkins 1983 arrest after he and friends entered a Waco apartment in what they called a prank has become an issue in his reelection campaign. (Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune, Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune)

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DALLAS — When Clay Jenkins and two friends stormed the apartment of female Baylor University classmates in 1983, they laughed it off as a prank. The women described it as a terrifying moment, and Jenkins and his friends were arrested and charged with criminal trespass.

In the years since, Jenkins has climbed to be one of the most prominent Democrats in Texas as Dallas County judge, and the story of the college “panty raid” has surfaced in at least one prior published report. But in the waning days of his 2022 reelection campaign, a new detail of the story has emerged: One of the women told police that Jenkins and his friends “had on dark oil type or paint or dark makeup on their faces to make them look like Black people,” according to a Waco police report.

That report was first published by two right-wing media sites Tuesday night, with both saying Jenkins had dressed in blackface. One such site, The Blaze, hosted Jenkins' GOP rival, Lauren Davis, for the discussion and then blasted him for acting recklessly.

Jenkins denies the allegation of wearing blackface, saying he was merely camouflaging his face with paint. Another woman cited in the report makes no mention of blackface. The report said she believed the men “were all dressed in dark colored clothing like camouflage and had dark colored make-up on their faces.”

The 1983 incident was reported soon after it happened by the Baylor student paper, The Lariat, and again in 2014 by D Magazine, when Jenkins was seeking a second term.

The report was provided to The Texas Tribune by the campaign for Davis, Jenkins’ Republican challenger. The Tribune later obtained the document independently from the Waco Police Department.

On Tuesday, in an interview with The Blaze, the interviewer asked Davis about the episode and described Jenkins “dressing up in blackface, which we're told is the most egregious crime ever.” Davis did not use the term, although her campaign uploaded the segment to its YouTube page with the title: “Clay Jenkins Exposed — Blackface Allegations.”

In the interview, Davis said: “It was anything but [a prank], he could have been shot. He broke in and entered a home dressed not as himself, and then terrorized these women … He ransacked the apartment, [the women] barricaded themselves behind a door.”

Attempts to reach the women named in the report were unsuccessful. The husband of one woman, reached by phone, said she did not wish to be interviewed.

On Wednesday, Jenkins’s campaign manager, Sean Gregory, acknowledged the allegation but denied that the judge had ever worn blackface.

“Judge Jenkins apologized then, when he was 19, and continues to be sorry for the poor judgment he exhibited at the time,” Gregory said. “He has never darkened his face in an attempt to appear as a member of another race.”

When he was asked by The Dallas Morning News in a 2010 candidate questionnaire whether he had ever been charged with a crime, Jenkins mentioned the trespassing charge and a separate reckless driving charge.

“I realized how close I came to throwing away my opportunity to become the first in my family to graduate college by engaging in immature college pranks,” Jenkins said then. “I didn’t want to disappoint my mother and all the people who sacrificed to give me that opportunity by squandering it. I recommitted myself to my studies, which culminated in my graduation from law school five years after high school.”

When he first sought office in 2010, Jenkins drew the backing of prominent Black Democrats in Dallas, including U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, County Commissioner John Wiley Price and state Sen. Royce West. In 2020, Jenkins voted alongside a unanimous commissioners court to declare racism a public health crisis. Jenkins also voiced his support for Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.

According to the police report, one of the women awoke in the early hours of Sept. 22, 1983, to see what “appeared to be three, possibly Black males, coming through the window.” She woke her roommate and dragged her into another bedroom, where they hid as the men ransacked their room.

Then one of the men called out the woman’s name, she told police, which is when she realized that she knew at least two of the intruders, including Jenkins. Another roommate chased the men out of the apartment through the front door as they laughed, the report says.

The women decided to press charges and the three men came to Waco police headquarters to speak to an officer, the report says. One of them told the officer that the incident was a “Baylor prank” and said they had entered the apartment “trying to scare the girls and … they all left laughing thinking it was very funny.”

Jenkins and the other two men were charged with criminal trespass of a habitation, the report says. According to criminal records, Jenkins was sentenced to one year of deferred adjudication, a type of probation.

The wearing of blackface, which was a mainstay of minstrel shows and other demeaning depictions of African Americans, especially during the Jim Crow era, has come up in several political races in recent years.

In 2019, Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, faced a firestorm after a 1984 yearbook photo emerged of him and a friend — one wearing blackface, the other in a Klan robe — while he was a student at medical school. Numerous officials called on Northam to resign, but he survived in office — in large part because of support from African American constituents — and vowed to make racial equity a focus of his term in office, which ended in January 2022.

Disclosure: Baylor University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.