One interracial East Texas couple has enjoyed 24 years together despite experiencing prejudice and sideways glances.
“I don’t see him as a black man,” Deborah Cotton said. “He’s the love of my life. We’re best friends. In the summer, we get out under the carport, and we put on music and we dance. We just live in our own little world.”
When Deborah and Reggie Cotton Jr. got together, it was shocking to some people, Deborah said. But that has never stopped them.
“Being a fireman, I did learn this. Help knows no color,” Reggie said. “Whenever you’re in a situation where you need help, you don’t care who comes to assist you. … Racism is only used when it’s convenient. That’s why I know that it’s not something that we can’t break our habits of because just in the short span of disasters, all that is out the window.”
They met while Deborah was working in downtown Nacogdoches next to the fire station where Reggie worked. She noticed him while he was directing traffic one day when he “caught my interest.”
“I would make little trips across from where I worked, at an office supply, and I would take empty envelopes to the mailbox that was on the corner,” Deborah said. “I would walk across the street trying to get his attention or if I could get a view of him.”
She said she wonders to this day if the postal service was confused by the empty envelopes. Reggie said he had dated interracially some before Deborah, but he doesn’t think of it that way.
“We’re all of the human race,” he said. “My grandmother and her brother were half-white, so I wasn’t brought up to feel any other way than to feel love for people.”
He said he never grew up thinking anyone was better than anyone else. He was determined to reach his goals, no matter if one person thought it wasn’t something a black man could do.
In addition to being a firefighter, Reggie was also the first African American man in an interracial relationship to be elected to the Nacogdoches County Commissioners Court. He wanted to be involved in his community, to make a difference, but some people didn’t like that.
“We don’t know what color we are when we’re born,” Reggie said. “We’re innocent. We’re taught these things that ruin our lives forever. I can’t fathom teaching a young kid to hate or despise another person because of the color of their skin.”
They said they experienced many situations of veiled and not-so-veiled racism while Reggie was a commissioner.
“They went after Deborah and I with the IRS,” Reggie said. “We served five months in federal prison for under-reported income of $75,000 of misdemeanor charges.”
They said they were told that if they pleaded guilty, they would receive misdemeanor charges and probation. But that was not the case.
“When we went to court, the judge said, ‘Well, you’ve never been in trouble and you’ve never had any kind of altercation with the law, but I just want to make an example of you,’” Reggie said.
Out of the 1,000 women at the camp Deborah was placed, she and one other woman were the only ones there for taxes, Deborah said. Reggie said the warden and the federal marshals couldn’t understand why he was in prison for $75,000 on a misdemeanor charge.
“I’d say we don’t have that many problems, even with the IRS stuff,” Reggie said. “Those were people that had money, influence, but at the end of the day, we had more support from people who really loved us, that it outweighed what they did to us.”
“Some people thought that it would break us up, but it didn’t. It made us stronger,” Deborah said. “You’ve got to have trust, communication, similar interests, and persistence.”
The Cottons said they’ve had people tell them their relationship opened their eyes about some of the prejudices they had.
“It takes a very strong and forgiving person to admit they are wrong,” Reggie said. “Whenever they admit to it and they know and learn and do better, then you forgive them and build relationship with them.”
The couple said they have thought about writing a book about their experiences. They also want to create a community that can build up other couples.
“When I was growing up, my dad was a pastor, and in the summer times, we used to go to Bible classes that we called rap sessions,” Reggie said. “We would sit down on the floor, and we would talk to an individual you didn’t even know, and you’d talk to that individual about the problems you were having in your relationship. We want to build a coalition like that.
“We just want to be able to inspire and help others.”