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RACIAL TENSIONS SLOWLY GIVE WAY IN INFAMOUS TEXAS CITY

Donise Jackson's five children play outside their home with other kids like children in most neighborhoods.

"If one of the kids gets hurt - black or white - he gets help," says Jackson's neighbor, Ilene Pierce.Neighborly talk. Friendly talk.

Jackson is black. Pierce is white.

The scene in the Vidor public housing complex was a far cry from a year ago today. That's when Bill Simpson, the only black person still living in the project, became so fed up with racial harassment that he fled to nearby Beaumont - only to be shot and killed a few hours later in a street robbery.

The changes enforced because of Simpson's plight have compelled a town whose name had become synonymous with racism to become more tolerant.

Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros seized control of the complex Sept. 14. With federal marshals providing round-the-clock protection, black families moved in before dawn on Jan. 13. Now, about one-third of the project's 74 units are inhabited by black families.

"It was a big adjustment for this town," says Pierce, 38, who is president of the residents association. "If you give people enough time, they will adjust. You don't hear much anymore."

The complex has undergone a physical face lift as well, with an attractive wrought-iron fence replacing the old chain-link one. Central air conditioning is replacing the old hang-on units, and central heat is being installed. A new community center is under construction. A van ferries residents to the grocery store or doctor's office.

The federal marshals are gone, too, replaced by security guards.

"It's the best place I could be," says Tameca Demouchet, a 20-year-old black woman who has lived here with her 4-year-old child since May. "I love it. I really like it here. I'm glad I came."

The town of 11,000 people 100 miles east of Houston has long been labeled a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity. But Priscilla Williams says trips to town are not fear-filled adventures and most folks have been civil.

"Some will come over and say, `Thank God for you black people. We are not crazy people,' " says Williams, 25, who arrived in April.

Pierce, 38, is putting together a community cookbook with recipes from the complex's residents. She also hopes to hold an election later this year to give the complex - known only as Vidor public housing - a real name from suggestions made by residents.

"I've seen tremendous changes," she said. "Things have happened a lot faster than anyone could have imagined. There's a lot of good things going on.

"Vidor has such a reputation. I was a little scared at first. Everyone was scared. You can go anywhere in the world and mention Vidor, Texas, and they go `Oh no!' But those who get into radical causes are going to be real disappointed."

Jackson, 26, who was among the first black families to arrive, agreed that resistance has ebbed.

"I feel I made the right decision," she said.

"Once you get used to a place, it's home. And that's the way this is."