Is Texas the South? Opinions vary. And according to this essay, that variance has causes that are rooted in the state’s history and in intentional acts of mythmaking. Here, the author views Texas’s legacy and accompanying narratives through the lens of her own family’s heritage in the coastal and northern parts of the state, where the “Southern way of life” was more prevalent than some may think.
The South in Texas
by S.L. Wisenberg
It’s some time last year and I ask my mother on the phone if she’s aware that there was slavery in Dallas, where she grew up.
“Not slave markets and such,” she says. “Nobody put up on the auction block. How old do you think I am?”
“I know how old you are,” I say. She’s ninety-one, born in 1928.
My mother thinks I am asking if she remembers slavery as a child. She is totally compos mentis, it’s just that I have her on speaker phone so that I can take notes and she can’t hear everything I’m saying.
“I know,” I tell her, “that the Civil War ended more than a hundred years before you were born.”
And then I realize: it was much less than one hundred. It ended only ninety years before I was born, and sixty-three years before she was born. Compare those sixty-three years to the sixty-five that have passed since Brown v. the Board of Education, which, to me at least, seems still with us.
But back to my mother. In the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired unemployed writers to interview thousands of former slaves. The slaves were elderly, and most had been children in antebellum times. I did some research and found that, when my mother was a child, there were formerly enslaved persons living in the same town, with their memories.
There is much to criticize about these slave narratives. Most of the interviewers were white, and because of that, black elders were likely to downplay abuse by their white masters. The writers were also instructed to take notes in dialect, which makes the elders sound ever more “other.” We can see this same bias in Gone with the Wind. White plantation owners and belles surely spoke with deep Southern accents and dialect, and if Margaret Mitchell had rendered her fictional dialogues realistically and phonetically, readers would be ploughing through phrases like “gwine ter” coming from the lips of the most refined Southern flowers. But their conversation is rendered in standard English. Not so with the fictional slaves and their “honey chile” and “whars” and “chillun.” Linguists call this written dialect “eye writing” because you become aware of the pronunciation through your eyes. It’s used to show the ignorance of the dialect speaker.
When my mother was in fifth grade in a mostly Jewish public elementary school in South Dallas, a formerly enslaved man named Cato Carter, aged one hundred, lived with his wife in unincorporated Dallas, about seven miles away. He was interviewed in 1937. “I’m home today,” Carter told the WPA interviewer, “ ’cause my li’l, old dog is lost and I has to stay ’round to hunt for him. I been goin’ every day on the truck to the cotton patches. I don’t pick no more, ’count my hands git too tired and begin to cramp on me. But I go and set in the field and watch the lunches for the other hands.”
I’m reading his words more than eighty years later. I’m surprised that cotton grew in Dallas. And as late as the 1930s. Years ago, I bought a postcard that was entitled “Cotton picking near Houston, 1913.” It’s a hand-colored image, with stooped workers holding their bags to put their crop in. They look like slaves.
Carter was born in Wilcox County, Alabama, said he’d lived in the big house and was treated well, partly because “I’s one of their blood.” Which means, no doubt, that one of the white owners raped an enslaved woman. In Alabama, he used to tend to the “nursling thread,” which was thread that enslaved mothers spun while they were nursing their own babies. Cato Carter’s job was to take the thread and bring it back to the big house. If they didn’t spin seven or eight cuts a day the mothers would be beaten. A cut was about 300 three hundred yards of thread.
I’m reading these interviews online in my office in Chicago, on the second floor of our two-story frame house built around 1890. (Carter was in his fifties when this house was built.)
A formerly enslaved woman named Annie Row was interviewed in Fort Worth and said she was about eighty-six years old. She was born in Nacogdoches, Texas. In around 1870 she married, and had seven children. Then she married again, to a man named Rufus Jackson. She said “On Saturday we marries and on Monday we walks down the street and Rufus accident’ly steps on a white man’s foot and the white man kills him with a pistol.” Of course, there’s no mention of any legal recourse to the shooting of Jackson in cold blood.
Online, you can find narratives by location. Here’s an interviewee closer to Houston, where the Wisenbergs have lived since 1932: Armstead Barrett was born in 1847 in Huntsville, Texas, about an hour north of Houston. Huntsville is now the site of the state prison, with its Death Row and executions, as well as Sam Houston State University. My niece is getting a master’s degree in counseling there, attending classes at a branch closer to home in Houston. Barrett told his interviewer how he remembered that when peace was declared there was a lot of shouting. One woman was hollering and a white man with a high-stepping horse rode close to her, and got out his knife, opened it, and cut her across the stomach. Then he put his hat inside his shirt and rode off like lightning. The woman was put in a wagon and never heard from again.
When the interviews were conducted between 1936 and 1938, my father was in high school in Houston, specifically San Jacinto High School, where most of the Jewish teens went then. When Mary Armstrong, ninety-one, was interviewed, she lived at 3326 Pierce Ave., Houston, not far from the original Freedman’s Town in Houston founded by free people of color and ex-slaves, and about a mile-and-a-half from the house where my father lived with his parents, three sisters, and brother.
Mary Armstrong was born on a farm near St. Louis, owned by two “of the meanest white folks.” One day the missus, Polly, beat Armstrong’s nine-month-old sister to death because she was crying. Armstrong got her revenge when she was ten years old. She threw a rock at Miss Polly and busted her eyeball. “You could hear her holler for five miles.” Miss Polly couldn’t get at her because by then Armstrong was living with Miss Polly’s daughter Miss Olivia, who protected her. “Old Satan in torment couldn’t be . . . meaner,” she remembered.
Another ex-slave lived about a mile-and-a-half from my father’s family. Still another, John McCoy, lived in a small shack behind 2310 State Street, Houston. He said he was born January 1, 1838. The master taught obedience and not to lie and steal—with the whip. That was all the learning there was. If you were caught with a book or paper, you’d be whipped. McCoy said he was well fed and had plenty of clothes, and that the slave time was the best, because blacks didn’t have any sense, and in slave times, whites showed them the right way.
We don’t know what he would have said to an interviewer who was African American. By not quoting the interviews directly, are we losing authenticity? Or gaining it?
In 2017, a Dallas Morning News columnist named Robert Wilonsky wrote that Dallas has no monument to ex-slaves in Pioneer Plaza. He continued: “There is no park named for William Moore, who, after he was freed, was chased out of Corsicana by the Klan and landed on a patch of farmland in South Dallas . . . Or Mary Ellen Johnson, who was born a slave in San Marcos and, by 1937, ran a restaurant near present-day Dallas City Hall.” His point was, of course, that their memories should be preserved.
There are reasons we don’t think about slavery and Texas—even though there were about 180,000 slaves in the state between 1850 and 1860. Texas had the same proportion of slaves as Virginia did. Some of the slaves accompanied their masters as “body servants” to the front lines. There were even cases of some of these former “servants” taking part in the otherwise all-white reunions of Texas Confederate regiments. A few even received pensions.
But Texas decidedly turned its back on this history. First, slavery wasn’t everywhere in the state. It was practiced mostly in the central and eastern parts of the state. And second, turning Texas from a Southern state into the home of the mythical Cowboy was part of a deliberate campaign when Texas boosters created the Texas Centennial celebrations in 1936. It’s not happenstance that Texans still remember the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto, independence battles from the 1830s, but not Civil War battles about twenty-five years later on Texas soil. The Confederacy lost; the Texans won. Dixie was old-fashioned and bigoted, home to violent lynchings. Texas was dynamic and new. The number of lynchings in Texas even went down after 1936. Even the governor and US senator Sam Houston was full of contradictions—he owned a dozen slaves whom he educated with his own children, voted to contain slavery in new territories, and was a staunch unionist against secession. Maybe that’s why Texas took New Deal money, while the rest of the former Confederacy refused.
There are few if any markers of slavery in my home state, but buildings and streets retain the names of slaveholders. The branding of Texas as Western has worked to an extent. Houston was not Alabama or Mississippi. That’s what Bernice Narvaez, who, as a girl integrated our elementary school, wrote to me in an email a few years ago. (The event was peaceful.) That’s the same thing the great-niece of the owner of Weingarten’s grocery store told me a number of years ago. Her great-uncle’s lunch counter inside the store was the site of Houston’s first sit-in, in 1960. And, unlike in Alabama or Mississippi, there was no violence when Black students marched to the grocery store and took their seats at the all-white counter. Instead, the store closed down. When the counter re-opened, the seats on top of the stools had been removed. The man who came up with this idea later became mayor.
Like our father before us, my sister and I attended (Confederate General) Albert Sidney Johnston Junior High in Houston, though in different neighborhoods. A former classmate of mine remembers seeing (in the late 1960s) a painting of Johnston in full regalia hanging on the library wall. The school is now the Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School. I interviewed then-principal Wenden Sanders a few years ago. He supported the name change and noted that the school population was mostly African-American and Latino. What if the school were all white? I asked him a couple of times, and he didn’t answer directly.
Last year University of Texas’ Black football players led a protest against the existence of buildings named for segregationists, and called for institutional changes to address racial justice. They also demanded that the unofficial school song “The Eyes of Texas” be replaced. The song title had been thought to be a paraphrase of a frequent statement by Robert E. Lee. A UT “Eyes of Texas” committee report, released in March 2021, found “a low likelihood” the phrase was based on Lee’s utterances. It also acknowledged that the song “most probably debuted in blackface” in 1903 at a minstrel show at UT, in an “overtly racist” milieu. The committee recommended that the song remain but that students have the option not to sing it, and also recommended “difficult conversations” about the school’s racial history and other initiatives.
UT anthropologist and provost Edmund T. Gordon has created a great virtual tour of the “neo-Confederate university,” explaining its racial geography. The tour is deep and wide, linking the campus to state and national history. He discusses the statues of Confederate heroes such as President Jefferson Davis and generals Johnston and Lee, as well as those of segregationists. All but one are now in storage; in 2015, the statue of Davis was pulled down and later relocated to UT’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, where it is part of an exhibit on the “Lost Cause” and white supremacy.
“I think we were among one of the first entities to take action and move statues,” Briscoe’s executive director Don E. Carleton told me.
One problem with putting other statues on display is that their sheer size: they’re eight-and-a-half feet tall, and all that bronze weighs at least 1,200 pounds.
As Freud told us, and Shakespeare, before him: the repressed returns. In Texas, as well as beyond, the remnants are waiting for us to grapple with them.
S.L. Wisenberg is a third-generation native Texan who lives in Chicago. She is the author of a short story collection The Sweetheart Is In (Northwestern University Press), an essay collection Holocaust Girls: History, Memory, & Other Obsessions (University of Nebraska Press), and a nonfiction chronicle,The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press). She edits Another Chicago Magazine.