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Columns | "In The Pines With Dana Goolsby"

Black History

By Dana Goolsby
Dana Goolsby

Black history has deep roots in the first county in Texas. East Texas has produced some of the darkest black history in the state and has proven the strength of racism’s grip. Houston County, along with the rest of the 300-mile stretch known as East Texas, has lot more in common with the South than the rest of the state, or any place west of it. Culturally and economically, East Texas has segregated itself from the Lone Star State.

Researching the area’s black history proved to be a chore. In a county where the ratio of blacks and whites is about 50-50, black history is not exactly on tap, but it is there. It is buried deep within the county and much deeper in resident’s memories. It is not often shared or even talked about, and its remains are crumbling.

TX Mary Allen Seminary
Mary Allen Seminary
Photo by Dana Goolsby, October 2010

TX Mary Allen Seminary
Mary Allen Seminary
Photo by Dana Goolsby, October 2010

The Mary Allen Seminary for black girls sits atop a hill about a mile north of the courthouse. Crumbling and far from its original glory, the historic school was unearthed from the briars and over growth of the Piney Woods. Having lived in Houston County my entire life it has only been in recent years that I discovered the magnificent old building. For many years, the site was buried in briars and hidden from view. Constructed in 1886, the Mary Allen Seminary for black girls still stands today as one of the oldest structures in the county. It is now a visible reminder of the growth and decline of black education in the area. The school evolved from an all-white into an all-black administration and from a female seminary to a four-year coeducational college. Then it was closed and sold off to meet debts that had risen from lawsuits. According to the Texas State Historical Association, in 1942 the Crockett Chamber of Commerce proposed that the property of Mary Allen Junior College be donated toward a four-year state college for black students and was approved by the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. The following year World War II prevented the Texas legislature from acting on the proposal and the school was closed and the property sold.

The Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union were also founded in Houston County in 1886. The union was formed on the farm of white Alliance member and Baptist missionary R.M. Humphrey, and the alliance elected J. J. Shuffer as their first president. Although the orders' charter barred whites from obtaining membership, Humphrey was elected as an honorary superintendent. As increasingly repressive Black Codes were enacted, Humphrey's role was to serve as the group’s white spokesman. Humphrey could openly express militancy and gain access that would have been denied to blacks.

TX - Givens Hill GivensHome Site
Givens Homesite
Photo by Dana Goolsby, October 2010

TX - Givens Homesite Historical Marker
Givens Homesite Historical Marker
Photo by Dana Goolsby, October 2010

The Givens Hill home site also still stands in Crockett, just south of the loop on Highway 19 South. Solomen George Givens and his wife Lula Burleson Givens were both born in 1871 in Houston County. Both Solomen and Lula were the children of slaves. They were married in 1891 and in 1892 they purchased 34 acres of land at the top of a hill south of Crockett, known today as Given’s Hill. The Givens farm found success on top of the hill and in 1893; they constructed an eight-room house. Solomen and Lula Givens were known for their acts of charity. They were also leaders of a nearby school and Baptist church. The Givenses often hosted baptismal in a tank on their land. For many years Solomen and Lula’s home was the center of an African American farming community.

A success story that emerged from Houston County is that of Ruth Simmons. Simmons, born in Grapeland, spent countless hours listening to her mother share stories about people who lived life the right way and others who did not. Simmons’ mother passed down family values and oral history while shelling peas and shucking corn, all the while never knowing that one day those values would be shared with thousands of other women—black and white. Simmons went on to make history as the first Black woman (Third woman ever) to be named president of Smith College, one of the prestigious, all-women’s colleges that make up the Seven-Sister schools, and the nation’s largest private undergraduate institution for women.

TX Statue - Sam Lightnin Hopkins playing
Sam Lightnin' Hopkins Statue
Photo by Dana Goolsby, October 2010

TX Statue - Sam Lightnin Hopkins  statue close up
Photo by Dana Goolsby, October 2010

Bluesman Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins also had ties to Houston County. A statue was erected in his memory across from Camp Street Café in Crockett. Locals say Hopkins played on the street and in establishments along Camp Street in his youth. Camp Street was in the center of the Black Business District in Houston County. Hopkins music was heard from Camp Street all the way to Carnegie Hall. Lightnin’ Hopkins recalled Houston County, none too fondly, and mentions it in his music. Hopkins sang about serving on a chain gang for the county. Hopkins told Andy Silverman of the Swarthmore College Phoenix in 1963, “I was in trouble. I had a hundred days down on the chain gang.” Later, while being taped in a recording studio, Hopkins said “Man come to me; put me in jail in Crockett. I did pretty good and I runned off. I hit the road, Jack. They come to the Trinity, got me out of the Trinity [river]. I wore a ball and chain. Man, I can show you a scar on my leg. You see that? There? That’s from wearing that man’s outfit.” According to Timothy J. O'Brien, PhD who has authored a book about Hopkins, there is no evidence remaining that would confirm Hopkins ever served on a chain gang in Houston County despite his mentioning it many, many times throughout his life. O’Brien emphasizes that Hopkins was a storyteller, poet and songwriter. According to the city of Crockett’s website, the blues singer was once arrested in Crockett but makes no mention of charges or time served.

Other black history that is rarely, if ever, discussed in the county includes the lynching of a black man who white locals said frightened a white woman. According to “Blacks in the American West and Beyond” by George H. June, in June of 1932 a black man named Dave Tillis was accused of frightening a white woman and lynched in Crockett. The Slocum Race Riot is also said to have begun at the hands of Houston County men. Lynchings, riots, and mass murders are no strangers to Houston County. Many white residents still proudly fly the confederate flag, and graveyards are dappled with confederate flags.

Today the county, particularly the county seat in Crockett, is still wrought with the effects of racism. Law suits against the county, the city of Crockett, and individuals employed by the city or county alleging racism total upwards of $100 million or more, just within the last few years. Crockett I. S. D is also engaged multiple law suits where alleged racism is a factor.

© Dana Goolsby
"In The Pines With Dana Goolsby" February 16, 2011 Column

More Texas Black History

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