The Historical Truths of Lynching, Racism, and the KKK in Grand Saline

A lot of you have opinions about me and my views of race in contemporary America. I know this. I have been very public about my research on race, Charles Moore, and Grand Saline, and this has caused me to lose friends from my hometown and have people attack me publicly. Though that hurts me on a personal level, I understand it. Many feel that I am defaming my hometown or calling everyone there a racist. Please believe that I am not trying to do that. Rather, I am trying to write about what I know to be true. To some, I must come off as some liberal, ivory-tower researcher who many have dubbed as “knowing nothing about the real world.” I get it. I think I actually know a lot about the real world, but I get it.

I have reached a point in my research that I think it would be a good time to come forth with some of my findings, not as a way to “defame” the town or create more arguments among my friends, but to show some of you what I have found. And I think some of you will actually be surprised. In the sections that follow, I will analyze the three most told legends of Grand Saline regarding the sundown sign, the KKK and Clark’s Ferry, and Poletown. I will try to cite each source from my material for you to investigate on your own, but I urge each each of you to read this all the way through.

So here it goes. Here are the historical truths of race/racism in Grand Saline.

sundown towns

“The Sundown Sign”— James Loewen, a renowned sociologist and historian, has collated some oral evidence to suggest Grand Saline did have sundown signs. He has collected various oral evidence to make this claim on his larger project and labelled the town as such in his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. His collected evidence can be seen here: http://sundown.afro.illinois.edu/sundowntownsshow.php?id=1213.

Other articles, such as Richard Stewart’s article on Grand Saline and segregation in the Houston Chronicle, analyzes how some of these legends. He writes halfway through the article, “Grand Saline’s reputation for racial intolerance is rooted in stories — denied by many local residents — of lynchings of blacks who stayed in the town past sundown.” He also quotes a few current residents who state the town did actually have these signs. His research can be found here: http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0ED7B2F41CDEBBC2?p=AWNB

“The KKK in Grand Saline”— There is more historical evidence of the KKK existing in Grand Saline than people give credit to. In a historical project of Jordan’s Saline, the previous name of Grand Saline, Milda Mason, accompanied by researchers Ruby Wallace and Elvis Allen, states that the KKK has a “large encampment of men” outside of town in the late-1800s and terrorized the people of town and that they often controlled much of the culture of town. Her research can be found here: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~txvzcgs/vzgsgun.htm.

kkk1

Margaret Elizabeth Hill’s book, A History of Van Zandt County, backs up these claims and even states that the KKK killed many men (black and white) during this time. On one occasion, she writes, the KKK “repeatedly shot five Negroes and dumped their bodies in a Canton street.” She states another incident in which the KKK found out that a local white man spoke at black assembly. The KKK captured him and “displayed his head on a pole along the roadside.”

Of course, most historical work on the town agrees the KKK was active in the Reconstruction period of town, but many question the KKK’s influence afterwards, especially leading into the years in the post-Civil Rights 1970s. Both Stewart’s article and Suzanne Gamboa’s 1994 piece on race in Grand Saline, both cite residents who claim they have seen the KKK at Clark’s Ferry or even show that some people in town road around with KKK bumper stickers on their car. From this research in the early-1990s, over twenty years ago, it seems the legends of the KKK have captivated the town for quite some time and was even a part of normative culture of one point (since the town had KKK sympathizers who felt they could put these stickers on the cars and feel safe).

Statesman GS Article 4

“Lynchings at Poletown”— The story of Poletown revolves around legends of Grand Saline residents and the KKK lynching people at these sites. Hill’s book, stated above, reports at least one incident of this. Mason’s research, also shared above, does the same. Much of the stories of lynchings stem from oral legends, told from one another in passing. Several current and former residents of Grand Saline tell me they quite vividly remember the stories of Poletown, but none of them can trace back the origins of these stories.

Out of all the hours of research, searching the internet, digging around archives, and scrolling through newspaper microfilm, I have only been able to find a limited amount of evidence talking about race in Grand Saline that I have stated above. For a town that many would state has a rich history or folklore of race and racism, you would think more research on this subject would exist. But there doesn’t seem to be much.

Statesman GS Article 5

——————–

The truth is we don’t know much truth about racism in Grand Saline. The truth is we may never know much more than we do now. From all the research I have conducted, the interviews, archival work, and newspaper clippings, the history of Grand Saline’s racism does not seem exceptional. They seem to be similar to most towns in the south via pre-Civil Rights. And I can’t help but feel happy to be able to say this.

But a deeper truth lies within Grand Saline, one ultimately darker than their history. If Grand Saline was not exceptionally racist, if the town never took part in these lynchings or hosted KKK meetings, then why do many town residents tell stories of these legends? Why are these legends in the first place? I contend the heart of Grand Saline’s legacy does not exist actually within the truth of their history; rather, it exists within the perception of the town’s residents. And for most of my adolescent years growing up in Grand Saline, I knew the stories of Clark’s Ferry, Poletown, and the sundown town to be true because everyone told them as truth. All of my friends and peers told them as truth. Someone had to tell them these stories as truth. And over the years, likely multiple decades, stories and legends that contain little historical evidence became truth.

As a scholar interested in rhetoric, race, and perception, I would be less intrigued with my hometown if it had a long history of racism. But the perception of the town now as racist, by some residents and by many outsiders, tells me more about how Grand Saline’s folklore persuade people. Sometimes truth doesn’t have to be historical; it can be perceived. And for the residents of Grand Saline and the town’s culture, they have a perception problem, one that still looms in the present. One that will never go away unless they consciously, explicitly attempt to eradicate it.

Michael Hall, the writer for Texas Monthly who wrote a biography on Charles Moore, also searched for history on Grand Saline and race and came up empty handed. He told me in an interview, “Usually when you see smoke, you find fire nearby. But I was not able to find that fire.” Like me, Hall had also heard many legends of Grand Saline and believed the town had a rich history of racism. But little historical evidence shows this. Hall and I both agree on this.

The fire we were searching for disguised itself as history when really it was perception and culture. Thus, as the history of Grand Saline’s racism wanes to lack of findings in recorded evidence, its perception continues on in an unrelenting, burning flame.

smoke

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13 thoughts on “The Historical Truths of Lynching, Racism, and the KKK in Grand Saline

  1. when I moved there around 1999 students at school were bragging about how racist the town was. I even heard a rumor that G.S. made it onto 20/20 for being in the top 20 of America’s most racist cities. I wasn’t there 7 days before I heard about pole town and why people called it that. I never really saw any acts of racism besides the use of derogatory words toward black people. Interesting that these stories are still told and that it’s hard to find evidence. Racism can lay in the hearts and minds of the people even though they may never act on it.

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  2. I started kindergarten.In gs and still live in the area. The town was very racist when I was growing up. Even though the town has Chilled out some it still has some issues with racism.

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  3. I lived in GS from birth until high school graduation. I have a degree in history from Texas A&M. One of my projects was to research local history. I researched GS and could not find evidence of the KKK. The only hanging was a white doctor charged with stealing horses. As for the sign I could not find any evidence of it in GS; however it is rumored to have been posted in Greenville in the 1930’s -1960’s

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  4. Most of the racist history of Grand Saline is, well, off the books. Back in the old days, there were most assuredly lynchings, but as time moved on the locals became more subtle in their doings. Locals didn’t get strung up as they might once have; instead, they just disappear.

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  5. I know the lynching and hanging happened. Two former law enforcement officials who were family members both told me the stories and showed proof of it happening.

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  6. I lived in Edgewood at various times, West of Grand Saline about ten miles on highway 80. I have an interesting story from a black Dallas policeman and Grand Saline I can share with you, if interested. Edgewood seemed a bit of a contrast with Grand Saline. The schools were integrated before the 1953 (I think) Supreme Court decision, partly because it was a poor town. Edgewood has had a black police chief, and in the early 90’s a black mayor. My former father-in-law’s ( he’s now deceased) parents sharecropped a farm there. He went to A&M corps and joined the military. Although quite conservative and against marriage between the races, he made donation to a black church there. I am a retired English prof from Texas A&M sitting at the moment in a coffee shop in Santa Fe. I want to thank you for your research. There story was that a “hanging tree” existed on the south end of Edgewood. I drove by it a few times but don’t recall where exactly it was. In the late 80’s some interracial data was going on but the rock and roll music hippies of Edgewood were agin’ it. I used to hang out some with them, being an old hippie myself. Sorry you have run into some blowback from the Grand Saliners.

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  7. I find it hard to believe you can produce more information on this topic. I was born and raised there and I promise you racism is strong there. I moved as soon as I could make my own decisions. I remember a lot of racial turmoil in town, maybe mid 1980,s or so, when the first Government Apartments were built and would not be segregated. My entire school age life, we had zero African Americans in our schools. Once I got away and cleared my head of my upbringing, it made me so sad. It really is a wonderful place, for the most part.

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  8. I worked at the local grocery store in GS 1985-95. During that time I remember a local farmer allowed a KKK rally in his field outside of town. The Klan obtained permits from the town to have a parade and set up tables on the street corners to sell their t-shirts and push their pamphlets. A CBS show, “Eye On America” with Connie Chung came to tiwn to report that federal housing had no black families living there. After that aired, one black family moved in. I think there was one black student in the high school at that time. All their sports teams were all white athletes and they were proud of it.

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  9. My entire family is from Grand Saline although I grew up in Dallas. I remember as a child being shown an old tin-type photo of the heads of 2 blacks on top of fence poles and being told that was what happened to blacks found in town after sundown. My father recalled the sign posted at the edge of town. Family members living in the town at the time of the government apartments being built told of one black family that did move in for a short time. I did not see for myself but was told of a KKK rally that took place soon after they moved in with a full cross burning and all. They also told of security being kept on the street 24/7 to protect the family during their short stay. My mother who was born and raised there did not physically lay eyes on a black person until a visit to Houston when she was 5 yrs old.

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  10. James, I thought you did a very good job on this story. There are folks who just want to believe all the folklore stories and refuse to listen to reason. Although I’ve only lived in GS 10 years my heritage in GS goes back to well before my Grand Parents (who all grew up there). Sometimes simple minded and uneducated people just want to believe what they want to believe.
    To those who argue with these researchers:
    I grew up in Dallas in the 80s and 90s where surprise, rasicism existed heavily. IT EXISTED AND STILL EXISTS IN EVERY TOWN PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!! You think burning crosses was just in Sundown towns?!?!? Think again, it happened in every town across this great nation. It only stands out to folks who believe the stories or have convinced themselves they’ve seen things they haven’t seen. It’s a part of life. You can accept it and move on or dwell on it and continue your life of misery and cry about it. Now, let’s get ready for some BASEBALL!!!!!

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  11. My mother was born in 1922 in Van Zandz Co and grew up there. I have relatives there still. She told of the sign ar the city limits many times. I received the Canton Herald for years while living elsewhere. Each week there is an article History of Canton with copies of the paper from years past. Reading from 1930’s there were numerous reports of local Klan activity including district-like meeting in Tyler and a decision to send a group to march at the State Fair in Dallas. Both of my grandfathers, parents, aunts and uncles have passed away so no one to ask but I believe them to have been members. It appears it was an accepted membership in the community. Makes me sad as I knew both men as a young child, loved both dearly.

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    1. Saundra and others. I have a friend in Bryan, Texas whose great-great grandparents owned a plantation on land now covered by the northern part of Lake Conroe. He had relatives who taught at A&M. He told me that the pressure was on faculty to join the clan, or lose their jobs. I imagine a lot of people joined the clan so they would not have their businesses targeted for boycott. I am not making excuses for these people, just bringing to attention how things were. I lived in Edgewood ten miles west of Grand Saline.

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