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.
“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.
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).
“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.
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.