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Civil Rights Bus Day Tour–Day 5

On the final full day of the bus tour, we spent our time going around Memphis and visiting important historical sites. The rain was coming down heavy this morning as we hopped on the bus and headed to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Friends had told me how unnerving this site was for them, and I think was intensified by the rain following us this morning. We walked past the famous Lorraine Motel sign, with its pristine restoration, and in front of the motel on our way to the lobby. There, roughly twenty feet away, was the balcony I have seen memorialized in images, movies, and textbooks my entire life: the place where MLK was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. While everyone was running to get in from the rain, I stood for a moment, remembering the images I have seen in black and white my entire life. I don’t think I was truly prepared to take in everything that followed.

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Inside, we made our way through the museum quickly because we only had 2.5 hours before we had to meet for lunch, but I immediately understood how visitors could spend hours, even an entire day, going through the exhibit. I will touch on a couple of these exhibits here before getting to my main point of intrigue. First, the Rosa Parks and sit-in sections of the museum stood out for their liveliness. Both had replicas of what it would be like on a bus during the boycotts and to sit at a lunch counter if you were protesting civil rights. This forced me to see the experience for what it was: a frightening, oppressing moment in American history. While textbooks often glance over these event quickly, the museum forces participants to see the reality of the pain, hear the slurs, and witness the hatred firsthand. These first two exhibits stood out for their molding of reality.

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But I knew I had to move quickly through the first part of the museum to get to one of more intriguing, yet also icky feeling, parts of the tour: the construction and maintenance of the place where MLK died and where the sniper stood to shoot him. Towards the end of the first building of the museum, participants get to stand next to the room where MLK last stayed before getting shot. The curators reconstructed the room to represent what it looked like on the night MLK died. While I am sure the curators contend they do this to persevere history and help people see what it truly looked like on the fateful day, I couldn’t help but feel awkward. I felt as if we were staring into the intimacy of a terrible event and could not explain why people would want to see this image. But this feeling was expanded when in the second building you are able to walk to the space where the sniper stood when he took out MLK. The museum openly touts this space and even allows visitors to go to a window similar right next to the actual window (that they keep under protective glass) to see what the sniper would have seen. I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable that places choose to glorify sites like this. But it made me wonder if this was due to popular demand or if they museum knew what people really wanted to see.

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After we finished with the museum we ate lunch on site and got back on the bus. We had two more events to accomplish: 1) visit with the sanitation protesters who helped take back their wages and civil rights in the city and 2) do a driving tour of the city. We met with three sanitation workers who took part in the famous “I am a man” strike in the late-1960s. The strikers explained the motives for taking part in the protest, the harsh conditions they worked in, and how they set the stage for better equality in the city and nation-wide as well. One of the men even stated that Obama told him that he wasn’t sure if he would be president today if it was not for the work they completed in the city. Overall, these three men represent how change can take place on the small scale, without national figures being involved directly. They brought the attention to themselves which garnered more publicity and pressure on the city to give them decent wages and benefits.

Lastly, we meet with Elaine Turner to end our day of activities, and she drove us around the city to visit important historical places like the First Baptist Church on Bealle Street, Slave Haven, and other sites. The place that stood out the most was the Mason Temple, where MLK gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed. We walked into the temple and saw an image similar to the balcony of the Lorraine motel: a place I have seen in videos and images but have never thought about in reality. I was able to walk around and actually stand where MLK proclaimed the truth. I kept thinking about how fateful that night must have seemed to many at the time, MLK saying he had seen the mountaintop the night before he was murdered, and I imagined being in the audience cheering on with the thousands of others who were glad to see the civil rights hero among them. It was such a surreal moment, much like the Lorraine Motel, and I don’t think I will ever forget how awe-struck I was at the temple.

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Our final full day on the tour could be defined by its harrowing nature because compared to other sites we had visited on the tour, the MLK history was the stuff we need early in our education. I remember even performing the “I Have a Dream” speech in third grade for a play. Thus, when we saw the MLK history in the material realms of Memphis hit a different nerve. I am actually glad that this day in Memphis was our final full day because I am not sure if I could emotionally handle much more days like that day. And that icky state has stayed with me, now two days removed.

Civil Rights Bus Tour–Day Four

Day four and five of the trip were long, and I spent these nights trying to have fun and resting rather than blogging my trip. Really what I have learned is blogging every single day of a trip is a tough task, and I couldn’t live up to the task. My plan, as of right now, is to blog day four of my adventure tonight (the night my trip ended) and do my blog for the fifth day and today’s adventures tomorrow. Sorry for the late blogs for those following, but I think both of these days will be more interesting with more time to reflect.

On the morning of March 9th, we awoke from Indianola and began our journey out of the Delta. Our first stop on this trip north was at the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford. In our class, we had learned about the riot that took place with James Meredith on the campus, briefly, and were going to take a tour of the campus before meeting with Charles W. Eagles, the “foremost” expert on James Meredith and the Ole Miss campus, and also student leaders on the campus who took charge in taking down the state flag (a version of the Confederate Flag). Arriving on the campus in the late morning, I was surprised by its beauty. The grove, the trees, the campus all painted pictures of the gallant South, the stories that cover our memories of the South and what it represents.

But checking underneath the surface of this superficial beauty changed my opinion of the campus quickly.

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Walking around the first campus of the building I found some very disturbing wall art, art that should have been removed for its racial insensitivity a long time ago. The pictures here demonstrate Native Americans dancing like tropes and black people appearing in an unusual ways as well. This was literally the first thing I saw when looking around the campus and changed how I saw everything moving forward. Next we walked around the circle where the riots took place on campus, and I tried envisioning the hostility of the area. Maybe it was just like the Trump rally that just took place in Chicago. I close my eyes and try to picture white people screaming and yelling hatred at Meredith and officials guarding him. But I have never seen this open hatred before, and it is hard to imagine.

At the front of this circle were two Confederate shrines: 1) a Confederate statue placed by the county in the late-1800s, which calls for recondition of all the soldiers who died for the South. 2) a Confederate stain glass window still portrayed its beauty for all those entering one of the oldest buildings on campus on the circle. I was surprised both of these artifacts still stood in light of the conversations of the flag on campus and the removal of other Confederate memorabilia across the United States. But both of them stood out as stark reminders of the “heritage” argument that still calls for love of the Confederacy in the South.

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With these public memories, the last object that stood out on campus was the monument to James Meredith, near the administration building. The Meredith statue is an erect, life-size version of Meredith walking towards the front of the school with quotes from Meredith and others about his inspiration. The statue is an important reminder of the history of the school, but I found it interesting how the school misconstrued Meredith’s words for their own gain. (I’m saving some of this for an article I am writing so I do not want to add much more detail here, but there is SO much analysis that can be done with the Meredith statue). After our tour of campus, we met with Eagles and the ladies who helped take down the flag, had lunch with them, and left the campus.

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We took off for Memphis after leaving Oxford and first stopped at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center before turning in for dinner and the hotel for the evening. Here we had more of a learning exercise rather than a historical one and talked about team-building, various forms of power, and the different parts of justice work that convene to create change. The two hour session allowed us to bounce ideas of advocacy, agitation, and other parts of justice work together and consider what our passions are as individuals and the power we have when we work together. The Mid-South Center does terrific work for the people of Memphis and was a great change of pace for us during the middle of our trip.

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Day Four ended on a different note, one that allowed me to see the ways I should reconsider power and collaboration, but the time spent on the Ole Miss campus reinvigorated my interests in public memory and sparked ideas for future articles that I hope to begin putting together over the next few weeks. While I loved the history and sites we visited in Jackson and the Delta, it was the campus that really stood out as showcasing how gatekeepers construct public memories for individuals. I think this experience will shape my research for years to come.

TCU Civil Rights Bus Tour–Day Three

Charles McLaurin entered our small breakfast group the morning of March 8th and rotated around the group inconspicuously. Eventually I made my way to him and shook his hand. “You know,” he leaned in to tell me, “you and me couldn’t have been here in 1962. And if we were here, that would mean they were gonna hang the both of us.” So began the third day of the civil rights bus tour.

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McLaurin is a bit of a legend in the Mississippi Delta. He was a key member of the SNCC movement in the area and has been arrested over forty times in his life for agitating unjust laws and authorities. He had been a key supporter of Fannie Lou Hamer and was the field organizer who led much of the Freedom Summer registration in Sunflower County. Arguably, McLaurin is one of the most important civil rights leaders who is still living today, and it was a special honor to spend the day touring the civil rights history of the Delta with him.

Our bus drove through many small cities in the Delta today, including Ruleville, Greenville, Indianola, Drew, and Glendora. Instead of touching on each city I want to highlight a couple of important moments in the day that stood out.

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First, in Ruleville, we visited the Fannie Lou Hamer Garden and Museum. Compared to most other museums I have visited throughout my life, this place seemed much less fortunate. They didn’t have the funds to support the beautiful site that Hamer deserves, yet people in the community had still fought to have Hamer remembered. This made me realize how vital it is to have people fight for the local histories, especially when the state doesn’t explicitly support them. I felt a deeper desire to help certain museums financially and in any other capacity in my future.

But the funds the museum has raised helped memorialize the legacy of Hamer. Still to this day, you can see a twinkle in McLaurin’s eyes when he speaks of her, and as he and a curator guided us through the exhibit, I learned not only more on Hamer’s desire, but also the struggle involved in keeping her story alive. The museum also purchased a beautiful lot where Hamer is buried and built a monument to her honor there. The statue, showing Hamer in her favorite stance as an organizer, distinguishes itself from other statues. Together, seeing the history combined with local people’s efforts to maintain it, marks her museum and park as a special place that I will remember forever.

Next, we visited the museum for Emmett Till and also the small store where he was first accused of soliciting a white woman. The museum in the small town of Glendora is surrounded by the impoverished. All the houses in town are crumbling and have been left behind by modern society and state money. Yet, still this community support the Till museum in the old barn where he was actually tortured and murdered. Most amazingly at this site, the curators have constructed a coffin and a fake, disconfigured body that resembles the horrific shape of Till’s open casket funeral. It seems, rhetorically speaking, the museum fulfills the same purpose that Till’s mother wanted in having the open casket: they want visitors to feel that visceral, complex reaction in seeing the brutality of racism.

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Today taught me a lot on not just the history of civil rights but also the ways people keep memory alive. I see it in the fight for funds and grants, I see it in the unique placement of plaques and memorials, and I see it in the visual reminders of the harsh world around us. The Delta has to fight for their history. They do not have the national spotlight that places like Selma, Birmingham, and even Memphis do. Thus, the have to go through greater struggles and more hoops to remain an important part of history. Seeing how people like McLaurin and even local sites tell their stories gives me all the inspiration I need to keep researching how rhetorics of public memory affect histories and communities.

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Civil Rights Bus Tour– Day 2

Well, the wifi at our hotel is crummy, so I will be writing this post (and probably the next) from my phone. That probably means these will both be shorter because I really don’t want to write frommy phone.

Today was a long and tiring journey. We woke up and ate breakfast at the hotel and left for our first stop. Jackson is an interesting city. The downtown district and communities near Jackson State University shows how impoverished the city and state are. On one street we drove down today, we literally saw ten total houses that were all abandoned and decaying. These streets once held a vibrant a black community and we’re one of the homes of the modern civil rights struggle. Yet these failing infrastructures reminded me of how quick we are able to forget our roots. 

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We stopped on the edge of Jackson State University at was once the home of COFO. COFO was the group formed by SNCC, NAACP, SCLC, and CORE, and was pioneered by Bob Moses in Mississippi. Today we met Keith McMillan who is the COFO headquarters curator. He began by telling the history of the movement and the building. Most interesting to me was that the state of Mississippi didn’t even recognize the site with a historical marker until 2011.

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Once we finished our quick discussion, we took the short walk to the Jackson Masonic Lodge, which also housed (and still houses) the NAACP during the 1960s. Here we met Frank Figures, a local historian, who filled us in on the history of the building and it’s importance in the movement. We were actually standing in a site where the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party organized caucuses, where Medgar Evers ran the local movement, and where Freedom Riders had lessons in the early 1960s. Remarkably the bullet holes that had been shot into the NAACP offices in the 1960s, more than five of them, still remained reminders of the town’s tragic history.

Once we left the lodge, we headed back to COFO and talked to two local legends: Flonzie Brown Wright and Hollis Watkins. Both of these people had been a part of the movement in the 1960s and had stayed in the area afterwards to keep up the good fight. Most interstingly both of them were stark contrasts of the nonviolent leaders we imagine: both carried weapons and were not afraid to use them in defense. Wright even stated that she believed the whole nonviolence stance on national level was only pragmatic, most local people actually would resort to violence if push came to shove.

We finished our meeting with these two legends by singing a few liberation hymns, and Watkins led the charge in getting us involved in harmonizing. After a quick lunch in the office, we headed out on a more thorough tour of Jackson. First, we took in the Jackson State Tragedy memorial on campus. The tragedy parallels the Kent State killings, and these two events were only eleven days apart. Here, two black students were murdered (supposedly by police) and eleven were injured on campus. The crime was never solved. Again, the state of Mississippi only put up a plaque to honor these students in 2009 or 2010.

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In our last big stop for the day, we visited Medgar Evers house, the location he was shot and killed in the early-1960s, which sparked much of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. The home is now a museum, and we were able to walk through the home and still see the bullet hole from the shot that killed Evers. The visceral effect of being in the place we’re a man died for a cause was unnerving. I felt moved but also helpless. But overall, I couldn’t help but think that Evers life meant something. In dying, he became a martyr, one who has evolved into a legend in local lore.

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The day ended with a dinner on our way to Indianola. We got to the hotel at 9 and will be travelling through the Delta the next two days.

I will be posting more on our trip in the upcoming days and hope you continue to track our journey together. Thanks!

 

Civil Rights Bus Tour– Day One

“People ask me why I go after these old murderers in the KKK, years after their crimes,” Jerry Mitchell told a crowded room of TCU students tonight in Jackson, Mississippi. The audience was silent. “These are young killers, I tell them. They just happen to get old.”

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Today marked the first leg of TCU’s civil rights bus tour through the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, and Little Rock. We left Fort Worth this morning at 9:00 am heading east and didn’t stop until we made it to Ruston, Louisiana, only a few hours out from Jackson. While Ruston was not on our scenic tour in the South, I learned from my colleagues about its history. In 1938, a 19 year-old black boy, R.C. Williams, was lynched. As the town mob burned him to death, they actually put out the flames for a moment so they could get his fingerprints. Then they re-lit the fire and murdered Williams. The story of Williams illustrates the utter ignorance of racial hatred, the idea that a mob found a man guilty without giving him a fair trial, and while killing him decide it might be best to get his fingerprints. This story, while not even an actual historical moment on our stop, sheds light on the work we are doing as a class. We are digging up old bones, histories people want to forget. And as we keep digging under new rocks, we keep finding more and more bones.

After lunch in Ruston, we made it into Jackson around 4:30 pm, giving us just enough time to get some rest before leaving for dinner at 5:30. Though I was tired after the long trip, I was interested in having our dinner with Jerry Mitchell. Reading his biography on our trip taught me that he had uncovered truths about infamous KKK murders, leading to high-profile arrests and murder convictions decades after the slayings in the 1960s. We left for dinner in northern Jackson at Sal and Mookie’s. The pizza was delicious but even more incredible was meeting Jerry Mitchell.

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Mitchell, a fifty-five year-old reporter in Jackson, has had an incredible life. In 1989, he watched the film Mississippi Burning that sparked a desire in him. Mitchell wanted to actually investigate who committed some of these murders and atrocities in the Civil Rights South. First, he was able to investigate one Klansman for the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi. Next he put a KKK leader, Sam Bowers, behind bars for his involvement in the bombing of Vernon Dahmer. More recently, he has helped convict Bobby Cherry and Edgar Ray Killen for their crimes in the Birmingham church bombing and the murders of the three civil rights workers outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

His work garnered him a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” as well. In his speech to TCU students tonight, Mitchell attributed his success to his own desire for truth. Truth is what can lead us to reconciliation. Truth is not just acknowledging history but making it matter. Truth is taking these “old KKK murders” and making them pay for the crimes they committed decades ago. Even when faced with multitudes of death threats and slurs, Mitchell states that he tries to live fearlessly. “Living fearlessly doesn’t mean not having fear,” he told us. “Rather, it is knowing that you are doing something greater than yourself.” The fear only lets him know that he is on the right path.

Mitchell was a fascinating person to talk to on our bus trip and was a wonderful person to end our first day. Although we did more traveling and less site-seeing, he inspired many of the students in his talk. On the bus heading home, everyone was discussing what he said, how he affected them personally, and how his talk applies to their understanding of civil rights. I have similar a feeling. My dissertation studies why a white preacher (Charles Moore) in my hometown of Grand Saline, TX decided to self-immolate on a summer day in 2014. The preacher claimed the town was racist and he wanted them reconcile their history with their present, to move past their old biases. The town rejected his claim outright.

But truth…truth matters.

Truth matters enough to Mitchell that he has dedicated his life over the past twenty-five years to investigating KKK crimes against black people in South. Truth matters to Charles Moore and his commitment to self-immolating in hopes that it could bring some form of justice. Truth matters to me too, and that is why I believe my dissertation is so engrained in my identity. Truth is all I can ever hope for.

At the end of the evening, I told Mitchell about my work, and he graciously gave me his card and told him to email him information about the case. I am thankful that he would even consider talking with me about my work, but it also provided me with my own “truth” for the evening: people like Mitchell will always want to lend an extra hand because they understand how valuable and pertinent the hard fight for the truth is.

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That wraps up the first day for our TCU trip. I hope to post again tomorrow. Please feel free to share this with your friends and family and follow our journey along the rest of the way!

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.

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“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).

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“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.

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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.