15-07 Segment 1: Tomlinson Hill – The story of two families: one white, one black

 

Synopsis: Researching your ancestors is popular these days. It can be exciting if your ancestors were famous or if they had some connection to a historical event. However, it can be painful if your family played a part in one of the darker periods in our history, such as slavery. We talk to a man whose family held slaves and hear how he went back in history and to his family’s home town to confront his past, to meet the relatives of those slaves, and to find out what life was like then and now for the two Tomlinson families.

Host: Gary Price. Guest: Chris Tomlinson, journalist, author of “Tomlinson Hill: The remarkable story of two families who share the Tomlinson name – one white, one black,”

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Tomlinson Hill

Gary Price: Researching your ancestry is popular these days, and t-v shows such as “Finding Your Roots” and “Who Do You Think You Are” draw in viewers by looking into the family histories of movie stars and other celebrities. Researching your own past can be exciting, even for us average people, if your ancestors were adventurers or friends of the mighty and the famous. It can also be painful if they played a role in the darker side of history. It was the latter that drove journalist Chris Tomlinson to look into his Tesax family’s history. He writes about his experiences in his book, “Tomlinson Hill: The remarkable story of two families who share the Tomlinson name – one white and one black”….

Chris Tomlinson: I first learned as a child about the fact that there were black Tomlinsons as well as white Tomlinsons and that we were united by a shared history on a slave plantation in Central Texas. As an adult I learned more about bigotry and prejudice as a war correspondent, and I thought it was time for me to examine my own history, my own family’s history of ethnic violence and the things that they did.

Gary Price: Tomlinson says that slave ownership before and after the Civil War was justified by the “southern aristocracy myth” that was perpetrated by his family and community while he was growing up. It was easy, and even romantic in a way, to believe that your ancestors were benevolent plantation owners than to face reality…

Chris Tomlinson: I think the myth of southern aristocracy is perpetuated with “Gone with the Wind.” This idea of a noble upper class in the south was somehow defending a way of life that was honorable, or that the Civil War really wasn’t about slavery it was about states’ rights. We grow up in the south being able to associate yourself with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler is something that’s encouraged, it’s rewarded. So when I found out my family held slaves, I kind of felt that way, and the people around me supported that.

Gary Price: Tomlinson started the journey into his family’s Tomlinson Hill history with a visit to his father…

Chris Tomlinson: He had a collection of newspaper clippings that the family had collected about the family history. It was mostly obituaries, some marriage announcements. And a chance kind of start there. Figure out who the people are that are involved. I then went to the county courthouse and went through 160 years of records. I used Ancestry.com to build family trees for myself and the black Tomlinsons. And I also read 100 years of newspapers. Marlin is the town closest to Tomlinson Hill and they had a thriving newspaper.

Gary Price: Tomlinson says that the idea of the “good slaveholder” that he grew up with was quickly put to rest by evidence he found in letters and stories that were published in those old newspapers…

Chris Tomlinson: I still have people today who come up to me and say, ‘Yes, my family owned slaves, but they were good slaveholders.’ But the truth is, when you look at what is involved in forcing labor from someone that you’re holding in bondage, that violence is the only way to do that. And I found diaries and I found letters where my ancestors talked about beating slaves, and the importance of beating slaves to maintain authority. Newspaper editors wrote about the curse of the slaveholder who didn’t beat their slaves. That this was somehow undermining the institution. So I think my ancestors were fairly typical: they used violence, they sexually exploited the female slaves. Once I knew the facts and saw what they did and what they did and what they talked about doing, yeah there was no such thing as the good slaveholder. And that was one of the biggest myths that I felt that I needed to dispel.

Gary Price: After the Civil War, Tomlinson says that slaves in Texas were led to believe that they should not move elsewhere, but stay put on their former owners’ farms and negotiate contracts to become sharecroppers. This life, he found out, was just slavery by another name…

Chris Tomlinson: The political power, the economic power still lay in Texas with the people who had owned the slaves, who operated the plantations. And so they developed a system of sharing the crop that meant that the former slaves were just as dependent and just as subject to abuse as they had ever been as slaves. Only now, the landowner had no obligation to care for the sharecroppers, because there was no financial investment in them as individuals. When I read accounts of former slaves, many of them said that slavery was nothing compared to what they suffered as sharecroppers.

Gary Price: He says that sharecropping was structured to keep workers from ever getting out from under the plantation’s power. The landowner’s contract with a black family required the workers to get everything they needed – seeds, tools, clothing, and food – from a particular store. The shop would keep an account of the debt owed by the worker…

Chris Tomlinson: At the end of the year when the harvest came in the first two-thirds of the crop went to the landowner. And that would be their profit. The last third would go to the sharecropper, and that was usually the worst quality of the crop that year. That third would be sold, and there would be a balancing of accounts. Now the whites were the only ones who kept the accounts and inevitably the black family would discover that they were either in debt or had just broken even. And if they were in debt, they were obligated to work for that same white family for the following year. And that’s the way that the landowner was able to maintain control over the black sharecropper.

Gary Price: Not only was the work hard, and the situation unfair around Tomlinson Hill, but lawmen were few and far between in this sparsely populated rural area. Tomlinson says that men took the law into their own hands, and it wasn’t uncommon for a black man to be hanged for making comments to a white woman. In once instance, though, the tables were turned when Columbus Fendrick, a black man employed by a white cotton farmer named Robert Boyd, confronted Boyd for propositioning Fendrick’s wife, Hattie…

Chris Tomlinson: He did what he’d seen the white men do. And he went and got a rifle and got some cartridges and went to Boyd’s house and shot him. And it was this rare instance of turnaround where it was, in this case, a black man lynching a white man for sexually propositioning a woman. And interestingly enough, Columbus was not given the death penalty. There was an attempt to lynch him at the courthouse, but he ended up going to prison.

Gary Price: After the Civil War, Tomlinson says former slaves built what were called “freedom colonies” on the outskirts of white communities. They weren’t acknowledge by the white authorities and remained pretty autonomous – with their own businesses, churches, schools and way of life…

Chris Tomlinson: They tried to be as self-sufficient as possible. One of the black Tomlinsons I spoke to is now 89 years old, talked about what a wonderful community it was. One of my contemporaries, LaDanian Tomlinson, the former football player for the San Diego Chargers, he describes the freedom colony known as Tomlinson Hill as a place where he could go into anyone’s house at any time and they never had any fear and everyone knew each other. And this was where they formed Mason’s Lodges, and fraternal organizations to educate themselves, to build capital, to build businesses and to hopefully escape as much oppression as they could.

Gary Price: Chris Tomlinson’s grandfather, Tommy, was a bigot and probably a member of the Ku Klux Klan during its heyday in the 1920s. He says that Tommy showed what could happen to a child who was brought up in a racist environment and influenced by the Klan…

Chris Tomlinson: He’d just grown up with that old-fashioned belief that black people were simply inferior, that they were almost another species, and that they couldn’t be trusted, and they couldn’t be relied upon, and that was the world he grew up in and that’s what he believed until his death in the 1970s.

Gary Price: His father, Bob Tomlinson, was brought up in this kind of household, but the author says it had a very different effect on him…

Chris Tomlinson: My father on the other hand, grew up in Dallas, and he grew up hearing these things from his grandfather, but it was the 1950s, it was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. And my father realized that my grandfather was just wrong, and he broke the chain of racism in the family, and would later become a member of a couple of civil rights groups in Dallas.

Gary Price: When Chris Tomlinson talked with the black Tomlinsons, did he notice any resentment towards the way they were treated by the white Tomlinsons? He said he met Laurean, LaDanian Tomlinson’s mother, who was comfortable talking about the family and very gracious to him. The only inkling of resentment came from Charles, an older member of the family…

Chris Tomlinson: I met Charles Tomlinson who taught me to pick cotton and walked me across the hill, and really helped make this possible, is 89 years old. And he sometimes when he talked about being a sharecropper as a child, and the white Tomlinsons coming and telling his father that he wasn’t farming enough cotton, and that he wasn’t working hard enough, there was some resentment in his voice.

Gary Price: Some of the younger members of the black Tomlinsons were a bit reticent, and happier to let the slaveholder and sharecropper days remain in the past…

Chris Tomlinson: When I met with LaDanian and his brother LaVar, both of them were reluctant to talk about this. Not because they knew anything bad had happened, but the y really didn’t want to know if my family had abused their ancestors. So there’s still an emotional rawness to these things, but the way I found to overcome that, was to be open and truthful and ready to discuss what happened in a very objective way. And once they understood that I wasn’t there to perpetuate the myth of southern aristocracy, or to somehow pretend that my ancestors did nothing wrong, we were able to have a really honest and good conversation. And I’m proud to say that we consider ourselves part of the same family.

Gary Price: Tomlinson was happy that he learned about his family’s past – warts and all. He says that we need to understand what went on before, so we can understand why things are the way they are today…

Chris Tomlinson: Well, I think if you take a look at what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, right now. When you don’t have that honest recollection and accounting of the past, you end up with two communities that have two very different perspectives, not only on what happened 50 years ago, but on what’s happening today. We’re not a united people if we don’t have a common past. Marlin is caught in a death spiral of rural poverty right now. It needs those two sides of the community which are almost equal black and white now to come together if they hope to bring vibrancy back to their community. And so I think the first step in moving forward is having a common understanding of the past. And that’s why I think we have to talk about it. And that’s why I wrote the book.

Gary Price: You can find Chris Tomlinson’s book, “Tomlinson hill,” at bookstores and online. Chris also invites listeners to visit his website at Tomlinson Hill.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at viewpointsonline.net. I’m Gary Price.

 

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