A complaint about access

Indulge me for a moment while I vent a consistent frustration of mine… and probably one experienced by historians (professional and lay alike) everywhere.

This past weekend, I took a trip up to Oklahoma to see if I could spot the remains of historically significant sites. Specifically, I was seeking the Oklahoma historical marker, placed in 1958, for Nail’s Crossing, a stage stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail and Stagecoach route. I was also seeking the possible remains of the Wapanucka Academy, a boarding school established for Chickasaw girls before the Civil War. During the war, the school acted as a temporary hospital.

Wapanucka academy possible ruin

I’m not saying this aerial image (from Google Maps) depicts the old Wapanucka Aademy site; I’m just saying I’d like to have the opportunity to find out.

I was thwarted in my endeavors on both accounts. For one, there were no posted indications at all that anything historic was in their respective vicinities. Not only that, but when attempted to access the places after my careful research to pinpoint their locations, I was met with “no trespassing” signs. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like getting shot, so I heeded the warnings and left the road trip “empty handed.” I was disappointed, to say the least – especially because Google Maps indicated that these sites were, in fact, close to country lanes. These roads no doubt have been taken over by land owners and are now considered private.

Nails Crossing possible site

Notice how Google Maps has Nail’s Crossing Road going all the way to the Blue River? Well, access is restricted past the last driveways on both the southeast and northwest sides. The red circle is where, I surmise, the crossing took place. A bridge was erected there before the Civil War.

It bothers me greatly that important historic are tucked away for only a select few to access. For example  rivers (and their shorelines) and cemeteries are both considered public lands. Yet consistently, I find my access to both restricted. I cannot access the Nail family cemetery at the Blue River, nor the Colbert family cemetery near the old ferry crossing and toll bridge on the Red River. Just getting down to the Red River beyond the obvious access points is a feat in itself.

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The old Nail’s Crossing road can no longer be traversed.

While I love Oklahoma, I must point out that this state is particularly bad about historic site preservation and access. Although mid-century historical committees urged restoration and upkeep of historical sites and continued placement of historical markers, often their advice was not heeded. Instead, the intrepid explorer continually finds herself having to use historical maps and anecdotes to find sites that have been already surveyed and documented previously. The land owners that allowed access to one group may restrict further attempts at visitation, or the descendants/new owners are simply not interested. While I do not mind the research I invest in finding the sites, I do mind that I cannot visit their physical remains.

Nails crossing what the committee wanted to do

http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/v036/v036p446.pdf

Here’s a description of what the historical committee recommended for Nail’s Crossing in 1958. Nothing came to fruition, however. To read more about the 1958 effort to document the Butterfield Overland Mail & Stagecoach route in Oklahoma, read this.

History should be as readily accessible and as much documented as possible. It helps the academic, the genealogist, and the community, as historic properties can bring tourist dollars and lend prestige to an area.

And, it helps me. Who wouldn’t want that?

Death Divided

I love strolling through cemeteries – the older and more overgrown, the better, of course. I’m not particularly ghoulish, though. I just enjoy the underlying history that cemeteries provide. Some of that history is relayed in tomb stones and monuments. Often, however, the history is contained beneath more subtle contexts: the layout of the stones, the level of ruin within the cemetery, the innocuous placing of a fence…

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See that fence in the background? It denotes the racial divide at Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Ladonia, Fannin County, Texas.

… that’s right – the South, which my website Red River Historian documents, still contains the remnants of segregation inside many of its cemeteries. Because even in death, the powers that be insisted that races had to remain separated.

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The cemetery in the ghost town of Cannon (Grayson County, Texas) became segregated after the Civil War. The segregation was denoted through a road that divided the two burial grounds, which is visible in the background. Before the war, enslaved people were sometimes interred with their white masters, but their graves were marked with wooden stakes. After the war, the first African American burials were also marked with wooden markers.

In the pre-Civil War period, segregated burial places were not needed, as blacks – most of whom were enslaved – were either buried without so much as a tomb stone, or were interred amongst their masters. There were some designated “slave cemeteries” in a few select locations – such as near large plantations or in the cities – but most of these burial places are no longer visible, as time, neglect, and outright disrespect have taken their toll on them.

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A wooden marker, most likely for an enlsaved person, at Kentuckytown Cemetery (Grayson County, Texas).

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This enslaved woman was interred with the white family at Vittetoe Cemetery (Grayson County). However, her tomb does not commemorate her name – it simply denotes what she was to those who owned her.

The few free people of color often confined their cemeteries within their church yards, such as St. Augustine Church near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

st augustine church grave

A brick tomb at St. Augustine Church cemetery, which was founded by Creole families in the early 19th century, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.

In the period after the Civil War, which historians call “reconstruction,” Southern whites were unwilling to see their former slaves as equals. Cities and communities set aside portions of burial grounds for blacks, but these “Negro Cemeteries” (often deemed “Freedman Cemeteries”) were completely separated, usually by fences, or hedges, or pathways. With little money for upkeep and many African American families leaving the South due to racial violence and economic discrimination, their cemeteries became less maintained. Eventually, many of these boneyards were razed by construction projects or were just simply ignored.

Dallas Greenwood Cemetery Sanborn

The “Negro Cemetery” near Central Expressway in the State-Thomas area of Dallas was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for the expansion of US 75.

History is lost this way. Of course, that may have been the reason behind the neglect and disregard.

Yet, especially in smaller communities, the “Negro Cemeteries” are still extant and active. Black cemeteries are extremely interesting to me, as their very existence lends an aura of defiance against the southern U.S. social structure. Though the tombs may not be as elaborate as those designed for affluent whites, black graves are just as loud – they serve as the final and eternal stamp on the world, indicating that the person buried there mattered as much as any other man or woman.

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While simple, this grave of a black man in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, makes sure to commemorate the person interred within. Tatums is one of Oklahoma’s historical all-black towns.

I plan on visiting and documenting many more black cemeteries. The southern, segregated graveyard is a fascinating aspect of history that tells a lot about not only the people interred there, but about the community in which they’re buried.

History in Ghost Towns

I think I mentioned this before, but if I haven’t, well… I hunt ghost towns. I’d like to do that for a living, but there’s not much money to be made in just driving around and collecting images from abandoned places. If I could make tracking ghost towns a job, I would.

Odell, Texas

But what is a ghost town, exactly? Is it a settlement that’s been completely abandoned? Or is it a place that used to be bigger than it is now? Should towns that have lost their post offices be considered ghost towns, or does the loss of a school signify a dying town as well? Are ghost towns only legitimate if they have remains, or can an old cemetery be considered a town’s remnant?

I’ve learned that the definition of “ghost town” reflects the person who’s documenting them. Some people are very precise in their criteria, while others, like me, just rely on the idea that we know one when we see one.

Goodlett, Texas

While I have always prided myself on my fortune to live in a state littered with failed cities, I’ve learned through the years that ghost towns are EVERYWHERE. You can find them in Japan, in India, in Germany, in Massachusetts, in the Dakotas, in Brazil, and in Australia. Heck, even the Antarctic has an abandoned station. I guess that’s just the nature of the human beast, to pick up the stakes and wander to the next place where one supposes the grass may be greener.

Banty, Oklahoma

What’s neat about our “new world” ghost towns is that, well, they’re relatively new. That means we know much more of their history, and can even track why the towns were founded and how they met their demise. The towns I’ve encountered are almost like living history books. They tell of opportunities met and lost, like Thurber, Texas, a coal mining town that was shuttered by the Texas & Pacific Railroad when they started using oil in their locomotives. You can “read” about neglect, like what happened in Picher, Oklahoma, where the prairie winds let lead-laden chat piles blow dust blow into children’s lungs. And you can trace changing economies, like Doan’s Crossing, Texas, which faded away when the cattle drives stopped coming through town.

I’m going back on the road this weekend to find some more ghost towns. Every time I discover something a new site, I feel like a secret has just been revealed to me. To me, ghost towns really make the past come alive.

Bonita, Texas

Cool Schools

I have to admit that I absolutely HATED school, back when I was forced to go. I honestly believed that the worst invention in history had to have been high school. My bias changed once I went to college. Although I never set foot on any ivy-covered campus, the experiences and eye-opening views I discovered in junior colleges and a small, public, regional university helped me to really appreciate the benefits of an education. I liked the college experience so much, in fact, that I now teach at a community college.

That’s why I decided that I’d give a presentation on the history of schools for an adult extension class. I’ve been driving all around the area – particularly through Oklahoma – to catch some old schools with my camera. So many of the schools sit as ruined hulks on the side of the road, or stand abandoned in the middle of towns… which tells a lot about how shabbily we treat history.

The remains of a school on an Oklahoma prairie.

The remains of a school on an Oklahoma prairie.

Unlike the Old World, where cathedrals and mosques sit prominently in the hearts of their cities and villages, schools were the centers of communities in the United States.  Contrary to popular opinion today, the U.S. has always valued education, and towns had real stakes in the achievements of their young. One might be Baptist, or Methodist, or Jewish, an atheist or a Quaker, but most people had a child or a niece or a nephew or a favorite neighborhood kid that they wanted to see succeed, and so schools became the great equalizers.

Of course, that’s a rosy view (pun intended, which you’ll understand here in a minute). African Americans, particularly in the South, didn’t enjoy the equalizing effects that education was supposed to provide. At one point, Texas even had a segregated taxing system for schools! Black children were helped through efforts of local citizens as well as by progressive reformers like the Julius Rosenwald Foundation (get the pun?), which distributed funds to help black communities build better school houses and hire qualified teachers.

What used to be a Rosenwald school in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, a freeman's town established after the Civil War.

What used to be a Rosenwald school in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, a freedman's town established after the Civil War.

Education was important for Native Americans as well. While Plains Indians were forced into boarding schools (sometimes far removed from their homes), other tribes, like the Choctaws and Chickasaws, decided on pre-emptive strikes and opened up their own schools, or academies. By the late 1840s, several of these academies served both boys and girls – and even adults, during Saturday classes – all around southeastern Oklahoma.

Wheelock Academy, the first school established by the Choctaws after their removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), is now a National Historic Landmark. The old administration building, built in the 1880s, still stands.

Wheelock Academy, the first school established by the Choctaws after their removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), is now a National Historic Landmark. The old administration building, built in the 1880s, still stands.

Until the 1940s, many students attended schools inside one room school houses. During bad weather – or after the harvest or planting periods – teachers could have up to 50 students in their classrooms, all squeezed together in a drafty, clap-board covered room. Teachers would have to arrive at least an hour before their students in order to get the stove going,  and would leave only after the school house was clean (naughty kids would help with that chore if need be). Especially for women, teaching could be hard going. Prior to the Second World War, female teachers were expected to be unmarried, and they made about a third of what a male teacher earned.  The efforts of the teacher’s unions helped to bring pay equity throughout the country.

The progressive era (turn of the 20th century) helped to foster the idea of high schools. Until that time, high school diplomas were quite rare – most schooling stopped at the 8th grade. However, reform movements, the push towards standardization of education, the proliferation of colleges and universities, and child labor laws created demand for further education. By the 1940s, attending high school had become the norm, which in turn made them true community centers. An entire youth culture developed around them… homecoming dances, proms, yearbooks, football games, “cruising,” and teen movies and novels created memories and lasting impressions.

The beautiful Denison high school, which anchored the western end of Main Street, was razed in 2007. And now a CVS Pharmacy will occupy the spot! Yea, progress!

The beautiful Denison high school, which anchored the western end of Main Street, was razed in 2007. And now a CVS Pharmacy will occupy the spot! Yea, progress!

Today, our high schools tend to be built outside of the city center. I may not be a sociologist, but I have to wonder…

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… if the reason kids aren’t doing too well in school, including having discipline problems, high pregnancy rates, and lacking in higher learning, may have to do with the removal of schools from the middle of town. New schools tend to be built on cheap land away from business and neighborhoods. Most lack windows, and instead of students seeing their communities when they leave the building, they see the vast gray of parking lots. Some schools – like my high school in Paris, Texas – look almost like warehouses. When kids feel marginalized, might they tend to act out?

Then again, the high school in Lewisville (where I live) sits smack-dab in the center of town, even though it was initially built away from town in the 1960s. Suburban growth will do that to a building. The school is a part of life in this city now, and it’s quite nice, seeing students walk to the drug store, Burger King, library, the grocery store, Sonic – it’s as if my town is anchored to the school. In the Fall, I can hear the football games from my bedroom window, and that’s kid of neat (although I have never watched an entire football game in my life).

While I never did care much for compulsory education, I sure do like its history.