Hobby for nosy people

I took up a new hobby last year – estate sale shopping. Like my “hobby” of ghost town collecting, this new pastime does not require amassing a large collection of finds that I have to find storage for, however. Going to estate sales is, for me, simply another way to satiate my nosiness.

But I have to make myself clear; I’m not nosy about other people’s possessions. Rather, I like to go inside houses to savor, comment, critique, enjoy, and marvel at their architecture. And the older the house, the better. At the Dallas-area estate sales I frequent, I have the opportunity to visit early and mid-century homes that had been owned by one family for decades. After the last of the parental generation dies off, their possessions go on sale and the house itself is also up for grabs. Often, that means that the house will no doubt become bulldozer fodder as the new homeowners wish to transform geographically desirable addresses into fashionably designer homes with the latest accouterments. I could pretend to be understanding in their desire to tear down the older homes to build more modern ones. It’s their money, right? And everyone wants the latest conveniences, right?

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Not a modern house.

But I’d be lying. I LIKE the older homes. I think pink, tiled bathrooms, with built-in toothbrush holders, are awesome. I cannot contain my enthusiasm when I encounter a vintage metal kitchen, often painted in a cheery yellow. Massive brick fireplaces with wooden mantles, built-in corner china cabinets, transoms, stained-glass windows, arched doorways, crystal door knobs, telephone nooks, linoleum, shag carpeting, scuffed wooden floors, decorative plaster… I’m a big fan.

Estate sales offer the rare opportunity for me to see these hidden gems before they’ve been demolished, and without having to employ a real estate agent, either. Visiting these sales is like capturing a small moment in time, before the future obliterates the past.

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Published in: on January 13, 2016 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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What historians do

On my website, Red River Historian, I haven’t often written about controversial topics in history because I tend to shy away from confrontation. Since my readers are mostly U.S. Americans from the South, there are certain historical events and themes that may be deemed safer if “buried in the past.”

However, I made a resolution to change this – I decided to not be timid anymore. I’ve finished a short article on Dallas’ segregated cemeteries and another one on the Colfax Massacre of 1873. Soon, I’ll be doing a lengthy piece on lynching in the Red River Valley, as for a while, the area had the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent places for African Americans in the United States.

Historians occupy an important role in our society; they confront the present with questions and observations about the past. It’s like they hold a mirror up to us so that we can question our own  prejudices and assumptions. Through their research, they challenge the way we view the nation. I think this is the most important task a historian has: to make the present ACKNOWLEDGE the past. And the past in the U.S. is fraught with all sorts of uneasy topics. Racism is BIG component, of course, as are other -isms like sexism, nativism, nationalism, capitalism (meaning, an economy built on slavery) and more.

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Here’s nativism, racism, and eugenics conveniently packaged in one illustration inside an early 20th century academic journal.

Acknowledgement is something Americans are really good at, even if pundits believe the opposite. History has shown that in the U.S., misdeeds do get remembered and controversial topics are eventually brought to the surface. Recent examples are acknowledgement of what happened at Wounded Knee in 1890, South Carolina removing the the Confederate flag from the state house, and uncovering the complicity of US academe in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.

In the U.S., the truth isn’t hidden for long. I like to think it’s because we’re a nation of seekers. Americans have certain freedoms, and responsibilities that come with those freedoms, that allow for the hidden past to become known. This is done through memory, research, and recording. Though the interpretation of the past might be faulty, all that the wrongness does is to create a dialogue; instead of censoring, we debate, negotiate and adapt.

Acknowledgement does not mean atonement, however. Often, being confronted with the bad parts of history makes people defensive and  dismissive. Denial is one of the five stages of coping, and sometimes, people get stuck in that stage. So, the only thing a historian can do is continue to expose the past… and help students of history eventually acknowledge it.

Published in: on January 7, 2016 at 8:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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.

Antebellum Ghost Towns and the Railroads that did them in

I’ve been making several trips around the Red River Valley to discover forgotten towns for my book project this summer. However, I don’t just look for cemeteries, even though they’re the best way to find old settlements. I want to find actual ruins! I think that remains speak much louder than anything can, so I look for towns with remains.

The other day, I took a trip around Louisiana and found the antebellum town of Allen’s Settlement, which was built around intersecting roads. Because nothing remains of Allen’s Settlement,  I don’t consider it necessarily a “ghost town” that needs to be visited.

Allens Settlement

Allen’s Settlement in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, 1863.

But it makes me wonder – why did some towns thrive and others falter? I guess it’s because most antebellum towns west of the Mississippi River did not survive the railroad boom. It’s not necessarily just because the existing towns didn’t provide enough incentive for the companies to lay tracks, though. These corporations – the original “corporate personhoods”- often had settlement, or rather town building, subsidiaries that speculated on selling land plots. They didn’t want to (or need to) compete with established towns as the state granted them charters, like the land grant companies of old, to entice settlers. They simply built new towns, and the profits of both freight hauling and land sales could be gained by the railroads exclusively.

Examples of the railroad land schemes can be found all over the Red River Valley: Hope (Hempstead County, Arkansas) and Texarkana (Miller County, Arkansas and Bowie County, Texas) were founded by the railroads, as was Denison (Grayson County, Texas).

Hope UP train

Trains made Hope, Arkansas what it is today – including the Hempstead County seat.

Luckily, some antebellum cities along the Red River still exist – Dallas, Sherman, Alexandria, Shreveport, Natchitoches, and Marksville, for example. Being a county seat helped them to survive, of course – however, Hope wrestled the county seat status away from Washington, as did Ashdown from Richmond (Little River County, Arkansas) – so political status was no guarantee. The take-away is that in the American capitalist system, money talks. Cities that were able to incentivize railroads enough for them to lay tracks were able to “weather” the corporate land take-overs.

Railroads might be romantic and all, but above all, they were corporations that changed the very nature of human settlement patterns, at least in the US. They are the true Goliaths.

Published in: on May 16, 2015 at 2:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Moving and Changing in America

My family hails from the South… I mean from way back. They came from the slums of Middlesex, London, and after a generation in Ireland, they boarded a boat to Virginia, whether voluntarily or not. The next generation then squatted in the Bladen swamps of North Carolina, and the next generation after that moved further southwest to the foothills in upcountry Alabama. From there, the next generation dove south to Natchez, Mississippi, then 30 years later north to Shreveport, then 30 years after that my father was born in Fort Worth, Texas.

I’m mentioning this not because I’m a genealogist (I gleaned all this information from other family historians who are far more interested than I am), but because I’m fascinated by what makes America tick. And that tick seems to be movement and change.

This motel was once a busy stop when US 80 still hummed through Ranger, Texas.

Aboriginal Americans moved around, often for trade purposes or, in the case of Plains tribes, to follow food sources. African Americans, once freed from the bounds of slavery, sought freedom through courage by traveling to northern cities, joining cattle drives and the army, or simply by traveling to the southern schools under hostile conditions. Poor whites, like my family, constantly searched for better economic conditions.

Americans are a people with itchy feet. It doesn’t matter where their families originate, or how they got here… each generation is on the go, looking for greener  pastures and better opportunities. Living in a country that was founded and shaped by these restless people makes me see how much the US culture invokes this spirit of moving.

Abandoned cotton gin along LA 1

Often, it’s the physical landscape that reflects this quest for finding something better “just around the corner.” Think of the many abandoned cemeteries that scatter around haphazardly. In Europe, cemeteries tend to be associated with a long-standing church, and the congregation takes care of them. Not so in the US… families buried their dead on their own plots of land and then, when the next generation moved on, those graves stood forgotten and overgrown. Entire towns lived and died with the tide and ebb of economy and location. Certain cities grow, while others are barely holding on. Some schools are bursting at the seams, and others sport boards over their windows and doors. Buildings that once defined a community are torn down for newer construction that can be renamed by current movers and shakers. Big factories sit shuttered. Rail lines and roads become weed-strewn scars on the landscape as newer commercial byways change how towns function – think of industrial loops and interstates.

Our cultural legacy is constantly changing, too. Our history has had many wrongs – slavery, forced Indian removal, segregation and racism – and on the whole, Americans address these issues bit by bit so that my son sees people in various shades of brown, not black or white. My grandmother canned her fruits and vegetables, but I need to look up how to do that on the internet, and “foodies” are “rediscovering” recipes that thirty years ago were considered everyday fare. We fill our homes – in which most of us will not grow old  – with things that are cheap and easy, not necessarily long-lasting. Shoot, we think a phone or computer is obsolete when they’re over a year old…

Even churches aren’t safe from a changing and moving population, like this one in Atoka, OK.

I’m not writing from the perspective of a high horse here, either. I’m part of this legacy of change. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, my grandmother, who lived in San Angelo, saved enough money to buy 12 acres and a grocery store in Red River County, Texas. Years later, my mom and step-dad built a cottage on the land, the store having been abandoned long ago. Now, my mother has to sell the house and land that’s been in our family for three generations because my sister and I live and work in big cities, and we’re not willing to move back.

While the United States is a young country, relatively speaking, and is still defining itself, the definition seems to be one of transience. Our geography and culture reflect that. Maybe this perspective will lessen as the nation grows older, with fewer opportunities to start anew. Or maybe we’ll just continue to blaze new trails and leave our old worlds behind, whether that is in a new location, or in the fact that we forget how to bake a pie from scratch, or just because we’re always searching for who we are – when in fact, change is who we are.

 

Published in: on November 23, 2012 at 6:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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