Thursday, August 27, 2009

Finding the Site of Bernardo and Pleasant Hill Plantations

An archeological team from the Texas Historical Commission conducted a remote sensing investigation of two historic plantations located near Hempstead, Texas during the week of August 17 -21. These activities took place on the historical sites of the adjacent Bernardo and Pleasant Hill Plantations, of which nothing remains except for a few vague surface features such as a collapsed cistern. Dr. Jim Bruseth, director of the Texas Historical Commission's Archeology Division, led the remote sensing team. They laid out survey grids and performed remote electronic sensing on several prospective plots that included Bernardo Plantation’s main house, cemetery, and slave quarters, while they also searched for the location of neighboring Pleasant Hill Plantation. (At left: Dr. Jim Bruseth describes the project to visitors from the THC.) In addition to Dr. Bruseth, members of team from the THC included Tiffany Osborne, Jeff Durst, and Bill Pierson, along with the State Archeologist Patricia Mercado-Allinger. Additional archeologists, both professonal and avocational, from across Texas also participated in this effort, many of them from the Houston Archeological Society. My two daughters and I worked as volunteers at the site for several days.
Historically, both of these plantations belonged to members of the Groce family prior to the Civil War. These two plantations are among the most significant in Texas history. They began as one plantation, Bernardo. Jared Groce came to Texas in January, 1822, bringing over one hundred slaves with him. He founded his plantation near a popular crossing point on the Brazos River, naming it most likely after the governor of Spanish Louisiana during the American Revolution, Bernardo de Gálvez. In the early 1830s, the senior Groce split the property between his two sons: Leonard took the earlier establishment at Bernardo while son Jared founded Pleasant Hill, which was carved out of the western portions of the property. (At right: Patricia Mercardo-Allinger points out locations at the site.) The original 1822 Bernardo Plantation was thus the first major plantation founded in antebellum Texas and it remained the largest in terms of its slave population until the Civil War. As such, it also represented, along with the others in the Brazos valley, the western edge of the southern plantation belt which extended from the Atlantic coast to Texas. It constitutes “ground zero” for the historical study of plantation life in Texas prior to the 1860s.
Remarkably, the sites of these two plantations were lost from memory by the early 20th Century as progress took its toll on the area. Thanks to the efforts of Gregg Dimmick, M.D., who wrote the fine book "Sea of Mud," the approximate sites of both plantations have again been located. Importantly, Jim Woodrick, as project historian, has been conducting detailed documentary research on the sites, in the process writing over a one hundred page historical analysis. Charles Gordy -- along with Dimmick, Woodrick, and several others -- has also been expending much effort and time to investigate the site. (At left: Robert Marcom displays artifacts found at Pleasant Hill.) A very cooperative and historically-minded land owner, Greg Brown of Houston, has given archeologists access to his property in order to conduct their research. All of these factors resulted in the appearance of the Texas Historical Commission archeological survey crew, which spent a full week doing magnetometer and other remote sensing on the sites. Preliminary results indicate the existence of several specific locations on the site that will likely prove worthy of additional archeological investigation. While the THC team has gone back to Austin to analyze more fully the collected data, the southeast Texas archeologists who have been developing this archeological site will continue their work as part of an on-going project under the direction of the two co-principal investigators, Dr. Carol McDavid and Robert Marcom, both of Houston. This project has the potential to be a landmark event for the study of Texas history during the antebellum era.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Allie Tennant and the James Butler Bonham Statue

I am current writing a biography of Allie Victoria Tennant, a Dallas sculptor who lived from 1892 to 1971. She is best known today in North Texas, especially in Fannin County, as the sculptor of the 1938 statue of James Butler Bonham on the courthouse grounds of the city which bears his name. Yesterday, I spoke to the Bonham, Texas Kiwanis Club about this statue and Miss Tennant’s sculpting of it. Webb Roberts, the director of the monument program, visited Bonham in 1937 and talked with the local centennial committee about possible locations, after which he visited Allie Tennant to discuss the specifications for the statue. She finished the clay model in Dallas in the spring of 1938, and it was cast in plaster for shipping to the New York foundry. Once there, artisan technicians pointed up the plaster model to its final size and made the moulds for the bronze casting. All of these processes were done by the firm of E. Gargoni and Sons, one of the preeminent art foundries in the nation. Eugene G. Gargoni was 71 years of the age at the time of this casting. He had come from Florence, Italy when he was a young man, and became a founder. He operated this foundry with his seven sons. Hence, in technical point of fact, the statue of James Butler Bonham was born at the Eugene G. Gargoni and Sons Art Foundry located at 467 142nd Street in the Bronx section of New York City. By December of 1938, the larger-than-life size statue had been shipped to the town of Bonham from New York City, where on the 10th of that month, Allie supervised its placement on a marble base designed by the Texas architect Donald Nelson. The pink marble came from the same Marble Falls quarry that had produced stone for the state capitol building in Austin. The Rodriquez Brothers of San Antonio cut the marble pedestal in their workshop and shipped it to Bonham, where it arrived at the same time as the statue. The total cost for the art work, marble, carving, and shipping was $7500. A committee of Bonham leaders and civic boosters set the dedication of the statue for Sunday, December 18, 1938. H. A. Cunningham served as master of ceremonies at this event. Webb Roberts formally presented the statue to the residents of Fannin County on behalf of the State of Texas. County Judge J. E. Spies accepted the monument with a rousingly patriotic speech that concluded with the words "Remember the Alamo and Remember Goliad!" The President of the James Butler Bonham chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Mrs. Fred Schenkenberg, gave an account of the Texas patriot’s life. Congressman Sam Rayburn delivered the main address and expressed his appreciation for the statue. Mrs. Edgar Wade of Dallas, Bonham’s grand-niece, pulled the cord which unveiled the statue, after which the ceremonies concluded with a spirited singing of "Texas Our Texas" by the Bonham children's choir. Today, the statue still stands on the courhouse grounds.

Read the North Texas E-News Article about my talk.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Visit to the Houston Metropolitan Research Center

Earlier this summer, my wife Victoria Cummins and I spent time researching our Texas artist project at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, which is a division of the Houston Public Library. This important library and archival facility deserves to be known by every person who researches and writes about Texas history. The HMRC, as it is popularly known, is one of two related archival facilities operated by the Houston Public Library. The other is the Clayton Library for Genealogical Research, located elsewhere in the city. The public library in Houston some time ago divided its collections so that genealogists who are researching family history are better served at the Clayton Library, while historians writing about Texas can find much useful information at the HMRC. Our visit was greatly facilitated by one of our Austin College alumni, Joanna Collier, class of 1993, who is an HMRC staff member. (Joanna and I are pictured at left.) We also enjoyed meeting the director, Kemo Curry, who came to the facility in early 2008. (Kemo Curry and I admire the Ideson Building lobby at right.) The HMRC has extensive holdings of Houston and coastal bend manuscript collections, comprised mostly of the letters and papers of local residents, businesses, religious groups, and organizations. Its Texas and Local History Collection contains books, maps, government publications, and newspaper clipping files that document of history of Houston. It also holds an historical newspaper index that permits researchers to access materials from the local papers. At present, the HRMC is housed in the historic Texas Room of the Julia Ideson Building, an architectural landmark. (At left, Victoria Cummins, Kemo Curry, and Joanna Collier consult in the Texas Room.) Built in 1926, the Ideson Building served as the first home for the entire Houston Public Library. Designed in Spanish revival style, its ornate lobby contains important murals by Ruth Pershing Uhler and Emma Richardson Cherry. An extensive construction project is currently underway to add a new wing to the building, one that was planned back in the mid-1920s but never built. When that new wing is opened, it is anticipated that the HMRC will move from the Texas Room to new quarters in that area.

Click Here for the web site of the HMRC

Click Here for the web site of the Friends of the Texas Room

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Every Texan an Historian" Neilson Rogers of Sherman, 1915-2009

This morning marked the funeral service of Neilson Rogers, Sherman attorney and an historian of Grayson County. Neilson was a Texas original who was an extraordinary person. He was an outstanding and prominent attorney who came from a family dedicated to the law and to public service. Neilson practiced for many years in Sherman with his father Fred, who had been a candidate for governor of Texas back in the 1920s. The elder Rogers also served in the administrations of both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman before returning to Sherman, where he entered into practice with his son Neilson, whose own career at the bar began in 1938. Neilson attended the University of Texas Law School, where his classmates and life-long friends included John Connally, J. J. "Jake" Pickle, and Bob Eckhardt, among others. Neilson had many wonderful stories about their forays into University of Texas campus politics and their law fraternity highjinxs, some of which involved the sometimes disapproving reaction of legendary law Dean Ira P. Hildebrand, a person for whom Neilson always held a high regard. Neilson spent his entire legal career as a leader in the Grayson County bar and, even in his mid-90s, he went to his law office most everyday, a place that came increasingly to resemble a history museum. I knew him for almost thirty years because Neilson adopted the cause of Texas history with a passionate dedication and a constant vigor. He and I spent many wonderful hours discussing Texas history and he kept me abreast of his research. Neilson wrote several books about the history of Sherman. As well, he conducted extensive research into the early settlement of the Red River valley by Anglo-Americans during the 1820s and 1830s. For his historical interests alone, he is worthy of notice, especially because there are today hundreds of individuals today across Texas who have historical interests analogous to those of Neilson Rogers, each of them an expert on their local town or county. As educated and involved people of affairs, people such as Neilson manifest a great interest in the heritage of the Lone Star State, locality by locality. They give daily proof to the adage that "Every Texan is an Historian." Dedicated and passionate, many of them might not be "professional" historians in the technical sense, but they all greatly advance the cause of history in Texas by what they do, which is to further the importance of local history all across the state. Today their number is smaller by one.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The A. C. McMillan African American Museum, Emory, Texas

How do a group of dedicated Texans start a successful museum from scratch with little more than their memories, with an unknown number of artifacts scattered in various people’s homes, and carried along by some remarkable enthusiasm, but without all of the big-city resources usually needed for such a massive undertaking. That is exactly what a group of dedicated individuals did in Emory,Texas starting just over a decade ago. This small community is the courthouse town of approximately 1,000 people for Rains County, located about an hour’s automobile drive northeast of Dallas. The museum that they created, the A. C. McMillan African American Museum, has become a cultural resource of growing importance for the northeastern part of Texas. This interesting museum has long attracted my attention because it has one of the most compelling stories of any such institution in the Lone Star State. Alfred Clifton (A.C.) McMillan (1921-1985) was a teacher and administrator in the Rains County School District for thirty-six years. An African American educator, he graduated from Texas College, attended Prairie View A&M, Texas Southern University, and received an M.A. from East Texas State University. Coming of age as an educator in the era of segregation, Mr. McMillan spent much of his career as a teacher and the principal at the Sand Flat School, a four classroom Rosenwald Fund building that met the educational needs of the local Black population for over forty years. With integration, McMillan joined the white faculty of the school district and retired as the Principal of the Rains County Junior High. After his passing, McMillan’s daughter, Gwendolyn McMillan Lawe, of Dallas and her husband Theodore M. Lawe, decided to found a museum in Emory that would tell the historical story of African Americans in northeast Texas, with special focus on segregation and its demise. (Ted Lawe is seen at right.)
The Lawes, two people who had been successful in business and educational circles in Dallas, have a flair for organization and hard work. They brought to the creation of this museum a determined efficiency that has today placed the museum on a sound footing. With the support of Mr. McMillan’s widow, the people of Emory embraced the museum, provided a number of artifacts, and enthusiastically volunteered their time. The Lawes also enlisted the support and involvement of the state’s historical community, spreading the message of their museum and its work in such forums as the Texas State Historical Association and the East Texas Historical Association. A milestone in those efforts came in 2004 when Ted Lawe appeared on the program of the Texas State Historical Association in Austin to talk about the A. C. McMillan Museum in a session that also included Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, who surveyed the L.B.J. Presidential Library, and Dr. Patrick Cox, who gave an overview of the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s a long journey from the Sand Flat School to being placed by an historical association in the same company with a Presidential Library and one of the largest university archives in the nation, but that is the path the A. C. McMillan Museum has been following. An additional accolade comes to the museum this year because Ted Lawe is currently serving as the President of the East Texas Historical Association. This fine museum in Emory deserves to be better known to the people of Texas, most of whom would learn much by visiting it, both about the African American history of the state and also what can happen when determined people put themselves to work in order to implement a vision. (At left, I visit with Anthony Porter of the museum staff.) The museum is located in Emory on Texas Street near the courthouse square, but you really don’t need the address. Just ask anyone in town and they will proudly get you there.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Canary Islanders and the 278 Anniversary of Municipal Government in San Antonio

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking at a grand and gala banquet in San Antonio hosted by the Canary Island Descendants Association. Rueben Perez was my host. This group, whose President is Dorothy Perez, is composed of individuals who descend from the sixteen Canary Island families, some 56 people, who came to San Antonio de Bexar in 1731 under the sponsorship of the Spanish colonial government in order to found a civil settlement at that place. Shortly after arriving, these early eighteenth century settlers created a Cabildo, the town council stipulated by Spanish law as the form of local government for its settlements. As the modern City of San Antonio is a direct successor to that Spanish Cabildo, it is today the oldest municipal government in Texas. The San Antonio musical group, Los Innocentes, provided entertainment for the occasion. It was a fantastic honor for me to be introduced, at left, by one of the most significant historians of South Texas, my long-time friend Judge Robert H. Thonhoff of Karnes City. He is the author of several important books on the Spanish heritage of Texas in addition to being a former President of the Texas State Historical Association. In that regard, it was a pleasure to hear him say nice things in his introduction about the historical association and its work. My remarks surveyed the history of the Canary Island migration to the Gulf Coast areas of Spanish America during the eighteenth century. I highlighted the history of the Canary Islanders in San Antonio while I also provided an overview of the group that settled in Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana. As well, I made the point that the Canary Islanders today constitute an almost forgotten minority in this region. Not completely Spanish in heritage, they are a distinct group of people in Spain and they continued their distinctive culture in Texas and Louisiana. It is my belief that they have never been popularly recognized as a group because, when the Anglo-Americans came to the area in the early 19th century, they viewed the Canary Islanders as part of the Spanish-speaking population and failed to recognize their unique historical contributions to the culture of the area. Additionally, Spain did little as a modern nation to highlight the Canary Islanders in its own cultural mix until the 1970s. Happily, as I noted in my talk, that situation has now changed. Over the last thirty years, groups such as the Canary Island Descendants Association and other similar ones have made great strides in bringing the history of these early settlers to the forefront of the state’s historical awareness. It was an honor for me to presented the gift of a Texas flag that recently flew over the Alamo. In addition, at the conclusion of the banquet, Robert Benavides presented the group with a Canary Islands banner from the government of Spain. Pictured at the left are me, my host Rueben M. Perez, and Judge Thonhoff.

From the Handbook of Texas The Canary Islanders

Sunday, August 2, 2009

“The Source for All Things Texas:” The Enduring Texas Almanac

What a bargain! You can currently purchase for only $5.00 your very own copy of the 2008-09 Texas Almanac, a hefty volume with hundreds of pages containing all sorts of information about almost anything you might want to know about the state. Click Here for the 2008-09 edition. If you join the Texas State Historical Association, you can also pre-order an advance copy of the 2010-11 edition of the Almanac at the 30% member’s discount. Click Here for the 2010-11 edition. These purchases are now possible because, in May 2008, the Texas State Historical Association acquired the Texas Almanac from The Dallas Morning News. This venerable reference book has thus joined the other titles on the roster of the historical association’s distinguished publications. The Almanac, as the most indispensable reference work on Texas, ranks as the oldest serial publication in the state. As such, the Almanac has remained for over one hundred and fifty years the essential point of reference for any person seeking information about the Lone Star State. The first edition was published by the Galveston News in January 1857, just 21 years after Texas won its independence from Mexico and only 12 years after it became a state. In 1885, the Galveston News spun off The Dallas Morning News as a sort of North Texas branch newspaper. George Bannerman Dealey (pictured at the right) was sent from Galveston to establish the Morning News in Dallas. Dealey thought the Almanac would be a good way to encourage the economic development of the state, so under his leadership the Dallas Morning News undertook publication of the Texas Almanac until last year when the historical association took it over from the corporate parent of the News, the A. H. Belo Corporation. The Almanac staff moved to the offices of the Texas State Historical Association, located on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton, where they are busily at work on the upcoming 2010-11 edition. The TSHA has impressive plans to bring the Texas Almanac into the twenty-first century of modern historical research by digitizing all previous issues and making them available free of charge online to any person who wants to consult them. These digitized previous editions of the Almanac will be part of the Portal to Texas History Project housed in the University of North Texas Library. The Portal Project has been implementing for a number of years an ambitious digitization program that has placed on its website thousands of published and archival materials dealing with the history of Texas. Previous editions of the Texas Almanac starting with the first 1857 edition will be joining that ever expanding group of historical resources on the Portals to Texas History website.