Not Black and White

Has Marshall changed much in the fifteen years since Bill Moyers’ documentary about it aired on PBS? Yes and no.

January 1999By Comments

ENTERING MARSHALL by just about any route except Interstate 20 or U.S. 59, you drive through long stretches of residential territory with deep, shady front lawns and solid houses. The lush East Texas landscape suggests prosperity, stability, and age; trees shelter the streets, and azaleas and shrubs bank the carefully planted flower beds. Few neighborhoods could appear more seductive. A sense of both time and timelessness permeates the place. Here children have grown up forever in an unending chain of serenity. People have tended their dogwoods and daylilies with the same loving conscientiousness for ten, twelve, fifteen decades. Drive a little farther toward the heart of town and you’ll start to see smaller yards and shabbier houses, but all are still pervaded by the same atmosphere of continuity.

I recently went back to Marshall because I wanted to see how it had changed in the fifteen years since Bill Moyers made a documentary film about it. The film was the initial installment of a PBS series Moyers created called A Walk Through the Twentieth Century. By looking at his own hometown’s past and present—by interviewing its old-timers, remembering his childhood there, and evoking the natural surroundings of East Texas and the historical facts of Marshall’s demography—he let the town reveal itself to itself.

Moyers’ original intent was to scrutinize a specimen of small-town America. During the first half of this century, we were a nation of small towns, he said, and growing up in one provided strong roots and a sense of personal and civic identity. Usually, everyone knew everyone else, a condition that could prove both a comfort and a nuisance. Such places offered a good microcosmic view of what was going on in the nation.

I also had a personal reason for returning to Marshall. In 1985 I had spent a sizable chunk of time there researching a book. I’d been directed to the door of a second cousin, Inez Hatley Hughes, a retired high school English teacher and the director of the Harrison County Historical Museum, who was well known in town for her encyclopedic knowledge of the region and its people. It was she who told me about Moyers’ film. I’d been living abroad when it was televised, and after watching a video of the film, I realized that I had visited Marshall during an intriguing period: immediately after the film was shown, when the town teetered on the cusp of self-conscious change. More than anything, the film reminded me of my own hometown of Corsicana and the world I’d experienced while growing up there. Corsicana had a dense weave of relationships and neighborliness that linked almost everyone I knew. It had deep front yards of St. Augustine grass; it had the common history of generations, the Fourth of July parade, the high school football fever; it had the black section east of the railroad tracks that marked where the one community was painfully severed in two. I felt recognition swell and turn to homesickness as I watched. And suddenly I understood that in fact this film was universal. Moyers was right. It pertained to all of us.

Today Marshall has a population of 25,205. Its central shopping district, like those of other small cities, has long ago diffused into strip malls and a Wal-Mart. The old downtown still presents empty sidewalks, resembling so many dead downtowns throughout the fifty states, although a movement is under way to revive it. The magnificent courthouse that functions as the Harrison County Historical Museum—and which Moyers used as the centerpiece of his film—is slated for a $5 million renovation. The Texas and Pacific depot, too, once an elegant brick landmark for this railroad hub, will undergo a $1.3 million transformation into the Texas and Pacific Railway Museum. Bed-and-breakfasts offer old-world hospitality in several of the fine Victorian homes of the historic district. Other, more recent amenities are grounded in a far-thinking cultural pride: the Michelson Museum of Art, which houses the lifetime oeuvre of painter Leo Michelson, and the new Texas State Technical College campus, whose futuristic architectural flourishes defy the rest of the town’s postbellum ambiance. In short, Marshall’s outward persona is following the pattern of many towns of proportionate size throughout the country: It is cultivating the formalized charm of its past as a salable asset, while developing thruways to the next millennium.

This is not to say that Marshall is turning itself into the theme park that some other regional centers have become—a stultified version of the “old days,” decorated with marketable kitsch, a false nostalgia, and row after row of antiques stores. Marshall is a living, changing organism, filled with as many new faces as native Marshallites. It is like the town I grew up in and so many other small and midsize towns throughout Texas and the U.S. that are wrestling with the problems of economic shift, lost or obsolete industries, and new foundations for survival. They are all engaged in the same struggles of self-definition. Lately they all attract similar kinds of folks, moneyed people who want to escape the fast lanes of the big city to a slower pace and a homier style and who buy the hobby ranch just beyond the outskirts of a small town or an antebellum mansion in the historic district where they can sit on the gallery and sip a bourbon and branch.

Yet in some respects Marshall is an anomaly. The town that has been a seat of great change has also clung hard to tradition—including traditions that other parts of the country saw fit to abandon years ago. Many Texans regard Marshall as more Deep South than the Deep South itself. Before the Civil War, it was home to the largest slave population in the state; slave auctions were conducted up the road at Jefferson’s steamboat dock, where the Red River ran into Caddo Lake. During the war, Marshall was a Confederate stronghold and trade nexus for supplies; it also served as the wartime capital of Missouri. Following the surrender at Appomattox, it became the site of a Freedmen’s Bureau office. In 1984 Moyers found that a few of its citizens still harbored a deep bitterness about Reconstruction, a period predating their own birth. In his film, Inez Hughes quoted another Marshallite’s remark on the day in 1964 that integration became state law: “‘Today we lost the Civil War. Up to that time, we had won it.’”

As the film went on to prove, everyone did not know everyone else in town; a sharp split existed between the African American and white populations throughout the first half of this century that the second half had only then begun to correct. This situation gave the film its name: Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas, a reference to the distinct communities that existed under one name. Despite the astounding number of black sons and daughters from local neighborhoods who went on to achieve success in many disciplines throughout the larger world, Marshall stubbornly maintained its separatism, holding on to the old ways of thinking long after they had been challenged elsewhere across the South. If Texas was among the last states to enforce the integration of schools, Harrison County was among the state’s last counties to implement the desegregation law.

Two black institutions of higher learning, Wiley College and Bishop College, were located in Marshall, and by the spring of 1960 the town had become a center of action for the civil rights movement, with protests at the dime store lunch counter on the courthouse square, fire hoses wielded by firemen, and speeches on the Wiley and Bishop campuses. A native son, James Farmer, Jr., the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the originator of the concept of affirmative action, would emerge as a major force in that struggle. “In May of 1960 the town was so segregated that Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the commencement address at Bishop College’s Marshall campus, and hardly any white person in town knew he’d been there,” says Gail Beil, a journalist and historian who is white. “There was no mention whatsoever of it in the newspaper. But nearly every black person in town knew, down to the smallest child.”

At least five of the people Moyers interviewed have since died, including Inez Hughes, and with them died their particular memories and outlook. The citizens who have moved to town since then came from many locations both in and out of the state. Some of them sought refuge there from the urban melee; some started businesses or entered the education system. And a younger generation of natives has grown up to assume its own part in the civic picture. “New people are coming in and making a significant impact on what is happening here,” says Pat Smith, the former superintendent of schools. “All kinds of people are concerned with the benefit of the town, with revitalizing it, preserving the past, but protecting the future. And the power base is more diversified as a result. Marshall is much more global now.”

When Moyers’ film was made, Marshall had already had a black mayor, postmaster, county commissioner, president of the county medical society, and assistant superintendent of schools; black tellers worked in the banks and black salespeople were employed in stores that had previously hired only whites. Since then the number of blacks in influential positions has continued to increase, and the offices they have held include president of the chamber of commerce, president of the League of Women Voters, chair of the Friends of the Library, and member of the City Commission. These outward signs are encouraging. Yet do they signify deep change in the social fabric?

Dr. R. L. Hall thinks not. “In the words of an Italian aristocrat in The Leopard, Lampedusa’s novel about the Sicilian peasant uprising, ‘In order to keep things the way they’ve always been, much is going to have to change,’” he says. “That’s just what has happened.” Dr. Hall, a black professor of sociology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, was born and raised in Marshall and returns there about once a year. “There’s a difference between titular or proximate power and real power,” he says. His opinion is echoed by Jerry Stallworth, the owner of the local Buick-Pontiac-GMC-Toyota dealership, who moved to Marshall from Fort Worth in 1980 and became the chamber of commerce’s first black president. “There is very little socializing between the races here,” Stallworth says. “You can go to the ball game and talk, but afterward you all go home to your own little niche. We don’t even attend each other’s churches, except for special occasions. The kids don’t really mix except in the area of sports. Then they might get noticed. In elementary school the kids all play together and don’t make many distinctions between the color of their skins. But once they reach junior high, all that changes.”

The fact that his dealership serves the whole community of Marshall, and not just one segment, is unusual. “There are very few black-owned businesses in town,” he says. “Not one real restaurant. A couple of hamburger or barbecue take-out joints. Barbershops. Maybe one grocery. Four funeral homes that have been there taking care of the black community for a long time. That’s just about all.” When asked why this is the case, Stallworth says, “The kids grow up, go to college, get degrees, find out there aren’t any opportunities for them here in town, and leave.”

One venue where their opportunities might prove limited, if they stayed, is the country club. Marshall’s private Lakeside Country Club has a nine-hole golf course that is rated among the top ten in the state. It also seems to have an unwritten policy excluding blacks as members or golfers. While president of the chamber of commerce, Jerry Stallworth took steps to apply for membership in the club. He was sponsored by two members and was asked to pay a $600 application fee. He says that a poll was then taken among the club members, with 65 percent of them saying they would accept him and 35 percent saying they wouldn’t—because they couldn’t be sure who he might bring to play. According to one club insider, the club’s position is that Stallworth never applied. Stallworth says he decided not to pay the fee because his sponsors advised him that he would be put on a waiting list indefinitely. A couple of years later, Stallworth, an avid golfer, once again considered applying. This time he was told that the club would grant him an associate membership, meaning that he could do anything there—dine, for example—except play golf. “It burned and aggravated me,” he says. When asked about this incident, another club insider who didn’t want to be named told me that he had no personal knowledge of it. He said that the club does not discriminate, but confirmed that it has no black members.

Roy L. Edwards, a former assistant superintendent of schools and the first black person to hold that position, says that in the years since 1984 there has been a tremendous social change in the black community itself, and not necessarily for the better. “Young people are forgetting their roots, especially among the African Americans,” he says. “They care and know less about their history [than young people used to].” He concurs with Jerry Stallworth’s pessimism: “The young are more career-minded, and as soon as they graduate from college, they take their skills to the metropolitan centers. And among the ones who stay, gangs have been a presence since the late eighties.”

The biggest and most unexpected change in Marshall, however, has been the advent of a whole new culture. Fifteen years ago this was a typical old Southern city of two main communities: black and white. A few other ethnic groups lived there, but only in small numbers: Italian families from the turn of the century and earlier, for example, and the remnants of a community of Jewish merchants who had long prospered there but whose descendants began to leave in the forties in search of economic opportunities. Today Marshall is following the rest of Texas, from Corsicana to Lubbock to Dallas, in adopting Mexican Americans as its third major demographic cohort.

An accurate census has yet to be taken, but of a 1998 school enrollment of 6,380 children, 492 are Hispanic. Father Ron Diegel estimates that four hundred people regularly attend the special twice-weekly Spanish-language mass at the Catholic church each week. The First Baptist Church and the Church of Christ both have busy Spanish ministries. There is a new Mexican American—owned restaurant, and a supermarket caters specifically to Hispanic tastes. The literacy and English-as-a-second-language programs are well attended by Hispanic adults, many of whom are parents wishing to keep up with their children’s progress. “Hispanic parents are very involved in their children’s education,” says Carla Huffman, the coordinator of special populations and testing for the Marshall Independent School District. “When there are parent-teacher meetings, both parents will always be there.” The hospitals, police station, and banks all have access to translators to accommodate the new residents, who supply skilled labor to several industries in town, including the thirteen potteries that manufacture ceramics from Marshall’s famous clay. Hispanics there, as elsewhere, also work at more menial employment. The town seems to have few reservations about its newest citizens. As Gail Beil notes, “There’s more respect for the Hispanics as a community than there ever was for the black folks when they filled those same hard, labor-intensive jobs that the Hispanics do now.”

The newcomers have yet to find a full voice in the civic or the county government, partly because they are so new. But presumably that will change too, as much has already changed in Marshall. Surely the town that Bill Moyers suggested was a microcosm will not choose to turn itself into three distinct entities—Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas—but will keep on adapting alongside the rest of us on our walk through the twenty-first century.

Austinite Carol Dawson’s next novel, The Mother-in-Law Diaries, will be published by Algonquin Books this month.

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