Like most Americans, we Texans prefer to avoid that awkward “conversation” about race. However, we do have a long tradition of telling ourselves stories, often as fanciful as they are comforting, about race. For Chris Tomlinson, a fifth-generation Texan, the plotline passed from father to son was “Our family used to own slaves, and we treated them so well that they took our last name.” But Tomlinson, who as an Associated Press foreign correspondent covered apartheid violence in South Africa, the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda, and the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, returned home seven years ago with a reporter’s skepticism about that stock family narrative. Inspired by South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission—credited with easing the transition to multiracial rule—Tomlinson set out on his own inquiry, the result of which is Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families Who Share the Tomlinson Name—One White, One Black (St. Martin’s Press). “I left Africa feeling a responsibility … to confront the possible crimes of my ancestors,” he writes. “As an American and a Texan, I wanted to understand the sins of our fathers.”
Tomlinson Hill includes a foreword by the most famous Tomlinson, former TCU and NFL star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, whose grandfather picked cotton on Tomlinson Hill, as did generations of black Tomlinsons before him, many of them owned by white Tomlinsons. Chris Tomlinson takes us on a detailed journey into these parallel family histories, but along the way he revisits a Texas few of us want to remember, even as its legacy continues to cast a shadow over our future. Written in an unsparing AP style that allows many of the principals to speak for themselves, Tomlinson Hill offers what Texas may well need now more than ever: a thoughtful, brutally honest conversation about race.
What became known as Tomlinson Hill is an unremarkable rise on the west bank of the Brazos River about 25 miles southeast of Waco. The first Tomlinson to stand on the Hill was Susan Tomlinson Jones, the wife of an enterprising Alabamian named Churchill Jones, who, by the time he bought his Texas spread in 1850, had already made a fortune developing and selling plantations throughout the South. As a slavery entrepreneur, Jones was hardly an unhinged sadist like Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave. Instead, coldly relying on his balance sheet as his moral compass, Jones regarded the overseer’s rawhide whip as a productivity device, as he wrote to the managers of his Texas plantation. “No man on earth can have business done unless he knows how to make negroes move under the proper fear, and go to the top of their speed… . If the whip is needed give it to them in full.”
In the cruelly expedient plantation economy, slaves were an essential source of capital as well as labor; as personal property they typically accounted