A Q&A With Michael Hall
The senior editor on following the paper trail of Texas history, learning about Jack Johnson sparring with “Chrysanthemum Joe” Choynski, and researching his own family roots.
Texas will always be known for its larger-than-life founders (Sam Houston), places (the Alamo), and outlaws (John Wesley Hardin). But two lawyers and their task force of history buffs are out to prove that Texas was much more, that it was a place where ordinary settlers were just trying to do the right thing—to build communities and to find justice. Since 2008, Bill Kroger and Wallace Jefferson, who is also chief justice of the state Supreme Court, have traveled the state researching cases, searching for documents, and piecing together information. They fear Texas is losing its history—one ancient court record at a time. In this month’s issue, senior editor Michael Hall writes about the many discoveries the duo have made and what keeps them passionate about preserving the truth. Here’s the story behind the story.
How and when did you first learn about Bill Kroger and Wallace Jefferson and their mission? Did you know immediately that this had the makings for a good story?
Bill emailed me about a year ago. He had seen a story I wrote on Blind Willie Johnson in our December 2010 issue. Bill is a huge Texas music fan, especially old blues guys, and though Johnson was a gospel singer, he was one of the most influential acoustic guitarists ever. When Bill got the task force together, he emailed me, knowing I loved Texas music history too. When I saw the music stuff they had—Bob Wills, Leadbelly—as well as the other stuff on regular citizens, I was pretty sure this could be a great story.
As a reporter and one who has written extensively about the death penalty in Texas, you have spent time poring over court documents yourself. What has been your experience in trying to access the information you need?
For contemporary documents, you can get just about anything. For some of the older cases, it’s harder. Much modern “paperwork” is paperless now—it’s all digital and easy to find. But for cases from the seventies and earlier, sometimes you have to go to the counties—even then not everything is in its proper place.
When Jefferson researched his ancestors, he discovered that his great-great-great-grandfather, Shedrick Willis, was aided by his old slave master to help create a better life. Have you ever researched your ancestors? And if so, what did you learn?
I’m an Irish-Scottish mutt, and during a month-long hangout in Ireland twenty years ago, I went to the hall of records in Belfast, where they keep everything about the emigration to America. I had a piece of paper someone in my family had written up thirty years prior—all these grand pronouncements about the family, where we came from, all the things we had done. None of it tracked. I could find nothing to back up any of the pronouncements. It was all wishful thinking.
Do you consider yourself a history buff?
Yes. I love history, but one thing I’ve learned from being a reporter is that most history is crap based on recollections by people who often couldn’t read or write or people who had agendas to tell things a certain way or people who (like all of us) had faulty memories. We can’t even agree on what happened at an office meeting last week, so how can we possibly believe we know what happened at the Alamo?
What is the strangest thing you learned while researching this article?
That Jack Johnson, arguably the greatest boxer of all time, lost his first bout to a Jewish guy nine years his senior named “Chrysanthemum Joe” Choynski—and then spent almost a month in a jail cell with the guy, sparring and learning how to be a better boxer.
How long did it take you to write this story? Explain your research and writing process.
It took about a month. I went up to Waco with Kroger and Jefferson to look over some of these records they were talking about, plus I went to a meeting of the task force. A lot of the research was looking into the bigger-picture histories relating to the documents they had found.
Why is this story important now? What do you want your readers to take away from it?
I want readers to know that there’s more to Texas history than the big mythic stuff, that the real stories of Texas are the little ones, the anonymous ones—the evidence of which are sitting in moldy old files stuck in storage sheds out back of rural courthouses.