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 for upwards of half the wealth of planters like Susan Jones’s brother (and Chris’s great-great-grandfather) Jim Tomlinson. Using his 48 slaves as collateral, Jim mortgaged the Hill and surrounding acreage from his brother-in-law and brought his entire household from Alabama on the eve of the Civil War. By the end of the war, Jim’s oldest son had been killed in battle and his own health ruined while building defenses on the Texas coast. In June 1865 he informed his slaves that they were free, then died within a few weeks, bequeathing his widow, Sarah, the Hill and a bankrupt estate. 

The emancipated Tomlinson slaves were invited to stay on the plantation and work for wages. Having limited options, most did, and at least two of the former slave families, requiring last names in order to register as citizens, chose “Tomlinson.” Within a few years Sarah Tomlinson was out of debt, and a cousin who lived nearby could write that although “we cannot punish them by whipping as we used to . . . I am farming with my old slaves, and doing as well as when I owned them.” The basis of this profitable new relationship was the institution of sharecropping, in which a white landowner provided all the necessities—seed, food, lodging—but deducted them as expenses from the freedman’s “share” when the crops were sold. The landowner kept all the books, and frequently the sharecropper ended up with nothing. “My cousin’s family . . . worked for the Tomlinsons,” remembered an elderly black neighbor. “They would get upset every fall ’cause they would owe the Tomlinsons all the money.”

Despite business-as-usual economic exploitation by whites, black Texans made significant advances. Over the last two decades of the nineteenth century, they nearly halved their illiteracy rate. With a turnout that reached 100,000 in the 1890’s, black voters dominated the Texas Republican party. But these successes quickly met a backlash. Whites-only primaries and poll taxes throttled black voter turnout to a mere 5,000 by 1906. The Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which established the infamous “separate but equal” precedent, “opened the door for state legislatures across the South to pass countless segregation laws, as long as separate facilities existed,” writes Tomlinson. “The Texas legislature created a second black college as quickly as they banned African-Americans from attending the state’s best public universities. They just didn’t fund construction of the second black college.” 

The haunting leitmotif of Tomlinson Hill is the role of memory—almost always false memory—in the way we look at race. As a boy growing up in nearby Marlin, LaDainian regarded the Hill as an idyllic place where he could run down dirt roads, blissfully unaware that his beloved grandmother Julie, who cooked him bacon and sausage from pigs raised on the Hill, got her last name from the white man who had owned her father-in-law. But in the mid-nineties, when LaDainian was a high school star in Waco (where his mother, Loreane, worked two jobs to support him and his brother), the barbaric racism that had been forgotten on the Hill still echoed in other parts of Texas. Playing in Lampasas, LaDainian was taken aback when opposing fans taunted him: “Nigger! Nigger!” 

For the white Tomlinsons, the false memory was more dangerous and delusional. A revived Ku Klux Klan, modeled after the white-berobed heroes of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 cinema classic The Birth of a Nation rather than the Reconstruction-era terror organization, became a major political force in the twenties. Half of all Anglo-Protestant men in Dallas are thought to have joined the KKK, whose “enforcers turned the Trinity River bottoms . . . into an open-air torture chamber, abducting and bullwhipping suspected sex offenders, bootleggers, African-Americans, supposedly immoral women, and anyone else they felt violated their code.” 

Klan membership was a fanatically kept secret. But Chris’s research convinced him that his great-grandfather Robert E. Lee Tomlinson—Jim’s son—was almost certainly a Klansman in Marlin. Chris’s grandfather Tommy, a Texas A&M engineering graduate who moved to Dallas in 1923 and became a key figure in building the city’s landmark Highland Park Village shopping center, was also very likely a Klansman, or at least a fellow traveler: Tommy “considered anyone who was not a white Protestant like himself inferior” and “used racial and ethnic slurs casually against the people who worked for him.” 

But like many white Texans of his and earlier generations, Chris Tomlinson grew up believing he was heir to a chivalric tradition, the “Southern heritage” that remains a racist dog whistle throughout the old Confederacy today. While Dallas-area schools were dragging their feet on integration in the seventies, Tomlinson writes, “I told my friends at all-white Lake Highlands Elementary that I was descended from aristocracy. . . . I felt proud of my family’s slaveholding and Confederate past, not because I believed in slavery or racism, but because white Texans honored and celebrated that heritage. I learned in elementary school that the South’s cause was lawful and noble. . . . I learned the words to ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ but at school we sang ‘Dixie’ more often.”

Published fifty years after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, in July 1964, Tomlinson Hill is particularly timely, not only because of the progress we’ve made but because false memory continues to blind us to present realities. There’s an unsettling sense of déjà vu in how Texas’s current political leadership has lashed out so angrily and reflexively at our first black president—and has been lavishly rewarded for it by the aging, overwhelmingly white Republican primary voters who end up selecting most of our officeholders. Our leaders brazenly deny a racial bias in new voter ID laws, lately claiming they are intended only to disadvantage Democratic voters, when most of those voters are black or brown. In Texas today the color of one’s skin remains a powerful determinant of one’s educational and economic opportunities—as well as one’s likelihood of being injured or killed working long hours in arduous, low-paying jobs. Because we refuse to remember the tragic and often tawdry racial history that unfolded throughout Texas much as it did on Tomlinson Hill, we can’t see the ways in which we’re repeating it.