Sunday, March 19, 2017

The WASPs Fly Again

The World War II WASPs (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) played a unique wartime role in Texas. Avenger Field at Sweetwater was the only all-female training base in the United States during World War II. Although the WASPs flew as an auxiliary outfit that had no official military connection, more than 25,000 women pilots applied, and 1,074 were accepted as cadets and graduated.

WASP recruits had to pay their own way to Avenger Field, and at first there were no uniforms or even cot mattresses. But these brave young women overcame all obstacles and flew more than 60 million miles in every type of U.S. plane - trainers, fighters, bombers, and transport craft. WASPs ferried planes across long distances, tested experimental and repaired aircraft, towed targets for ground-to-air and air-to-air gunnery practice, and accompanied cadet pilots in the air. Thirty-eight WASP pilots were killed while flying for their country.

Every semester at Panola College I lectured about the WASPs and Avenger Field in my Texas history classes, and through the years I've stopped on several occasions at the West Texas training field, which now is a WASP museum. My daughter, Dr. Shellie O'Neal, is chair of the drama department at Navarro College, and she has written, directed, and produced more than 20 of her own plays. By 2012 Shellie had become interested in the WASPs and Avenger Field, and she began to envision all manner of dramatic possibilities. Shellie attended a WASP reunion in Sweetwater. She became personally acquainted with 16 former WASPs and she interviewed 12 of these lively ladies.

Shellie researched deeply at the WASP museum, at Texas Woman's University, and through other venues. She created a play, The Forgotten Air Force, that incorporated a majority of the experiences and problems, large and small, of the WASPs at Avenger Field. The Forgotten Air Force ran at Navarro College on Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday, February 23-26. My family gathered in Corsicana for the Saturday matinee. All three of Shellie's sisters were there, as well as all seven of her nieces and nephew (of course, I enjoyed being with all four daughters, all of my grandchildren, my sister and brother and other family members).

There were crowds of more than 150 at each performance, and the audiences were mesmerized by the real-life drama they witnessed. Costumes and sets and background music were excellent, and PowerPoint images of period photos helped bring the WASPs of WWII back into action. Rachel Theisen played WASP Mabel Rawlinson, who died tragically in a crash. Jaelyn Bergey was superb as Jacqueline Cochran, the WASP commander. And Aaron Rollins, a military veteran, came back to the Navarro campus to portray Air Force General Hap Arnold. This trio led a powerful cast, and there were standing ovations following each performance.

The cast and crew traveled the next week to Brenham, where the community college drama festival was held on the campus of Blinn College. Before an audience of nearly 200 of their peers, the Navarro cast inspired another spontaneous standing ovation. More than 20 awards were presented to the Navarro troupe, and anyone who saw the play would agree that each of these awards and more was richly deserved. Shellie and her cast and crew did an admirable job in making a unique part of WWII history in Texas come back to life onstage, and nearly 800 people witnessed and appreciated their efforts.

Cast and crew with Festival awards


Monday, March 13, 2017

Texas State Historical Association - 121st Annual Meeting

Each year the annual meeting of the Texas State Historical Association is held on the first weekend in March - as close as possible to March 2, Texas Independence Day. This year the 121st Annual Meeting was scheduled for March 2-3-4 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Houston.
With Brian Bolinger, TSHA Executive Director
Ron Chrisman, Director of UNT Press, in the Exhibit Hall

I was a day late arriving. I had accepted an invitation to provide a program on the Battle of the Alamo for a combined lunch meeting of the Tyler chapters of the DRT and the SRT on Thursday, March 2. This Texas Independence Day meeting of two patriotic Texas organizations was a splendid event - an ideal way for the State Historian to spend March 2.
Mary Scheer at the signing for Eavesdropping on Texas History
I drove to Houston the next morning. As I located the TSHA registration table, I encountered Brian Bolinger, the personable and efficient executive director of the organization. Brian informed me there were more than 700 in attendance, an outstanding crowd.

It seemed as though I saw most of the 700 nearby in the vast exhibit hall. The room was crowded with people and publishers' tables and refreshments. After talking with a number of acquaintances I made my way to the exhibit table of the University of North Texas Press. Executive Director Ron Chrisman was clearing room for a book signing. Making its debut was Eavesdropping on Texas History, an anthology conceived and edited by Mary L. Scheer, chairman of the history department at Lamar University. There are 14 chapters, including one by Mary. She asked each of us to envision ourselves as a "fly on the wall," witnessing an event of historical or cultural significance in Texas.

Mary asked me to provide a chapter on a Texas sporting event, and I chose the 1935 football game between SMU and TCU. These archrivals each boasted a 10-0 record, and the Southwest Conference and National championships rode on the outcome, along with a trip - unprecedented for a Texas team - to the storied Rose Bowl. Despite the efforts of star quarterback Sammy Baugh for the Horned Frogs, SMU won a close decision, although TCU later went on to a Sugar Bowl victory. Football in Texas now became prominent in national circles, and the pivotal nature of this dramatic game included the creation of the Cotton Bowl one year later.

On Friday there was a Fellows Luncheon. The previous day there was a Women in History Luncheon, and on Friday evening the President's Dinner was held at the Rice Hotel.

Presenting at the Webb Society session

John Michael Hoke delivered an excellent presentation on Houston's Alley Theatre

Jacksonville College Webb Society members and sponsors
(Patricia Richey and Mary Craig) received the award for
Best College Chapter
On Saturday morning there was a session sponsored by the TSHA: "History in Action - The College Classroom in 2017 and Presentation of the C.M. Caldwell Memorial Awards." This session focused on the accomplishments of Webb Society chapters in Texas colleges and universities. Two student papers were presented, by Hector Zuniga of Northeast Texas Community College and by John Michael Hoke of San Jacinto College - South. I was asked to conclude the program with a presentation on "Leadership Qualities of Sam Houston." Presider Steve Cure, aided by Charles Nugent, closed the session by handing out awards to deserving chapters and chapter sponsors.

Saturday afternoon was spent visiting the superb Bryan Museum in Galveston. It was a rich climax to a standout annual meeting of the TSHA.



Monday, March 6, 2017

First Graders in Patriotic Extravaganza

Debbie Leggett Miller is my next-door neighbor in Carthage. Early in my teaching career at Panola College Debbie was a pretty, petite student in one of my freshman history classes. Today Debbie is pretty, petite teacher in her home town of Carthage. She is a music instructor at Carthage Primary School with 40 years experience, and her energy, dedication, and ability to inspire her young students rivals these same qualities during her first years in the classroom.

Debbie was the daughter of W.D. and Bobbie Leggett. Rev. Leggett was the longtime pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Carthage. Debbie began piano lessons as a child, and at 12 she became church pianist at Macedonia. When she launched her teaching career at Carthage Primary School, Debbie and a fellow kindergarten teacher, Lisa Cockrell (another former student of mine), teamed to stage a Christmas program with their two classes, which totaled more than 40 students. This Christmas production became an institution at Carthage Primary for 30 years.

Ten years ago Debbie left the kindergarten classroom to become music teacher at Carthage Primary. Working with large numbers of children, Debbie's Christmas shows became Yule season extravaganzas. One spring she staged a Cinco de Mayo celebration, and another year there was a Texas extravaganza. For years Debbie received invaluable help from her classroom aide, Laura Fields. Amber Cheatwood became Debbie's aide when the programs began to focus on patriotism. Principal Kiley Schumacher has provided strong support, including the acquisition of costumes that can be used from year to year.

Principal Kiley Schumacher


George Washington

Betsy Ross

The patriotic extravaganzas have been staged for three years. The venue is the spacious auditorium at Carthage Junior High School, and the large stage is a riot of red, white and blue flags and banners, with more than 160 children onstage. One traditional patriotic song after another is sung by 160 smiling, dancing first graders. Costumed characters from American history periodically take center stage: George Washington, Betsy Ross, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington Carver, Uncle Sam, Martin Luther King. Finally President Donald Trump, clad in blue suit and red tie and flowing wig, made his appearance (in the person of young Travis Lipsey).

George Washington Carver

Lady Liberty

Sojourner Truth

Abe Lincoln

Donald Trump


The auditorium was jammed with an audience exceeding 900. Everyone cheered and clapped and shouted approval. It was deeply reassuring to enjoy such a patriotic display. Two nights later the kindergarteners held forth before another 900 people. As State Historian I've been to one event after another in which organizations made a patriotic display of Texana, and now I had the pleasure of seeing a large group of schoolchildren expressing the patriotic values of the USA.

Ribbon Dancers


Raising the flag at Iwo Jima


Uncle Sam

With Debbie Leggett Miller


Monday, February 27, 2017

Black History Month

February is Black History Month, and a few weeks ago I was invited to speak to the Republican Women of Panola County. As Texas State Historian I felt that I should speak about elements of "Black History of Texas and Texans," and the program began to be advertised in newspapers and on the radio. Only a few days later I received a call from an old friend, retired journalist John Foster, who heads the Panola County Democrat Club. John had heard about my program for the Republican Women and he asked me to provide it for the Democrat Club a few days later. I was glad for the opportunity to use the program twice during Black History Month.

Nancy Gibbs, President of the Panola County Republican Women

I joined the Republican Women in Carthage on Friday evening, February 17. The following Monday evening I met with the Democrat Club. Both groups provided abundant refreshments, and there were good friends among both crowds. On Monday Vik Varma from Kilgore was present to urge his fellow Democrats to attend an upcoming Affordable Care Act rally at the Gregg County courthouse in Longview, a rally in conjunction with similar ACA activities around the USA.

Regarding my program for Black History Month 2017, I lectured on Texas history for more than 30 years, and Black Texans provided colorful and significant elements of Lone Star history and culture. I explained how the southern cotton boom reached Texas in the 1820s, with an insatiable demand for slave labor. Indeed, from 1846-1861 Texas was the fastest-growing slave state in the Union.

Wanda Gaines, Immediate Past President of the Panola County Democrat Club, and Current President John Foster

Vik Varma

I pointed out that during the Civil War a former slave from Panola County - Sgt. Major Milton Holland - became the only Texan to win the Medal of Honor (which, of course, was awarded to federal troops, not to Texas Confederates). After the Civil War, when the U.S. Army was reduced to 10 cavalry regiments and 25 infantry regiments, the 9th and 10th cavalry regiments and the 24th and 25th infantry regiments were black "Buffalo soldier" units. All four black regiments were on duty a great deal in frontier Texas, and while stationed at Fort McKavett  Sgt. Emanuel Stance of the 9th Cavalry became the first black soldier to win the Medal of Honor after the Civil War.

During that same period Bill Pickett of Taylor was drawn to cowboy life and he became the a Wild West show and rodeo star. Pickett was the first black cowboy inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame, and the only performer known to have introduced a rodeo event - "Bulldogging." Culturally, Scott Joplin of Texarkana was instrumental in popularizing a lively new type of syncopated music - "ragged time" - and he became the leading composer of Ragtime.
In sports Jack Johnson of Galveston became the first black heavyweight champion. George Foreman of Harrison County - adjacent to Panola County - later became an immensely popular heavyweight champ. A personal favorite of mine was baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks from Dallas. Starring for the Chicago Cubs, Banks won back-to-back MVP awards, twice led the National League in home runs and RBIs, played in 14 All-Star games, blasted 512 home runs, and was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Of special interest to me is Doris Miller of Waco. Stationed aboard the USS West Virginia on December 7, 1941, Miller performed heroically as the battleship was sinking beneath him. Miller became the first black sailor to be awarded the Navy Cross, and the medal was presented to him by another notable Texan, Admiral Chester Nimitz of Fredericksburg. I was privileged to write a short biography of Miller at the request of Eakin Press, when their operations were based in Waco.