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.