Letter to the Editor: Re Slave labor dispute floods Cape’s Dam

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Joleene Maddox Snider

Editor’s note: The following letter has been edited for content and clarity.

As the “long in the tooth” historian quoted in Gabriella Ybarra’s article on the Cape’s Dam controversy, I want to take the opportunity to step back out of the weeds and look at the entire field. Ms. Ybarra did a very good job of laying out the complicated immediate and local issues related to Thompson Islands and Dam. However, there is considerably more to this disagreement and no better place to air the discussion than on a university campus.

Whose history is it, anyway? The older viewpoint is what I like to call “the history of rich, white men in America.” Most of us aren’t rich, over half of us aren’t men and growing numbers of us aren’t white. Most historians have long since given up studying, researching, writing and teaching that history, or, if they do, they do so with attention to gender, race, class, sexual orientation, nationality and other multicultural issues.

What about those less fortunate, women, people of color or otherwise marginalized groups? Where are their lives and history? Those lives are in other places. Sometimes in the oral memories of family members, in letters stuck back in a shoe box, in the family Bibles, occasionally in public records, but more often in the dusty recesses of small archives, local libraries and other obscure places.

Additionally, there are two other sources documented in this disagreement, and they are in the Dudley Dobie thesis done in 1932 and signed by Dr. Walter Prescott Webb, a nationally recognized historian. Both quotations Ms. Ybarra cited were from the early 1930s; one from a Thompson family member and one from a McGehee family member. I wasn’t sitting at the table with Dobie that day back then when he interviewed them, but I am willing to trust him and those individuals he was interviewing.

We have three sources that indicate some sort of a milling operation was established by Dr. William A. Thompson on the San Marcos River at the site of the dam in the 1850s. We know Thompson was a slave owner. Historians aren’t devoid of common sense and neither should readers be. Of course, Thompson’s slaves were the labor to build the first of the milling operation before the Civil War. Yes, the big dam that is there now dates back to 1867 when Thompson formally purchased the land and formed a business enterprise with several other men to enlarge the operation. Essentially, we are all right. Why, then, is this an issue?

Being the elder historian in this community drama I claim the privilege of telling you my theory. It has to do with slavery and race and the unwillingness of some to even admit slavery was there, much less discuss it openly and frankly. Here are a few facts to ponder. Our country sponsored and supported the slavery of Africans and their African American descendants for 246 years of our history. It was enshrined and protected in our Constitution. Slavery caused the Civil War. In 1860 African American slaves were 30% of the Texas population and the Hays County population. The enslaved across the south tilled the fields, planted the cotton seeds, tended the plants, picked the cotton, ginned the bales, and hauled them to markets where cotton fueled the American economy in the 1st half of the 19th century. The American South produced 60% of the world’s cotton for the mills of England’s textile revolution and resulting industrial empire.

We have 155 years of freedom from slavery under our collective national belts and that has been a rough, rocky and sometimes violent century and a half, especially for those people whose ancestors lived and died as enslaved people. But it was real. It happened. There are a lot of books about it, including mine. If you haven’t already done so, read some of them. And then ask yourself a few questions. How much of a role did slavery play in American before the Civil War? What role does the history of slavery play in modern racial attitudes? Are we disagreeing about a dam or the larger question of who owns history?

In 2018 I supported and worked with a group in Rusk County to place a state historical marker at the site of Monte Verdi, the plantation I wrote about in Claiming Sunday. When I saw the draft of the text for the marker I had strong objections. Half the marker was about the slave owner. Then, the bottom half contained the last names the slaves took after Emancipation. Missing were the first names of the slaves at Monte Verdi. Now think about this. Slaves had no last names, only first names, many given to them by their families who often reused family names. Even if their names originated with their white owners those were still their names. Slaves’ names were about the only things they had that were truly theirs and those names were not on the marker. Why? Why did the Texas State Historical Commission refuse to use the slaves’ first names? Why are some in our community so opposed to giving the slaves credit for the history they made in the 1850s at the Thompson Islands and Dam? If there were three sources supporting white activity in the 1850s at the dam and only one supporting black activity, would we be having this discussion?

I resubmit my earlier question. “Whose history is it, anyway?”

-Joleene Maddox Snider is the author of “Claiming Sunday: The Story of a Texas Slave Community”

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