Driving to our grandparents’ place in Greenville Texas back in the late 1950s, my sisters and I had a car game we played: First one to spy grandma’s house, say Aye! I even remember their address: 2920 Bourland Street, an old-fashioned frame house with a front porch swing and a backyard addition where Miss English, a spinster schoolteacher, resided. A kindly soul, when we arrived for a visit, Miss English always stopped in after her day at the local blind school (or was it an asylum of some kind?), wearing what I later learned were called “sensible shoes.”

My grandparents, Isaac P. (“Zeke”) and Nina K. Elder, were born in East Texas around the turn of the 20th century. Their place contained treasures, of course, among which I do not include my grandmother’s boiled custard dessert, a culinary relic that always struck me as far too much labor (hours of stirring, stirring, don’t let it burn!) for the bland-tasting results.

A favorite corner was my grandfather’s storeroom closet where he kept a wide variety of stringed instruments, including a Gibson harp guitar, several mandolins of different sizes, a broken fiddle, a small xylophone, and a few harmonicas. As I came to understand it, my grandfather had the curious job of sorting mail on the local trains (600 pieces an hour was the pace!), back when the U.S. Post Office used mail cars. After sorting the next town’s mail and then somehow handing it off as the train went whizzing through, Zeke was free to strum and sing as he liked for the next little while. (Visions of Jimmie Rodgers here.)

I didn’t get guitar or mandolin lessons from him, but he did somehow compel my sisters and me to each learn a different vocal part on “Silent Night” (a tune I have disliked intensely ever since), my sister Kay on soprano, my sister Mandy on alto, myself a somewhat recalcitrant tenor, and granddad a resonant bass. He would sing each part with us and then we would harmonize. Painful as this introduction to part singing might have been, it somehow led me years later to join madrigal groups where I discovered Palestrina and Byrd, a different level of the vocal game entirely.

With nothing beyond a high school education, Zeke was also something of a reader. I had no interest in the Baptist Church materials (copies of “The Upper Room” devotional, etc.), but he also owned several New Yorker cartoon anthologies and one or two collections of Ogden Nash, in the pages of which (I do not exaggerate) he had carefully penciled through any instances of “hell” or “damn”.

I frequently pored over a 1929 copy of Robert Ripley’s bizarre “Believe It or Not!” anthology, pages from which still haunt my imagination. The mummified Jeremy Bentham! The Fork-Tongued Fraulein of Frankfurt! The Lighthouse Man of Szechuan Province! (Bored a hole in his head and wears a lighted candle in it!)

A few children’s books were around which I remember mostly for their Southern, old-timey atmosphere: Miss Minerva and William Green Hill, Penrod and Sam, and the cartoon book called Texas History Movies, a red-faced nativist take on the state’s history produced by the editors of the Dallas Morning News in 1926. Need I add, these titles also shared a plentiful dose of racism, a large subject I was still trying to comprehend at the time.

After all, my grandparents were residents of Greenville, a town notable for its extraordinary sign—hanging over the main street downtown from the 1920s to the late 1960s—reading: “Welcome to Greenville: Blackest Land, Whitest People.” Apparently it was Governor John Connally (of JFK assassination fame) who quietly advised the local town fathers in the mid-1960s that the sign should come down.

The place was also known for a horrendous racial crime, the lynching and immolation of a black man in 1908, when my grandparents would probably have been young teenagers. I was not yet aware of this local history, but I vaguely recall my grandmother telling me—possibly as her reaction to the 1908 atrocity—that she was opposed to capital punishment. She then added, perhaps predictably, “I just don’t believe in mistreatin’ ‘em.”

My grandparents are long gone, but I continue to have a small, somewhat pesky connection to Greenville in the ownership of two very small town lots I inherited from them. I’ve not been to Greenville, located about 50 miles northeast of Dallas, in many years, but I know it has suffered from a combination of high crime and low incomes.

From the God-like views available on Google Earth, I can see my two empty lots, filled with weeds, looking like somewhere in rural Algeria. As I receive annual tax bills (about $100) from the city of Greenville, I have literally tried to give the lots away, all to no avail. From here in my long-time Midwestern location, they are unshakeable reminders of a place in Texas where a shameful darkness once surrounded a part of my childhood.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. I grew up in Commerce, near Greenville, and I can just barely remember that sign. A few years ago someone sold postcards of it, for reasons that probably shouldn’t be examined too closely. That sign, and the sentiment that inspired it, is the single biggest reason I flinch at every mention of ‘subsidiarity’ or ‘local control’ or ‘place’ or any of the other buzzwords of conservatives arguing against the federal government. Until you address the problem of horrors produced by localities, the Front Porch project is doomed to produce more injustice and more horrors. Central governments exist to restrain local monsters, and whenever any of you jerks your mental knees against some perceived federal overreach, think of that sign and the people who installed it.

    • I think all the Porchers here are quite aware of the issue you’re raising, just as they’re also aware of, say, the Federal decision that legalized segregation in 1896. Or the Federal decision to bomb Iraq. I don’t need to mention Vietnam or Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill that boosted the growth of the carceral state.

      Subsidiarity, BTW, does not equal local control: it means appropriate control at the appropriate level–i.e., a kind of balance. It’s also the key to Rev. William Barber’s Third Reconstruction, for example. We can’t wait for the Feds to save us: we need bottom-up community power. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-urgency-of-a-third-reconstruction

    • I’m from Celeste, just up 69 from Greenville, 27 miles—the place where Audie Murphy *actually* grew up. There’s a bit more to be said about the locality. It’s been depressed by urbanization and worn out blackland. There used to be a lot of cotton farms but the soil wasn’t rotated properly. I used to play with my friend in an old module full of puffy cotton that had been sitting there since god knows when. My sister and her family live there. My brother in law is a pastor at Ridgecrest Baptist. We had a good time there in July. There’s a new water park that was fun. Christian rock blaring. Theres a Chick Fil A and Starbucks now (which is considered progress). I’d not heard of the lynching (and very sad to hear it). The racism is still there of course but it’s not as though it’s unlivable for blacks, and certainly not worse than Chicago, where I live now. Anyway, it’s not a bad place and you should come down and visit your lots. I’d buy you a burger at Terry’s and a doughnut at Sweetie’s (both run by some Southeast Asian families who have figured out how to perfect these foods).

        • A very good, but ominous piece, Elias.
          “I don’t believe in mistreatin’ ‘em”. I wonder who ‘em is. Not for long. In Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”, Scout’s aunt expressed a similar sentiment.
          I still have a book you let me read a while back (when judging debate). “Look Homeward, America” by Bill Kaufman. Some of the readings made me wonder, but overall, a book that I want to re-read. I believe Wendell Berry is a front porch radical. Correct me if I’m wrong.

          • Berry is a radical in the sense of being a guy who goes down to the roots. The Front Porch Republic group is holding a little conference in Louisville KY on Sept 14 and I hope to shake his elderly hand. If you haven’t read his fiction, I think you would love it. His novel Jayber Crow is a dandy.

    • “Until you address the problem of horrors produced by localities, the Front Porch project is doomed to produce more injustice and more horrors.”

      Assumes facts not in evidence.

      “Central governments exist to restrain local monsters and whenever any of you jerks your mental knees against some perceived federal overreach, think of that sign and the people who installed it.”

      You get rid of Dracula with a stake through the heart. Only a fool would try to do it by creating Godzilla.

      • The stake through Dracula’s heart IS the larger, central government. Only a fool would assume that the people in power will ever give up that power to anything but a larger, meaner form of power.

        I know the world described by the author better than he does; I grew up there and still have family that lives there. I hear how they talk and see how they act. The ONLY reason white people from that area behave decently is fifty years of fear of something bigger punishing them. Take away that fear and they will return to the world for which that sign is a synechdoche in a heartbeat.

        • “The stake through Dracula’s heart IS the larger, central government.”

          Ever hear of going after a mosquito with a bazooka? Sure, it kills the mosquito, but it tends to create other problems. I rejoice with you in the death of the mosquito. But you’re ignoring the rest of the surrounding destruction.

  2. It’s hard to read this outside of the general context of the times. Referring to many, many things. I’m not quite sure what the “…and therefore” part of the story is. Are we supposed to think badly of your grandparents? Of Greenville? Of Texas? Of America? What’s the takeaway? I’m only a bit over 40, and I’m horrified about what’s going on now regarding historical literacy (or its opposite), where we’re simultaneously bringing past wrongs from the margins to the center, discarding the chance for redemption, and reinstating collective guilt. It’s not in any way shape or form about justice.

    • I guess how you read the article depends on whether you’re coming “from the margins” or not.

      And I’ve never understood how many conservatives (who argue for the importance of history) aren’t really interested in *all* history–just the kind that leaves their hands clean.

      As for collective guilt, I go with Rabbi Heschel–“few are guilty but all are responsible.”

      • Who are you claiming is a conservative not interested “in *all* history”? Are you referring to someone in particular?

        If you want to feel “responsible” for something that happened long before you were born, go right ahead if that’s what makes you feel good.

        • If you are white, you have benefited from that injustice. As I say immediately below, there is no redemption without repentance and white people have never repented for the sins of the founders.

          • My grandparents, both sets, were early 20th century immigrants. Please explain how I am responsible for the sins of the founders.

            In fact, I’m not sure there’s any basis whatsoever for repenting for someone else’s sins, let alone the sins of people you have no connection with, other than geographical or historical proximity. And I find it interesting that liberals and progressives seem to be far less concerned about how “we” treated the Indians than than how blacks were treated. Could it be because there’s no political advantage to be gained by crusading for the former? No, couldn’t be that!!!

  3. Thanks for this useful glimpse, Elias. Remember when you and I were together at H___ High School, and across town was H___ Colored High School? By the way, my grandparents are also buried in Greenville.

  4. A nice, brief reflection.

    I had a lot of contempt for my town growing up. Dismissing it as close–minded, racist, etc. I regret the judgmental attitude now. As Alex points out above, moving further North, one does not escape the realities of bigotry. Racism in the North is often just as ugly but harder to spot. This invisibility can make it even more insidious. People often talk about the South as if it’s this closed system. The recent book “Complicity” (which I have not yet read, though my wife praised it highly) details exactly what’s wrong with suggesting the problems can be isolated to a particular place or people group. The book is all about the ways in which the North (and much of the world) benefited financially from slavery in the South. It’s very easy to say that racism is a “their” problem and not “our” problem.
    I’ll refrain from opening up any can of worms about particular policies or the ins and outs of the present conversation around race. I’m under-qualified to speak on that for one. And the conversation demands a nuance that seems to almost always be missing. Comments sections rarely lend themselves to nuance.
    Anyway, something about dust and planks and eyeballs…etc. Some carpenter from Palestine said it 2000 years ago.
    Thanks to Alex now I’m craving some burgers and donuts from own hometown.

  5. I live in Greenville. Glad to know we are on the map for someone outside of Texas! I agree that Hunt county has a painful history – one that we are working to change. For example, if you come visit during the first week of June every year, you’ll find a network of local churches working together to improve our city in a multitude of ways – yard work, painting, picking up trash, visiting people in the hospital, jails, and nursing homes, just to name a few. I think you’ll find painful histories for any city anywhere in the world. But I think you should know that Greenville and its residents are worthy of caring for. If you ever come back to check out your empty plots, I would love to tell you about life here – what it’s like to raise my daughter here (who is a racial minority) what it’s like to live in a community of black, white, and Hispanic people, what it’s like to drive through impoverished neighborhoods every day. We truly love it here. I think if you ever come see this place from our perspective, your painful memories might be redeemed.

    • Anna, thanks for these good comments. I’m not surprised to hear that things have changed there in many ways–I know that’s true over in my hometown of Henderson TX also.

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