In the early 1980s, the Hunt County Historical Society commissioned a book to examine the history of Greenville and its surrounding communities.
It's an inspiring tale, with lots of cool pictures. If you believe the mythology, the city of Greenville magically appeared thanks to enterprising businessmen who grew cotton to sell to the world. In this tale, the town prospered with new schools, new churches and new people flocked to the burgeoning community.
What the book leaves out, and remember this was a story told in the voice of the 1980s, is that until 1950 about 10% of Hunt County's population was Black — most living within or near Greenville. In 132 pages, Black faces appear just five times.
If we're to believe certain members of the Texas Legislature, or former Vice President Mike Pence, racism in America wasn't a problem. Yet, in a remarkable piece of proposed legislation, Texas wants to restrict discussions about historical racism in public schools. According to the legislature, racism was antithetical to the foundation of the United States.
When it comes to the vision of equality outlined by our founding fathers and documents, this is true. However, America's story is far more complex. It's like the story of Greenville, which features two sides — the one that wants to believe a foundation myth, and another that knows how it happened.
Here's the fact — Black labor helped build Hunt County. The cotton trade would not have prospered if it wasn't for Black people working the fields. And it is understood that Black workers accomplished this work under threats of violence to conform. It's an inconvenient truth.
Just last week, while researching a project on this newspaper's historical complicity in perpetuating racism, we discovered that the Evening Banner during the 1920s regaled the Ku Klux Klan. How many school children have heard that story before?
Or how many school children have heard the story about the KKK's marching through the streets of Greenville with an estimated 25,000 onlookers — that was news in many newspapers, which harbored similar sympathies.
We will cover this history in the coming weeks, including the Herald-Banner's role in cheerleading a 1908 lynching of a young Black man — Ted Smith.
One focus will be how, during the 1920s, the KKK used the Evening Banner to launder donations to various community organizations. At that time, the newspaper editor would go on to a long career as a top aide to Rep. Sam Rayburn.
And that brings us to the second part of this tale — the legislature also wants to limit the discussion of current events. So, you can imagine that if we publish stories about historical racism in Hunt County, how might that be problematic for teachers if a student brings a copy for show and tell?
Here's a key element from Texas House Bill 3979: "Teachers who choose to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs shall, to the best of their ability, strive to explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective."
So, if we publish a story about how Ted Smith, who was probably 17 or 18, was set on fire on Washington Street by a mob of white people, how does a teacher bring in a contending perspective? Here's the contending perspective: Smith was accused of sexual assault, arrested and then executed before being charged with a crime. In the middle of Washington Street, thousands watched Smith die in agony. Then, when another Black man said it was a "shame," members of the mob beat him.
The bill's backers say they want to talk about history with all the "warts." The problem is they don't want to mention cancer caused by systemic and historical racism. It's apparent in some legislators' minds that there is no such thing, and that's our objection.
The bill prohibits teaching the 1619 Project, a controversial series of stories by the New York Times. In its reporting, the 1619 project aimed to recast our understanding of slavery's ongoing impact on American culture. Some historians have objected to the project's historical characterizations, but few have argued the facts about slavery's role in the American economy.
In recent years, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 has come into greater focus. Yet, for years, it was never discussed, especially in Oklahoma's schools. Similar events happened in Texas.
By legislating historical conversations, the Texas legislature is missing an opportunity to expand our understanding of how racism played a role in the state's history and how we're better because we're ready to tackle it head-on.
Instead, these legislators and key state executives want to halt a candid conversation about the past because it might hurt someone's feelings.
— Herald-Banner Editorial