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Judy Silman and her brother sing a song at the 21st Cotton & Rural History Conference on April 22.

A day devoted to  cotton and rural history was staged Saturday at the Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum.

The 21st annual conference featured discussions including panelists Scott Yarbrough, Jeffrey Littlejohn, Judy Silman and Dr. Mike Adkisson.

Littlejohn spoke in the first panel and introduced “East Texas History”, a web-based project that  explores the rural places and history of East Texas. The iPhone-based app was started in 2014.

“What it does is it uses the GPS located in your phone to locate you and show the historical sites that are around you,” Littlejohn said.

Silman spoke during the “Eyewitness to History: We Were There” panel about her experience growing up on a cotton farm. Her dad worked 1,000 acres of land. She said she and her siblings worked alongside day laborers of all races and they never noticed racism. She said the majority of her days in labor were fun and that her and other field hands sang songs to make time pass by.

“While it is a life of hard labor, there is undoubtedly a pride and a passion to this life of farming,” Silman said. “There are as many delightful stories as there are difficult ones to tell.”

The event also featured a keynote presentation from Andrew Torget. Torget spoke about his new book Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands.”

Torget is a historian and professor at the University of North Texas. In his book,  he tells how the early nineteenth century cotton revolution transformed northeastern Mexico into the western edge of the United States.

The book has already won “best book” awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Texas State Historical Association, the East Texas Historical Association and many others.

Kyle Wilkison and Jim Conrad co-chair the event which welcomes paper proposals from historians working in the fields of rural, social or agricultural history. Wilkison thought of the idea to start the conference about two decades ago while sitting on his porch. He said he and Conrad didn’t think it would be much, but 21 years later the conference is still standing.

Wilkison, who is a professor of history at Collin College, said their focus when starting the conference was accessibility.

“The main purpose is to bring history to the people,” he said. “We want to make scholarship accessible by getting it out of the journals and to the people. If history has a purpose, it can’t just be between historians. We have to bridge the gap between scholarship and real people.”

Over the years, a number of notable and award-winning scholars have helped bridge the gap by presenting their work. Wilkison said he hopes to continue that effort with next year’s conference.

Jasmine C. Johnson may be reached at jjohnson@heraldbanner.com.

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