Baylor University Joins Small Town in Uncovering Black History

Jan. 25, 2010

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When Paula Gerstenblatt married Thomas Davis in 1980, she heard countless tales of his youth in Mart, Texas.

So Gerstenblatt, a visual artist, was excited when they traveled from their home in the San Francisco Bay area to attend a family reunion in Mart in 2003.

A weed-covered lot was all that remained of the Davis family's home, destroyed by fire in 1969.

"At family reunions, we would just shoot a photo in front of the overgrown lot," Gerstenblatt said. And when she and her nieces viewed 15 display cases at Mart's library, they found no trace of the city's African-American heritage.

Today, thanks to a partnership with Baylor University and a $4,000 grant from Humanities Texas, her dream of chronicling the city's black history and turning the family's land into a memory-themed art installation is becoming a reality.

Some accomplishments:

• Faculty from Baylor University's Institute for Oral History have trained Mart residents how to do interviews to collect stories from the days when Mart thrived along the railroad route as an agricultural and commercial community.

• A Baylor faculty member, Baylor students and Mart volunteers cleaned up an overgrown historic black cemetery.

• Mart's library boasts a permanent black history collection, with two ceiling-high glass cases filled with items from yesteryear.

• The Davis family used found objects to transform their land. Working with neighbors, they cleared brush, built a fence and archway and uncovered the home's original brick walkway. They displayed family mementoes and added lawn chairs for visitors.

With the oral history project, "What's neat is the opportunity to fill a silence," said Dr. Stephen Sloan, an assistant professor of history at Baylor and director of Baylor's Institute for Oral History.

"It's not just a race issue but a class issue," he said. "The poorest of the poor leave less of a historical footprint. Other people often controlled the narrative, and some groups were overlooked. Oral history isn't a record of what we thought about people; it's their own words and perception."

With the grant from Humanities Texas -- the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities -- he trained eight Mart residents in interviewing and recording oral histories.

One of those history "sleuths" is Mart native Janet Bridgewater, Gerstenblatt's niece-in-law.

"I learned to talk to the people before I turn the tape recorder on, give them a chance to get comfortable," she said. "I make sure nobody else is in the room because if you have too many people, someone else might be butting into the conversation, and you just don't get a good interview.

"My daddy was born in 1927, and the family was here before that, so I know a whole lot of stories from back in the day," she said.

Hobos hopped on and off trains until the final train ran through Mart in 1967, and "some kind of way, they ended up in my grandmother's house," Bridgewater said. "She fed them and made them welcome. We were scared, but she said they were just regular people."

While Sloan helps residents with oral history, Carol Macaulay -- a Baylor lecturer in archeology, anthropology and forensic science -- led the cleanup of Evergreen Cemetery, a historic black cemetery, in March 2009. Baylor students mapped it and made a videotape.

Residents donated keepsakes for the black history exhibition in Mart's Nancy Nail Memorial Library, unveiled in June 2009.

Thomas Davis' naval uniform, which he wore aboard the ship USS Dixie in the 1950s, is among the memorabilia; so is a photo of former Mart resident Frankie Lee, nicknamed "the Texas Son" and "Frank Sinatra of the Blues," which ran in the Los Angeles Times.

The library cases also hold a1963 girls' basketball trophy and a program from Anderson High School's homecoming game in 1949. The school was segregated until fall of 1967.

On a somber note, newspaper clippings from 1921 tell of Ku Klux Klan threats posted around town. Black people who loitered outside stores after 8 p.m. were to "Heed the warning -- or suffer at the hands of the Klan."

Some Mart residents responded by posting notices of their own.

"We will not permit lawlessness in the name of the Ku Klux Klan," one said. "We do not stand for the oppression of any individual or class, but we do stand for law and order, and this applies to both black and white."

The history project isn't over. Participants have obtained a second Humanities Texas grant -- this one for $3,500 -- to aid teachers in bringing cross-cultural, inter-generational projects into their classes, Sloan said.

"We're recovering the pride," Bridgewater said.

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321

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