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Pool: Memory, history, and a riot in Longview

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On a friend’s recommendation, I ordered a history book. One chapter is titled “Longview.” I started there.

Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America” by Cameron McWhirter is a book that combines deep scholarship with the accessible prose of an accomplished writer.

I grew up without any idea that my hometown had been the site of a race riot. In 1919, that term usually meant White people rioting, beating, burning, and sometimes lynching Black people. In Longview, however, the Blacks shot back, dispersing a White mob.

A larger mob assembled downtown, looting a store for arms and ammunition. Whites assaulted the neighborhoods south of the railroad tracks, burning a dance hall, some businesses and several houses on Nelson Street. One Black man was murdered as he fled.

McWhirter’s Longview chapter relies on “The Longview Race Riot of 1919” published in 1980 in the East Texas Historical Journal by Kenneth R. Durham, Jr., then at LeTourneau College. It is archived at the website of the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame.

According to Durham, it was decisive action by Mayor G. A. Bodenheim and Gregg County Judge E.M. Bramlette, with cooperation by Governor William P. Hobby, that kept the violence from getting worse. Texas Rangers and National Guard troops were sent to Longview.

Martial law was declared. The violence was suppressed, and 7,000 firearms were confiscated. Twenty-one Black men were arrested and sent off to Austin. Perhaps this in part for their own safety, as several Whites had threatened to kill them as soon as they retrieved their guns. After four days, martial law was lifted, the guns were returned and the troops departed by rail.

Nobody of either race was ever put on trial.

Sometimes riots like these were abetted by the local authorities, and at other times the powers in charge tried to preserve order.

Another book, “A Hanging in Nacogdoches,” by Gary B. Borders, showed how sheriffs and judges shuttled a Black murder suspect back and forth on railway lines to keep him out of the hands of lynch mobs until he could be properly tried and promptly hanged in the town square. That book is the gripping account of a single case over several days.

McWhirter’s history puts this riot in the context of the summer of 1919, when the aftershocks of the First World War were felt at home and abroad. In Europe it was a time of anarchy and violence. W. B. Yeats wrote his famous poem, “The Second Coming” that year. It includes the lines “things fall apart; the center cannot hold; /mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

It was a summer when Black American veterans returned from fighting for their country to find themselves called “boys” and other racial epithets. In more than two dozen riot situations, they resisted violence with violence.

In 1978, Durham conducted interviews with people who remembered the riot or knew people involved. For the centennial of the riot, this newspaper published an article about family memories of the event. Nobody volunteered much.

McWhirter begins his book with an account of violence and lynchings in Georgia. At the end, he returns and talks to the grandson of the Black farmer at the center of the affair. The man, an accomplished judge, did not know the details of his own family’s history.

People don’t want to talk about unpleasant things. But history shouldn’t be either about glorification or vilification of the past, but about a clear and sober look at how we came to be where we are.

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— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School. His column appears Tuesday. Contact him at frankt.pool@gmail.com.

Today's Bible verse

"For if you forgive other people for their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive other people, then your Father will not forgive your offenses."

Matthew 6:14-15

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