When visiting local history museums in various parts of the Red River Region, a glaring omission usually stands out among the collections:
there are hardly any artifacts pertaining to African Americans. You'd be hard-pressed to find clothes, every day items, let alone genealogy
from the African American families who populated the Red River Valley. In fact, I've found more information on the smattering of German
immigrants in our area than I have on black Americans. This is a real shame, because their history helped shape this region into what it is
The Red River Valley was greatly influenced by Plantation Culture. Slavery existed in Oklahoma as well as in Texas, and for years after
emancipation African Americans in the valley were subject to some of the most brutal racist treatment in United States history. Spectacle
lynches, where thousands of people would come to witness scheduled renegade executions, were first practiced here. The Ku Klux Klan
made themselves well known with their violent hatred and political bullying, and their influence can still be seen in Klan rallies that pop up
from time to time.
On the brighter side, our region has also been a refuge for freedom lovers, especially Oklahoma. Here is where many freedmen came to
settle and begin an unrestrained life free from prejudice and forced labor.
So why not give African Americans their rightful place among local history? Local museums tend to follow the "old school" of thought that
history belongs to the powerful, and hence only their stories are given importance. Therefore, the history of the masses (i.e., common
people) is most often relegated to a few representative items or generic displays. And because of this lack of interest, artifacts from
"common" people aren't donated or shared. In addition, African American history is kept separate from the "mainstream." In most cases,
the only time a patron can view items from local black families is during African American History Month.
I think as historians, it's our duty to get the word out that museums need to tell us the whole story. Along with the obligatory school room
set-up, kitchen implement display and high school letterman jacket collections, we should also see how blacks lived in the Red River
Valley, what their schools looked like, and how their lives differed from the whites. Also, museums shouldn't be shy about including rather
controversial histories - like local lynches. Such a display would be a REAL eye-opener. The Red River Historical Museum in Sherman
offers a great example of what a museum can do when retelling a lynching - its display is absolutely fascinating.
It's very important to include EVERY ONE when it comes to local history. It'll make history that much more intriguing and genuine.
|The African American Museum at Fair Park in Dallas is built on the site of the Negro Achievement Building, erected during the 1936
Centennial Fair with money raised within Dallas' black community. That building was the only one of the original Centennial buildings torn
down after the fair.
|The Denton County Museum has opened a new African American Museum. The curator for the museum, my good friend Kim Cupit, has done a
heck of a job amassing information for this important addition to Denton County's history. (Denton County)
|St. Matthew's parish school near Natchitoches, Louisiana was abandoned when the state consolidated school districts and local children
bussed to the larger parish schools. St. Matthew's church, graveyard, and school are in proximity of the Cane River Creoles.
|The Need to Share
African American History
|Tatums in Carter County, Oklahoma was one of the Red River Valley's all-black towns that thrived in a segregated society.
|Black cemeteries afford a wealth of information on ancestors. After freedom, the stones in segregated cemeteries told as much as they could
about the deceased in defiance of the pre-freedom tradition of burying the enslaved dead in unmarked or barely-marked graves (using wooden
markers, for example). This grave in Cannon, Grayson County, Texas is made of cement and deeply etched with the name and dates of the
deceased, as if to tell the world: James was here, and he mattered.