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"Tomlinson Hill" Documents Continuing Segregation Struggles

June 18, 2013 1:13 p.m.


Chris Tomlinson, Producer,
Tomlinson Hill

Related Story: Tomlinson Hill


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The letters LT bring back good memories for San Diego football fans. The skill and personality that star running back LaDainian Tomlinson brought to the Chargers created a lot of lasting good will. Tonight on KPBS TV, we'll learn about the complicated legacy associated with the Tomlinson name and LT's family history. It turns out his mom is in the forefront of an effort to save a small town that became home to former slaves from the plantation on Tomlinson hill in east Texas. I'd like to welcome my guest, Chris Tomlinson, a longtime reporter with The Associated Press, and producer of Tomlinson Hill. You came to this story about your family name after a long and varied career in journalism. What did you know about your family's history on Tomlinson Hill before you made this documentary?

TOMLINSON: When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me that there was a -- that our family had owned a slave plantation outside of Waco called Tomlinson Hill. And he would tell me that the slaves of that plantation loved our family so much that they took our last name when they became free. As an 8-year-old, I was -- and being from Texas, I was ready to accept this story as true. But after nine years of covering wars in Africa and the Middle East, I realized that there was more to it. So when I returned home to Texas, I decided to investigate this family history and try to find out the truth behind it.

CAVANAUGH: Where is Tomlinson Hill?

TOMLINSON: It's about 20 miles southeast of Waco, about an hour and a half drive north of Austin. It's in the heart of the triangle between Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us about how slaves were brought to Texas by your ancestors.

TOMLINSON: Well, there was a community in Alabama that involved three families. The Tomlinsons, the Stalworths, and the Joneses. And when Texas became open for settlement, those families were drawn to Texas because of the very cheap land. And between those three families, they brought over 500 slaves and settled on the Brazas river, on what is now called Tomlinson Hill after my family.

CAVANAUGH: And after the emancipation proclamation, many of the former saves who worked on Tomlinson Hill took the Tomlinson name and moved to that small town, Marlin.

TOMLINSON: Some of them moved to the town, and some of them remained on the hill. The Union Troops encouraged the free men to remain on the plantations where they had been slaves and to reach labor agreements with their former slave holders. LaDainian's family lived on the hill right up until 2007. He had many relatives who also moved into Marlin, but it was all one community really.

CAVANAUGH: In the documentary, we see you meeting Lori Ann Tomlinson for the first time at a town meeting. You're nervous! You don't know what her reaction will be to a white person with the Tomlinson name.

TOMLINSON: Well, she was the first black Tomlinson that I had ever met. I had been doing the research, I had gone to the old slave cemeteries, to my family's old plantation. But this was my first opportunity to meet a -- someone who was descended from that save plantation. And frankly, I didn't know what kind of reaction I would get. After some of the crimes that my ancestors had committed, I would not have been surprised if she'd be resentful.

CAVANAUGH: She was accepting and casual about the entire situation.

TOMLINSON: And she also opened a door to the Marlin community where I met literally hundreds of descendants of people who have been slaves on Tomlinson Hill that my family had exploited. And I quickly learned that for them, this was perfectly natural. While my grandfather had left the hill in 1920, and I grew up in Dallas, and I never really met any of these people before, for the descendants of the former slaves who remained in Marlin, they saw the descendants of the former slave holders every day. They were partners and worked together. They often had barbecues together. LaDainian's great grandfather had breakfast every morning with one of my great uncles.

CAVANAUGH: And yet there's evidence in your documentary that the race relations in Marlin are not totally resolved.

TOMLINSON: No. That was actually one of the big surprises, was to discover that this -- almost 50 years after the civil rights movement, Marlin remains a very segregated town. And the racial resentment is very strong. These white older families who have been around for a century, they still control the politics. They still control what businesses move into the town. Meanwhile, they've moved their children out of the public schools. And the African American community remains in really abject rural poverty. And they are struggling to build up their community in what is really an economic crisis.

CAVANAUGH: I want to play a clip from the documentary. It's about your realization of what generations of poverty have done to the black population of Marlin. It began when you got out of your car and went into some of the poorer houses.

NEW SPEAKER: When I started going into people's homes and got a real intimate look at the conditions, I didn't expect that. And then actually it began to become a little more clear to me why these will problems persist and how deep they are. And the fact that these people have lived in this kind of poverty for three or 4 generations. And that they
lives on the same plot of land where their ancestors' slave quarters used to stand. Once you see that continuity, then you begin to understand why the issues around slavery are still important today.

CAVANAUGH: I think that message comes across really clearly in this documentary. And there's also another quote that I want to mention. One of the people you interview says Texas is the most unreconstructed of the southern states. Tell us what he means by that. &%F0

TOMLINSON: Well, Texas was never invaded by the Union forces. The Union troops arrived, but there were so few of them that they basically set up offices in the major towns. But there were no battles. There was no forced ex-appropriation of land. People were pretty much allowed to continued lives that they had. Union troops reported two years after the civil war still finding African Americans enslaved in some of the more remote plantations. And also the occupation was the shortest period of time. The troops began to demobilize, and they were withdrawn. Afterward, during Jim Crow, Texas tried to rebrand itself, not as a southern state, but as a western state. They have began to emphasize their history of battle raising and oil, even though at that point cotton was the source of most of the state's wealth. So in that way, many Texans today who are under 40, still don't quite comprehend that Texas would a slave state.

CAVANAUGH: So this legacy of Marlin and Tomlinson Hill plays such a large part in this documentary. But this is also a story that encompasses what's happening to a lot of small towns across the country. The town is hurting very badly, and may even be dying.

TOMLINSON: That's right. And as personal a connection as I have to Marlin, and as LaDainian and his mother, Lori Ann, Marlin is not a typical of rural communities across America. Particularly in the south, where most of the labor, most of the salaries prior to 1965 were based on agriculture. And once they built mechanized cotton-picking machines, that's when we began to see the unemployment rates go up and the mass unemployment that we see now in the south. And unfortunately, those who remained in these small towns are still suffering the consequences as there are no industries to replace the agriculture.

CAVANAUGH: What is Lori Ann doing to save the town and why?

TOMLINSON: She describes a childhood in Marlin that is idyllic. And so does LaDainian. Growing up in a rural area where you've got a huge vegetable garden, and all of your cousins and relatives live around you. You grow up raising your own hogs, making your own sausage. She describes a lifestyle that is enviable. But now that she's -- now that LaDainian's had this great success, and they've moved away, and she's living in Fort Worth in a big city, she feels alone. And she wants that sense of community back. And part of that is to return home to Marlin and her friends and family. The problem is Marlin is in such a death spiral of poverty that it's not a place you would want to live anymore of the so that's why she's trying to organize the community and she's ready to start small with community gardens and community projects to try to reinstill a sense of pride in that community. And I have to tell you, that's why she runs into the racism that is still salient in Marlin, and we see the white community resisting her trying to make these changes.

CAVANAUGH: In looking at what's going on in Marlin, do you think people watching this documentary will perhaps get a perspective both in how far we've come and in how far we still have to go in healing the wounds of racism, not only in a town like Marlin, but perhaps across the country?

TOMLINSON: I think people who see the documentary from Marlin are for the large part feel a little slighted. Because we kind of pull back the curtain on some of the problems that still hurt that community. But at the same time, we meet amazing people who can see beyond race, who have overcome the past and who are trying to lead their community into a more united future. So I would hope that people, particularly Anglos such as myself who come from the south, we can be honest about what our families did and what they are responsible for in creating the conditions that exist today. But I hope they will also see the opportunity for change and progress because it's there. And there's still a great deal of hope. And knowing what we know now, we can make a better future.

CAVANAUGH: When you start out in this documentary, it seems as if you're carrying a great deal of guilt and even of hesitation in putting your foot into this story, putting your toes into this story that unlocks so much about the history of your family. Have you resolved that?

TOMLINSON: I think I have. When I began this process, I had just left Africa. And in fact the last story I did before I left Africa was in Rwanda where I interviewed a man who had participated in the genocide that killed over 1 million people. And he had personally killed 12 people with a machete. And he said to me that he never asks anyone for forgiveness in his community now. He just acts to reveal the past, to be honest about it, and try to build a better future. And if people forgive him, then that's great. But he doesn't want to ask any more of those people because to ask for forgiveness is it to ask to take something. And I guess in my way, I'm trying to do the same thing.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of reaction have you gotten so far from this documentary?

TOMLINSON: It's been mixed, frankly. We've had some howls of protests from the white community in Marlin. But at the same time at the Dallas International Film Festival, we won an award, the Silver Heart Award, in which the members of the jury stood up and described their childhood and experiences with people of other races and what they remember and the reality of what those relationships were. And to me, that makes up for whoever I may make angry by pointing out that maybe some of the slaves, maybe they didn't really love my family so much, and maybe that's why they didn't take my last name.