Buffalo Soldiers, Black Cowboys & the Western Frontier: African American history month spotlights generations of the African American culture present in Bosque County
Woven into the fabric of the Western Frontier are the black cowboys, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the African Americans who began as slaves but remained to be building blocks on which new counties in Texas were built.
American History Month in February pays tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled more than most with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society. Verbal histories constitute much of the African American contribution to Texas history and as such misses being fully documented – but a long and proud legacy, paved with hardships undeniably shaped today’s Lone Star State. This is also the case for Bosque County.
Like in many other places, many of the Bosque County freedmen took on the surnames of their former owners. Those names with highest occurrence in Bosque County are Sadler, Pollard, Snell, Bible, Sedberry, Robinson, Brown, Standifer, Wright, Gore, Alexander, Haygood, Watley, Willis, Allen, Brooks, Crawford, Davenport, Morris, Wesley, Hall, Jones, Johnson, Fuller, Oliver. McLennan, Vance and Drake.
Bosque County people today have known these surnames all their life. Who doesn’t know the Valley Mills Major League baseball player Donnie Sadler and Meridian’s National Football League player Frank Pollard? In a more understated way, WH Pollard carries forth the proud African American history in Bosque County.
A well-respected fixture in the Morgan/Meridian area, known by many through his farming and ranching work over the years, WH Pollard sat down with Chisholmcountry.com to talk about his heritage; tying in history with the present day. For many African Americans in Bosque County, their roots lay with ancestors coming to Texas as slaves with their slave owners from Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi and the Carolina’s. They primarily set up cotton plantations along the Brazos River at Kimball Bend, Smith Bend, Coon Creek, Allen Bend and Rock Springs.
WH Pollard is one of the few people left of a generation that remembers relatives, often grandparents, being former slaves. Unfortunately, with his grandparents on both his father’s and mother’s side of the family, and father dying when he was young, a lot of his family’s history got lost to him.
After the Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation announced that all slaves behind Confederate lines on January 1, 1863, would be freed. Because Texas did not consider itself part of the United States, Lincoln’s proclamation had no effect until federal troops gained control of the state in 1865.
The reconstruction era after the Civil War and the Great Depression challenged African Americans in Texas. Like elsewhere in the south, instead of the promised freedom and the right to happiness, the newly freed slaves found themselves in poverty and subject to often harsh discrimination. Where food, shelter and clothing were provided – albeit sparsely – by their owners, the former slaves needed to fend for themselves, without any savings or livestock to help them on their way.
Often being illiterate, many struggled to produce enough from the land to build a decent life for themselves and their families. Others chose to work for the booming railroad industry as porters, and load laborers in the stations and yards. Many women resorted to being house servants, washer women and caretakers of children.
WH Pollard believes his grandmother on his father’s side was a freed slave in Morgan. His grandfather Tom Pollard worked with the railroad, and that is how they met. They had eight children – three boys and five girls. Pollard’s father, farm and ranch hand Tom William married Emma Elizabeth Jackson and they lived with their six children in Clifton. While his father passed away in 1957, his mother lived to be 95. They are both buried at the Oswald Cemetery in Clifton, together with two of their children.
Although all African Americans born in the United States were citizens and equal before the law, years of entrenched cultural norms and the introduction of Jim Crow laws – state and local laws enacted between 1876 and 1965 mandating segregation in all public facilities – the constitutional rights guaranteed to African Americans in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were severely curtailed and segregated African American society.
For example, Texas’ refusal to ratify the 14th Amendment to the U.S. constitution, denied the freedmen equal protection under the law and civil rights and economic options were restricted. The Jim Crowe laws included reading and comprehension tests, complicated ballots and other voter exclusions preventing people casting their votes. Additionally, poll taxes made voting for poor Americans of all races and backgrounds impossible.
According to the Bullock Museum article on African Americans in Texas, Black Codes already instated in 1866 by an all-white Texas state Constitutional Congress severely limited African American’s rights. These Black Codes included labor, vagrancy, and apprenticeship laws that were meant to mimic the conditions of enslavement. Because of the strict Black Codes, others were incarcerated at rapid rates.
Reacting to the end of the Civil War, certain groups of white Texans increased violence and attacks against African Americans. The Ku Klux Klan – present in Texas by 1868 – and its members intimidated and assaulted freed people. The Freedman's Bureau, which began in Texas in September 1865, attempted to curb this violence. In addition to protection against white violence, the Freedman's Bureau aimed to assist newly freed African Americans with legal matters, education, and employment, but the bureau’s success diminished over time.
While some former slave owners offered land to their former slaves, others kept them on as low-cost laborers, or coerced them into becoming share croppers or farm tenants, and this meant that they rented land from landowners, and paid for the land and their expenses with crops. At the time, this kept many African Americans in a cycle of debt and poverty. Against that history, and despite all these difficulties, African Americans rallied together, constructing new forms of family and kinship ties, while making gains in literacy and education. Many individuals served as glowing examples for their communities.
Churches played a significant role in Texas’ African American culture, with many serving as anchors for the communities around them. When slaves became freedmen after the Civil War, some Presbyterian churches separated from the “white” Presbyterian churches, becoming churches for the African American communities.
A prime example is the Bosque County Rock Springs Cumberland Presbyterian founded in 1870 by former slave from Tennessee James B. Sadler, who migrated to Texas with his owner and possible father John Kincaid Sadler. The church became the bedrock of the largest African American community in Bosque County at the time – the Sadler Colony at Rock Springs near Valley Mills. By 1910 there were a total of 128 African American families living in the Sadler Colony. It has the most documented history.
“Caught up by the spirit of freedom from slavery, the Rev. James B. Sadler founded and built the first Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Texas, so that his people might be able to worship and govern themselves of their own choice,” Bertha Sadler Means wrote in the preview to a booklet about her grandfather. “He was a man of great vision and aspiration. He used both vision and aspiration at a great turning point in American history as a stepping stone toward advancing opportunities for his people.”
Through the churches, the first “colored” schools were established to assist the congregation in learning to read the scripture. Growing up the middle child of six, WH Pollard remembered attending both the Baptist Church and the Presbyterian Church on alternate Sundays. He followed his first education at church, and after that in a one room classroom Dunbar school situated near the Clifton Park, with one teacher teaching all grades.
Pollard recently received a copy of a photo from his cousin, showing him and his school mates. He also attended ninth and 10th grade in Valley Mills while some of his siblings bussed to Hillsboro. As he was expected to work to help out the family, Pollard’s education ended after 10th grade.
And at an even younger age, the Pollard children were expected to work, like “pulling cotton during harvest.” The Pollards loaded up the car with relatives, and made the trek to Lubbock with the children riding on a two-wheel trailer with a mattress behind the car. Staying in temporary housing while they were there, they usually returned to Bosque County before Christmas, with the children going back to school in January. “I learned how to read and my numbers,” WH Pollard said. “But I learned as much through working than anything I learned at school.”
After a short stint in the military – which he did not enjoy, partly because he felt most discriminated there for his skin color and lack of traditional education – WH Pollard, like his father before him, settled into becoming a farm and ranch hand. He worked on the Stockard Ranch and their Feed Store in Meridian for 20 years. He also worked for Glenn Lawson Water Wells. He is described as trustworthy, helpful, quiet and humble, and a great help at pulling calves or fixing a busted finger.
When his father Ray was busy, young David Stockard would hang out with WH Pollard and would often accompany him on deliveries and turkey-feed runs, opening gates and such. “Daddy trusted him with everything,” Stockard said. “He would get the store open if Daddy was running late; trusted him with the truck making deliveries.” Stockard remembers WH Pollard teaching him how to ride on horseback, how to round up the goats, and how to drive a tractor and farm trucks. Stockard also remembers Pollard’s natural knack for engineering and feed ratio calculations. “He should have been an engineer,” Stockard said. “He could draw it out and build anything.”
When he’s in town nowadays, Stockard and Pollard sometimes have lunch, with Stockard asking questions about people and times gone by. Needless to say, with his 87 years, Pollard knows a lot of information about a lot of people and ranches. Now retired after a long ranching life, Pollard tends to his two retired horses at his home just outside Meridian, and spends his days having breakfast at Johnnies, drinking coffee and visiting with old friends at Tommy’s convenience store, in their places of business or at his old stomping grounds the Meridian Livestock Commission during sale days.
And Pollard has a lot of friends – from the ranches and farms he worked, from the people he met when he organized play days for the Meridian Horse Show Association and others from the days when he competed in team sorting. He knows Greg Garland from the days of summer softball league, and buying truck parts at Briley’s Automotive; and Larry Chance from when he would need someone to weld something or fix something.
Not one to have idle hands, WH Pollard enjoys doing leatherwork. He started leatherwork in his horse-riding days, making tack, but now making sought-after custom wallets, knife sheaths, checkbook holders and even Yeti mug handles.
According to the 1870 census, a group of 28 African Americans clustered together in separate households located next to the Martin Van Buren-Smith plantation, near Smith Bend at the East side of the county. John Jackson Smith’s widow Margaret Butler housed a small group housed in household. Another 80 African Americans listed in 16 separate households appeared to be mostly John Jackson Smith’s ex-slaves who migrated after obtaining their freedom. They constituted another example of the church anchoring a community.
Clan elders Uncle Charlie Gatewood and his wife Aunt Mollie – who were slaves prior to coming to Texas – led the Allen Bend community with its own church, school and cemetery. It lay about a mile and a half from the ranch and all community residents were related in one way or another. Born in Kimball, was a Malina Pollard. Her enslaved parents were sold away when she was a small child. In a happy circumstance, when she was 12, she happened to find her mother near Kopperl and they moved to Morgan.
After Pollard passed away in Abilene in 1949, her remains were brought back to Morgan to be buried in the town where she spent more than 90 years of her life. Reported being born in 1841, Pollard would be 108 when she died. The mother six children, including Rev. John Phelps of Meridian, she was survived by 24 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren and 23 great-great grandchildren. According to census records, her occupation was “washing.”
“Active in the affairs of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, she was never ill. She never had a pair of glasses, and never wore false teeth,” a Meridian Tribune article on Feb. 18, 1949, reported upon her death.
J.C. Frazier employed former slaves to work on his farm. Descended from ex-slaves Sylvia Lightener worked on the Kimball Plantation and served as a beloved nanny for young Frank Frazier. Offering an inspiring life story, “Aunt Sylvia” raised her six children – three boys and three girls – by herself on the land she owned at Allen Bend, after a cotton gin accident killed her husband and left her widowed.
A woman of large stature, Lightener practiced various jobs to feed her family. During WWI she served as a nurse; and for miles around she was known for her skill as an herbalist for treating her neighbors with her special potions and remedies. She walked for miles in the Allen Bend and Fowler communities tending to the sick and needy, also administering her midwife skills.
One recorded incidence involved Della Dowell, who missed an entire school year due to a bad case of scarlet fever. Lightener applied a salve over Della’s entire body several times to sooth the skin-peeling rash. “She rubbed so much I near slid off the bed!” Della said. Della declared she soon got better, and her skin never peeled.
Meridian’s Presbyterian missionary Ella Robinson exemplifies another special community member, serving the church as community pillar. Robinson’s mother, a Nashville, TN native Liza Hamilton married John H. Robinson at the Meridian Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1906. Born in Meridian in 1885, Robinson dedicated her life to her faith and church. A cook by occupation, Robinson worked in the Meridian College kitchen until the college shut down in 1927. She also worked in the Cureton family for about 20 years and taught music.
Robinson’s extensive personal archive – thankfully left to the Bosque Collection and which includes clippings, personal histories, prayer books and inspirational writings – gives insight to her life and heritage. Robinson passed away just a month after her 99th birthday in 1984.
By the 1940s, the African American settlements disseminated. While many of his generation gradually migrated out of Bosque County in search of work and better pay, WH Pollard was one of the few that stayed, a pillar in the Bosque County ranching community. He raised his two children here, but they too chose to branch out, living in Waco and Dallas.
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS & courtesy of BERTHA SADLER MEANS, ELLA ROBINSON, WH POLLARD, BOSQUE COLLECTION & BRISCOE CENTER FOR AMERICAN HISTORY - UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS at AUSTIN
WH Pollard at the Meridian Livestock Commission; Pollard family worked for JC Frazier and Frank Frazier near Mesquite Creek; Cotton weighers in Bosque County; The first school for Negro children Kindergarten – high school at the Sadler Colony, 1908; Cook, missionary, music teacher Ella Robinson in 1920. She documented much of her private history; The Clifton Dunbar School for African American children with WH Pollard standing to the right of the teacher; A group of black sharecroppers in the early 20th century struggling to earn a living and care for their families after the Civil War.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: All the materials used in the research of African Americans in Bosque County is available at the Bosque Collection, which includes: African Americans in the Smith Bend Area by Bob Veteto; Old Negro Families – Profiles of Pioneer Families in the Valley Mills Area compiled by Gerald and Jo Meyer for the Bosque Collection 1998; African Americans in Texas – A Lasting Legacy, Texas Historical Commission booklet 2011; Bosque County Land and People compiled by the Bosque County History Book Committee 1985; A Portrait of a Pioneer in the Making – James B. Sadler by Bertha Sadler Means, 1975; Private archive Miss Ella Robinson
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