25 Oct Blackwaters: Stephenville ~ In the Shadow of a Sundown Town
In the middle of October, there was a break in the weather that had brought record high temperatures to the state of Texas. Over three glorious days that included a morning of fly fishing on the Brazos River at the Stone Arch Bridge near Possum Kingdom State Park, my teammates and I enjoyed the southern hospitality of a bucolic little community about 2 hours east of Dallas. Throughout the Blackwaters Film Tour, our team has been blessed with clear skies and relatively cool days. At each stop we engaged area residents, mostly people of color, in our home communities in the cities of Portland, Madison and Atlanta. Our visit to Stephenville was no different. It was a truly great time.
As the guests of our teammate Jahmicah Dawes, our crew of anglers descended upon this small town of about 21,000 people to share our love and passion for the outdoors through the power of fly fishing and storytelling. Stephenville would be the final stop in our series of screening events for the year before picking up the tour again in 2024 with the last scheduled presentation in San Antonio, Texas on Jan. 12th-15th over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Mark your calendars. It’s going to be dope!
In Stephenville, Jahmicah and his wife Heather, operate Slim Pickins Outfitters, the first Black-owned outdoor specialty retail store in the country. Though visiting there for first time, I’ve been a fan of their work since they opened their doors in 2017. My father is originally from Waco, about 80 miles to the south. So, in many ways it was like coming home. In an enclave with a checkered history of racial oppression, I was just glad to know that the Dawes family is there to represent the culture.
Here where Jahmicah studied fashion merchandising at Tarleton State University, the couple has focused their love of vintage clothing, technical apparel, and rugged footwear upon the creation of an establishment that encourages folks in their community to venture outside into the wilds of nature and look good doing it. Located near the center of town Slim Pickins is a shining example of the progress the outdoor recreation industry has made toward becoming more diverse and inclusive. Ironically, their store is located directly across the street from a Confederate memorial.
On the grounds of the Erath County Court House an engraved block of marble honors the building’s namesake. Major George Bernard Erath was an Austrian immigrant who served in the Texas Revolution from Mexico and the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. As a surveyor he also drafted the system of streets for the towns of Waco, Caldwell and Stephenville. He served at the state legislature in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. He died in 1891. Erath County is named for him.
As monuments go, this one is relatively benign. With credit to the committee that crafted and approved the text of the sentiments inscribed there, the carefully chosen words convey only a recognition of the 600 men who fought in “an extra ordinary war” and came to Erath County during the reconstruction era to build homes, churches, farms and businesses. Gratefully there is no mention of white supremacy or the valiant lost cause of the Confederacy. In truth, all that one might find offensive is a Confederate Battle Flag presented in full color with reverence equal to the banner and state seal of Texas. Erected in the year 2001, it is a sad reminder of the racially oppressive sympathies that remain not just in the South, but our nation as a whole.
Naturally, I understand the importance of honoring one’s ancestors. To those descended from relatives who took up arms against the federal government in 1861, I can even appreciate the necessity to pay respects to their dearly departed who are laid to rest in the soil where they still make their homes. But with that recognition they must also bear the responsibility to acknowledge the atrocities that took place here in the spirit of rebellion that denied the humanity of their fellow citizens who happened to be Black.
Curiosity to learn more about the history of Stephenville prompted me to do a bit of research. Accounts of racially motivated mob violence and the murder of Black Americans in Erath and nearby Comanche Counties were regularly published in regional newspapers including the Fort Worth Daily Gazette and The Comanche Chief. In particular, two unrelated incidents in 1875 and 1886 centered around the rape and murder of white women at the hands of Black men. Speculation among family members and others close to the circumstances suggest that the men were indeed guilty. Though there were no eyewitnesses, the alleged perpetrators of these crimes were never tried in a court of law. Both men fled into the surrounding woods where they were hunted down and captured. Each man was summarily executed by incensed members of their community. One was shot and the other was hanged.
Immediately following the events of 1886, an organized group of armed residents, called the “Committy (sic) of One Hundred”, demanded the removal all Black Americans from Comanche County. Families who had lived in this area even before the Civil War were given just 10 days to vacate their homes. A formal declaration of town residents was approved to prohibit anyone of African ancestry to live in this community. Black labors or visitors were not to be seen anywhere nearby after the fall of darkness at the end of each day. In the decades that followed a sign was posted above a public drinking well near the train depot in the town of De Leon that read, “Niggers! Let not the sun set on you in Comanche County.”
Though it remains to be proven conclusively, De Leon, Texas is believed to be the first formally recognized sundown town in the U.S. Even Black railroad porters on passing trains hid themselves in the baggage compartments as they traveled through Comanche and Erath Counties. As my father was born in Waco, I can only wonder if members of my own family where subjected to these same hardships. Other communities would adopt the practice in mostly rural areas across the nation. This policy would define how people of color are treated by both officers of law enforcement and common citizens. Through the turn of the 20th century, right up until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black Americans were restricted as to where they could live, work, or play. Towns in these central Texas counties would boast in promotional pamphlets of their profound absence of Black people.
“The population of Comanche County, Texas, according to the census of 1900 was 23,079,” reads a statement in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly published in 1953. “This population, it must be remembered, is entirely and absolutely all white; there is not a negro in the county, and the chances are there will not be any for many years to come.”
Upon quoting this passage in his essay “The Negro Exodus of Comanche County, Texas”, the writer Billy Bob Lightfoot suggests that the indignities of racial oppression persisted through the next five decades. “Perhaps the unfortunate fact is that since this pamphlet was written, nothing has happened that would cause a change in this opinion,” he wrote.
To note that Slim Pickins Outfitters opened its doors 130 years after the so-called exodus of Black families from this community marks a significant milestone in American history. In a place where once Jahmicah Dawes couldn’t walk the streets after dark or own a home, he is now the proprietor of a thriving business. By selling gear and clothing for outdoor recreation, he helps to facilitate his customers’ access to the natural places where once they might have been hunted for the crime of being outside after dark.
“It means everything that were able to be here at Tarleton,” Jahmicah told me. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Hosted by his alma mater, Jahmicah shared the Blackwaters film with a gathering of local supporters at the Clyde H. Wells Fine Arts Center on the Tarleton Campus. There we were greeted warmly by Dr. Sherri Benn, Vice President of the Division of Global, Community, and First-Gen Initiatives (GCFGI). Just a few months earlier in May, the state of Texas passed Senate Bill 17, which formally eliminated the offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion at public colleges and universities. That includes Tarleton. Following the example of Florida and other states of the south, Texas is denying the ongoing impacts of racial discrimination and oppression which can still be felt to this day. Among the lessons these administrators aim to forget are the historic origins of sundown towns, which began here in Texas, and the roles they played in the racially segregated demographic make-up of the communities in which they now teach.
But in her new role at GCFGI Benn is committed to creating programs that engage the best interests of every student on her campus. “It’s gone. So, we no longer have a Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” she said in a recent interview. “While that was disheartening at first when I got with my team, we discussed what to do moving forward, and we had to say, ‘What other opportunities can we create that would ensure all of our students feel like they belong?’”
Benn believes that community engagement through outdoor recreation is one such opportunity. By supporting the Blackwaters film series of events and, by extension, Slim Pickins Outfitters, she has drawn a direct line between students on her campus and a local provider of goods and services for the enjoyment of nature.
“I want everyone to know that the outdoors is for everybody,” Benn said.
At each of our events the Blackwaters team makes this understanding clear. Through our stories and fly-fishing demonstrations on open water we create a direct connection with people of color and their access to public land. As a Black-owned business in Stephvenville, Jahmicah’s establishment can help to bridge the divide between the world outside and those in his area who might believe they have no place there. His very presence shows that in spite of the restrictions of the past, Black Americans are here, and everyone is welcome to belong.