Monday, March 06, 2006

Missing the marker, missing the mark

It's no great mystery what happened to this historical marker outside of Gilmer, Texas. The original was damaged or destroyed during a highway improvement project, and it hasn't been properly replaced.

Meshack RobertsMeshack, a faithful slave, came to Gilmer with his master, O.E. Roberts before 1850. While Mr. Roberts was away in the Civil War, Meshack ran the farm and looked after the family. To get money to finance farm costs, Meshack shod horses for soldiers and others and sold ginger cakes. Meshack was an example of the sincere loyalty found all over the South.

At war's end, his master gave him freedom, land and material to build a home. Meshack later moved to Marshall where he served in the Texas legislature. In 1882 [1872], Meshack helped establish Wiley College for negroes.

The state appears in no hurry to replace the temporary marker with a new one. Since they're taking their time, I would like to suggest some modest changes in the text. Meshack Roberts did not just up and move to Marshall. In 1867, he was beaten by the KKK and left for dead on a road outside of Gilmer, whereupon his former master, O.E. Roberts, did help him relocate in Marshall where he would have federal protection.

According to James Smallwood in Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans During Reconstruction (1981), 1867 was a period of racial turmoil: during that year "[v]iolence occurred in more than one-half of the organized counties." The reason? The jig was up. President Andrew Johnson's anemic Reconstruction, under which a status quo Texas legislature had gotten away with refusing to ratify the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments and had enacted "black codes" to keep the formerly enslaved under tight control, was over. Congressional Reconstruction had begun under military occupation. In order to be readmitted to the Union, the state had to draft a new constitution that would grant universal male suffrage. During the interim, violence and intimidation ruled. The Cincinnati Commercial reported that "hell has transferred its capital from pandemonium to Jefferson, and the devil is holding high carnival in Gilmer, Tyler, Canton, Quitman, Boston, Marshall, and other places in Texas" (Smallwood 143). In January 1870, after a deeply contested election the prior November, the new constitution was declared ratified. In March, President Grant readmitted Texas into the Union, and in April, civil authority was returned to newly elected Republican governor, Richard J. Davis. Congressional Reconstruction was over.

Even under the new government the Democrats quickly gained control. (Davis was defeated by the "redeemer" candidate Richard Coke in 1873.) But not so in Marshall and Harrison County, with its strong Freedmen's Bureau and large black population. (See Randolph B. Campbell, A Southern Community in Crisis: Harrison County, Texas, 1850-1880 (1983).) In 1873, "Shack" Roberts, now established in Marshall as a blacksmith and Methodist minister, was elected to the Thirteenth Legislature, representing Harrison and Rusk Counties.

Roberts, who was illiterate, was an advocate for black education. Even before his election he was working to establish Wiley College in Marshall, the first black college west of the Mississippi. (Civil rights leader James Farmer graduated from Wiley, where his father, one of the few African American Ph.D.s of his time, had a distinguished career.) Roberts went on to serve in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Legislatures. His service came to an end in 1878, however, when "redemption" finally claimed Harrison County.

Was Meshack Roberts a "faithful slave," as the marker claims? I think he probably was, in the same sense that the historical Uncle Tom was, and for similar reasons, including enlightened self-interest. But in my project to rewrite the marker, those words would be the first to go. Even today the idea of the "faithful slave" fuels the argument that the war was not about slavery.

A new book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War, by Bruce Levine, aims to put this fiction to rest. Writes David Blight in a Washington Post review,

Slaves' fidelity to their masters' cause -- a falsehood constructed to support claims that the war was not about slavery -- has long formed one of the staple arguments in Lost Cause ideology. . . .

Levine demonstrates, in one crisp, convincing quotation after another, that to Confederates the war was all about preserving their "property" in slaves. For example, plantation mistress Catherine Edmondston condemned any attempt to arm slaves because it would "destroy at one blow the highest jewel in the Crown." "Our independence," chimed in North Carolina Gov. Zebulon Vance, "is chiefly desirable for the preservation of our political institutions, the principal of which is slavery." And Brig. Gen. Clement H. Stevens spoke for most Confederate officers when he announced, "If slavery is to be abolished then I take no more interest in our fight." While many other historians have gamely mustered the same argument in this struggle between scholarship and public memory, Levine delivers what ought to be a death blow to the still-popular refrain in Lost Cause rhetoric that the war had never been fought for slavery.

Not surprisingly, very little beyond what I've reported is known about Meshack Roberts--neither the particulars of his birth nor the time and place of his death. We get a sense, perhaps, of his personality in this statement: "One observer noted that his use of humor and sarcasm when addressing the House elicited the laughter and favor of his fellow legislators." Surely Roberts was a faithful slave, freedman, and public servant: faithful to the promise of emancipation.

UPDATE April 2007: I have an essay on Roberts forthcoming in the African American National Biography.

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