Marion Brothers

Marion Brothers

Friday, November 21, 2008

Musing over Mortality

By Eddie Griffin

Friday, November 21, 2008

Today would have been the day I marked the remembrance of the late John F. Kennedy, the only president I ever saw in the flesh, exactly 45 years ago. But instead, I mark this day with the remembrance of Aunt Birdie who passed away on last night. She was 91 years old.

History, it seems, is passing before my eyes and it makes me meditate upon the meaning of mortality, because I realize that on any give day I may go up on my own sick bed and never come down.

Aunt Birdie passed away peacefully, after spending a brief time in a coma, induced by a stroke. She was the last of the Haynes clan, an original Texas African-American pioneer family that goes back to East Texas to the time of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Marshall, Texas was the cultural center of the aristocratic black family. I never will forget Aunt Birdie’s strict table manners, with the spoon on this side and the fork on that side, and the table cloth in your lap, and do not drink your water while you’re eating, and other commandments from the book of civilized behavior that sounded like the Law of Moses from the mouth of Aunt Birdie.

Why did I think that our last conversations would be by phone, when she was in a nursing home only a few blocks away from me? God forgive me, I vowed to be at her 90th birthday party and something came up that give me an excuse, and now I bear a sense of guilt that I can never live down. Her last words to me: “Why haven’t you come to visit me?” I am in terrible contrition over that. So, I dedicate this portion of my memoirs to her memory, beginning at the place of her birth:

Marshall, Texas

If it came be said that six flags flew over Texas, then Marshall, Texas would have been the only city to fly the seventh flag, the “flag of Missouri”, the last flag of the Confederacy.

As the story goes: Before Jefferson Davis and his cabinet abandoned the capitol on the last train out of Richmond, a cache of treasury notes and stamps were shipped to Marshall, Texas.

This city that had arisen from a land grant by Isaac Van Zandt and his partners had become the cultural center of the Confederate gentry, nicknamed the “Athens of Texas”, with one of the largest concentrated holdings of slaves in the state. Historians believe that Marshall was designated to become the new Confederate capitol.


On Emancipation Day, New Year’s morning, January 1, 1863, before any slaves in Texas could be set free by the decree of Abraham Lincoln, Confederate General J. B. Magruder and his Cottontails were in the process of recapturing the Union stronghold on Galveston. The Civil War would not end, nor the slaves freed, until Union General Gordon Granger marched back into Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, a day forever enshrined as Juneteenth.

Two days before the final surrender of Texas, on June 17th, Union forces took the city of Marshall. The city would later become the home office of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Texas, and even later a thriving city with rich African-American culture.

Slaves were instantly turned into free laborers who could contract their hire for wages. With Confederate money now being worthless, former slaves contracted to divide the harvest with their former slave masters, in an arraignment known as sharecropping. However, when black farmers sought a better price for their cotton by selling directly to black merchants in Galveston, East Texas became a hotbed for lynching.

Mr. Fort Worth

Major Khleber M. Van Zandt, son of Texas pioneer Isaac Van Zandt, father of the city of Marshall, had raised a company for the 7th Texas Infantry Regiment for the Confederacy in 1861. He was captured at Fort Donelson, Tennessee in 1862 and released in a prisoner exchange after the fall of Vicksburg. After the war, he returned to Marshall and later moved west to Fort Worth, where he became a merchant, banker, and railroad man. Today, he is known as “Mr. Fort Worth”.

Legacy of Wiley College

Marshall, Texas became the site of two Negro Colleges, Wiley and Bishop. This is from whence the Haynes family legacy came. Aunt Birdie and most of the Haynes clan attended Wiley College, which was founded in 1873 by Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Isaac Wiley and later certified by the Freedman’s Aid Society in 1882.

Etiquettes and Ethics was a standard course taught in Texas schools to African-American children. It was a skill that would enable them to become house maids, butlers, and servants. It was a course on how to walk properly, how to speak the Queen’s language properly, use proper diction and dialect.

The foundation of our southern education probably derived from that fact that in 1907 Wiley College received the first Carnegie college library west of the Mississippi. By 1935, Wiley had spawn a national debate team second to none, headed by Professor Melvin B. Tolson, who also staged the first sit-in Texas at the Harrison County Courthouse, along with students from both colleges.

Family Heritage

Today, the Haynes family owns minerals rights on a 100-year lease of timberland in East Texas. How they managed to hang on to their property during the turbulent period of post-Reconstruction, when East Texas was the hotbed of racial violence, is yet another story, one that I would have to learn from research, and not from Aunt Birdie.

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