Dr. James Conrad
The Commerce Journal
African-Americans arrived in Hunt County with the very earliest Anglo-American settlers in the late 1830s and the early 1840s.
These blacks came enslaved, working as field hands and domestics on white-owned, mostly self-sufficient farms.
Blacks represented perhaps about 10 to 12 percent of the total population of pre-Civil War Hunt County, living on small farms, working side by side in many cases with their white masters at various types of agriculture, primarily livestock raising horse, cattle and sheep.
The first black that is noted to any extent in the history of Hunt County is John Brigham, who was from Hopkins County. He purchased his freedom, and then eventually purchased the freedom of his family and settled in an all-black community later named Neylandville between Commerce and Greenville.
With the outbreak of war in 1861, pro-unionist and abolitionist Martin Hart, a white landowner and politician, recruited a company of Hunt County men to join the Union, inviting against the secessionists in the Southern states. His defection from the Confederacy attests to the fact that many whites in Hunt County opposed Texas joining the Confederacy and opposed slavery.
Blacks in Texas officially gained their freedom in June 1865, several months after the end of the war. Black Americans in Hunt County faced difficult challenges in their new status as free men and free women with little or no money, no property, and very little education. The state of Texas before the Civil War had prohibited educating blacks. They struggled to exist and to reconnect with family and establish schools, churches, businesses and farms against racial discrimination from whites.
Even though the federal government stationed troops in Greenville, conditions in Hunt County in the reconstruction era tended to be very chaotic, particularly the raids of ex-Confederate Capt. Bob Lee on Unionists and blacks. The period from the 1880s and up until the 1950s represented a period of racial segregation, but also a time of community building for African-Americans in Hunt County. In Commerce, for example, African-Americans established the African-American Episcopal Church in 1890 and the Baptist Mount Moriah Temple in 1895, two of the earliest churches in Commerce.
Neylandville, by the late 1880s had a thriving community of several hundred including St. Paul’s School, several churches and black land owners. They had a cotton gin and a railroad depot. Despite the limited financial support from Hunt County Commissioner’s Court, St. Paul’s eventually evolved into a high school that attracted pupils from as far away as Emory, and as close as Campbell and Wolfe City, especially for blacks seeking a high school education.
Greenville, during this period, also boasted of an all-black business section of town that supported a movie theater, several grocery stores, barber shops, an undertaker and funeral parlor, restaurants, a black physician and other related enterprises. Blacks in Greenville also took pride in one of the first NAACP organizations in Texas, and for a time there was a council on race relations in 1922-1924 that looked at improving the black schools in the city. Commerce and Greenville black schools achieved state championships in basketball and football.
During the Civil Rights movement, blacks participated in the effort to remove the restrictions of racial segregation. For example, in the mid 1970s through the mid ‘80s a group in Commerce organized the Norris Club to persuade the city government to improve city services to the all-black section of the city; and they pressured the U.S. Post Office, East Texas State University and white-owned businesses to hire African-Americans.
In recent years, Dan Perkins along with others in Greenville, established an organization to promote harmony among Hunt County ethnic groups. Under the leadership of Rev. Phillip Duke, the Greenville NAACP endeavors to advance the cause of racial justice and civil liberties.
Dr. Conrad has retired as archivist emeritus at Texas A&M University – Commerce. He resides in Commerce. This article is a reprint.