Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on the history of the African American communities in Hopkins County. Part one summarizes pre-Civil War to reconstruction. Part two will cover post-reconstruction to the present.
In June 2020, Hopkins County’s black community would normally be looking forward to celebrating Juneteenth, alternatively as Freedom Day, commemorating June 19, 1865, the abolition of slavery in Texas, in two short weeks.
However, due to COVID-19 shutdowns, the community will not celebrate Juneteenth this year, according to committee president Bam Jackson. On May 31, peaceful protestors took to Sulphur Springs’ downtown square to speak about the “treatment of ... the African American community” after national civil unrest regarding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Hopkins County has a long and complicated history with its citizens of color, dating back to before the Civil War, according to historical texts and firsthand accounts. In lieu of a Juneteenth celebration in 2020, the News-Telegram will use this two-part series to explore the collective history that as citizens of Hopkins, we have all been a part.
The slave trade was booming in Hopkins County during the Civil War, as many “felt it was safer to have their slaves in Texas” due to the fact that Texas was far away from major battles of the war, local historian June Tuck wrote in her book Civil War Shadows.
Hopkins County slaveholders often had more money tied up in slaves than they did in land, Tuck wrote. From 1860 to 1864 Hopkins County went from 211 families who held slaves to 333 families who held slaves. Furthermore, Tuck wrote, “It’s no secret that fortunes were made selling runaway slaves.”
Tuck found documents of slave traders who had come from Louisiana and Mississippi with slaves who had either run away or whose masters had been killed in the war to sell in Hopkins County.
In fact, Tuck documents two cases of landowners who became refugees of the Confederacy so their slaves would not be forced to join the Union army. Dr. John T. Simmons and his 110 slaves as well as R.W. Lee and his 104 slaves both came to Hopkins County, despite having no land to work.
An 1864 tax roll of Hopkins County showed that the value of a slave was approximately $700 to $1,200 each. The Stone family, who has a historical marker set up in their name on State Highway 19 north, 5 miles outside of Sulphur Springs, had 90 slaves with them at the time — a value upwards of $63,000 in those days, which is approximately $1.8 million today.
“Money was easily obtained when one could put a slave up for collateral,” Tuck wrote. A large slave holder would rent out his slaves to a farmer who was unable to buy slaves.
Tuck gives us a glimpse of how slaves were secreted away in Texas to protect the status of ownership:
“During the war, slaves remained for the most part, faithful to their masters,” she wrote. “Of course, county patrols played an important part in their actions.”
One account by Julius Connor lived on in historical memory. A party of a confederate agent accompanied by two slaves, one a young boy and the other an old man, traveled through Saltillo and camped near White Oak Creek. The slaves attempted to escape by hitting the soldier over the head with an axe, murdering him and hiding his body under a bridge on the creek.
Eventually, they were captured, and attendance at their lynching was required for all slaves from miles around. One slave girl fainted.
Slavery ended in the U.S. in 1863. By the time the news reached Texas, it was two years later: June 19, 1865, the day now celebrated as Juneteenth. Tax rolls indicate slaves were still being bought and sold in Hopkins County right up until June 1865.
Many in the black community can trace their heritage back to Hopkins County’s slave days. After slaves were freed, many took the names of their masters, according to 1865 property tax rolls. This distinction remains clear, as many white and black residents of Hopkins County share last names even in 2020.
Furthermore, census records and historical accounts documented the birth of mixed-race Hopkins County individuals, born to white, slave-owning or overseer fathers and slave mothers. Sometimes after the end of the Civil War, white fathers provided for their mixed-race children, Tuck wrote, but often they found themselves a part of neither culture entirely through no fault of their own.
Although the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, Texas found itself torn economically and ideologically for much longer.
Many of Hopkins County’s early white settlers came from the deep South, and may have viewed Texas as a safer place to seek refuge. In fact, the Oakland Cumberland Presbyterian Church on County Road 2653 between State Highway 11 and County Road 4738, the location of a historical marker, is the establishment of Willis and Nannie Stewart, who migrated to the area from Rising Star, Ala., when their original church was burned during the reconstruction era.
Tuck wrote it did not “sit well” with the slaveholders of Hopkins County that they might have to abide by the laws of the U.S. government and free their slaves.
“Even though most of the slaveholders in our county turned their slaves loose, a few did not until the U.S. government showed it would be done,” Tuck wrote. “The slaves that left the farms … were not safe. Many were hunted, whipped and killed.”
To quell unrest fomenting in Hopkins County, the union sent a regiment of troops on Aug. 10, 1868, three years after the war had ended, to take up residence in Sulphur Springs.
On Aug. 14, 1868, a skirmish between Union soldiers and Hopkins County “troublemakers” left two union officers and two freed slaves dead. The union detail marched out 4 miles from town to investigate reports of a black woman being whipped by a particular group of men, when they were ambushed by these same men. Four Hopkins County men were also wounded. This, Tuck wrote, was the start of an intense and troubling period of guerrilla fighting between the two sides.
Union men, according to Tuck, traveled as far as 100 miles from Sulphur Springs, sometimes by foot, to investigate reports of beatings, whippings and murders of black Americans.
“The Ku Klux Klan also caused a share of trouble,” she wrote. “The murder of [African Americans] is so common as to render it impossible to keep an accurate account.”
Freed slaves had also been chased into the woods, according to a firsthand account, and had their homes raided, possessions destroyed and crops set on fire. All men of the Starr family, freed slaves, were murdered, and the women of the family guarded the mens’ bodies with pistols, the firsthand account noted. Although the writer wished his accounts of looting and murders would be delivered by mail to his friends in the north, he worried they would never make it as “the postmasters are all Ku Klux.”
“It is impossible to give the number that have been killed,” he noted.
No persons were allowed to carry firearms other than soldiers or employees of the government, and no “suspicious parties” were to be “lurking” around town after 8 p.m. After saloon keepers allegedly took to getting Union soldiers drunk, “any liquor sold in quantities of more than one ordinary size bottle” whether at a grocery or barroom could be subject to arrest and fine.
These tensions came to a head when sometime before September 1868, the hotel at which the Union soldiers and their wives were staying was set on fire, Tuck wrote.
From then on, the Union soldiers quartered where the Legacy Ag Credit parking lot now stands, as memorialized by a historical marker. They practiced drills, ate and had their hospital, jail and stable at the stockade. Sleeping in tents, during the winter, they often became cold and fell ill, Tuck wrote.
Union soldiers packed up and moved on July 1, 1870 but were responsible for many changes in Hopkins County, including moving the county’s seat to Sulphur Springs. The landscape of the county was changing overall due to black citizens as well.
Having been given specific places to live as part of reconstruction, black citizens were now congregated mainly in a now-defunct community called Birch Creek as well as East Caney, according to land deeds. In the mid-1880s, black citizens expanded out to Harmony and later developed communities in Pleasant Hill, the East End and Cherry Grove of Sulphur Springs, Reilly Springs/Greenpond, Sandfield and in the Como-Pickton area.
BLACK LIFE AFTER THE WAR
Although local historian Bobby McDonald wrote that reconstruction was a time for fear and uncertainty in the newly forming black communities, firsthand accounts of the time just after slavery ended also remembered it was a time of resiliency. Black Hopkins County residents had learned to survive under slavery, and it was a great change from serving their white counterparts to now being their neighbors.
Spirituality, borne with great tenacity under slavery times, proliferated after emancipation. The Cypress Baptist Association, St. Mark Baptist Church, New Hope Community Baptist Church, Independence Baptist Church, East Caney Baptist Church, Morning Chapel Baptist Church, Birch Creek Baptist Church, St. Luke Baptist Church, Olive Branch Baptist Church and more formed in the county from 1864 to 1867. East Caney and Morning Chapel still thrive to this day.
“The church was not only a building; … it was the glue that held black families together,” remembered Pleasant Hill community member Sutton Spigner.