The Light of Day
An epiphany of Blues Valley heroes
by Russell Cushman
This book is dedicated to Kevin Clark, my childhood friend who came to see me, freshly relocated to Grimes County in the early 70’s, in his tiny old ugly MG, but refused to dine with me at a racially segregated restaurant. Kevin had taught me the value of research and historical accuracy, and even as a child, he understood intellectual honesty. We had shared many a childhood reenactment of American history. Always the uncompromising messenger of the noblest of American ideals, he drove away, preferring to leave hungry and pissed, and left me with my deluded conscience and an empty stomach. Perhaps that was the beginning of this story.
This book is the product of my answer to that question.I had carried this story around in my head for so long, most of the time ignoring it, but sometimes looking for the right time to write and publish it. It seems the time never came. But a day came when that paradigm disintegrated into: I did not want to die with this story untold. In fact as I write this, I have no idea whether I will ever live to know whether this manuscript saw the light of day. So prematurely, I name this manuscript The Light of Day- An epiphany of Blues Valley heroes…
I know you will agree after shaking off your awe and incredulity over this story, there have been extraordinary, unsung heroes in my county fairly obscured for over a hundred years. I am so proud to shed a little light on them and their accomplishments. Like never before, each American has many opportunities today to make an impact on his own local history. As new technologies bridge time and space, rare and obscure information come to the surface constantly, as history has come into clearer focus like never before. History is no longer some manicured park, constructed by past generations, adorned with fixed monuments. Every passing day local history proves to be an adventure into an evolving game board of unsolved mysteries and new revelations.My town of Navasota, Texas is a veritable history garden inhabited with legendary characters, and forever marked with their victories and defeats, and I have learned to expect to learn something new about them every day. Past historians have only scratched the surface, partly because they only wanted that park with those majestic monuments. I have always been a lover and student of history, but was probably more interested in the untold stories that might connect the dots of our past. I grew up in a family that considered our history as an essential source of our identity as a people. Lately I have experienced an even greater sense of its importance, but what I love most is its ever changing face.
I have taken pride in learning and knowing my local history, and even digging deeper. I wanted to get a peek at the whole. The good and the bad. The stuff of legends and the skeletons of scandal. But years ago when serving as director for the local museum, I learned of a noticeable vacuum on the game board where Black History should reside. Not only had the history failed to be recorded, but a whole town, white and black, lived in either denial or willful ignorance of it.As I scratched at the surface of dusty memories, I found it impenetrable, like an iron box welded shut. Various informants would hint at the contents. The mystery drove me crazy. And so much of the local history, when revealed, was tragic and heavy for the heart; the murder of the French explorer La Salle, the decimation of the post Civil War population by yellow fever epidemics, mass graves and disastrous downtown fires. And stories of racial oppression, the likes of which have rarely been acknowledged.
When we hosted a symposium on Black History several years back, to shed light on this untold story, only a couple of local blacks from Navasota would come. Their explanation was simple: They were reservedly optimistic, if not afraid. Not enough time had passed. Black History was a minefield of memories and consequences. It was not history yet, but yesterday’s nightmare. I just began to understand what I had naively tried to do.Later Glen Alyn re-released his wonderful book about Mance Lipscomb, a painfully thorough publication about the life and times of Navasota’s famous blues guitarist. Of course, every story, if it has any merit to it, has a protagonist… and a few antagonists. This book had several counties teaming with antagonists. As the local museum director, I had provided Glen a meager bit of help during his rewrite, and he graciously mentioned me, undeservedly, in the book’s credits. After twenty years in the making, Alyn was finally beginning to feel safe and had planned to make a statewide book-signing tour, and wanted of course to have a book-signing in Navasota, the hometown of Mance Lipscomb, at my museum. But I was still unsure about the signing. Many people, the so-called antagonists were still alive… and he had NAMED NAMES. Fortunately my stint at the museum came to an end, and I was no longer able to swing that for him, or expected to. And although I was relieved to be relieved of my duties, I felt, I knew in my heart that I was a chickenshit for getting out of Dodge.
Later he was killed in a terrible, untimely, if not suspicious automobile crash near Austin. Glen had an authentic bluesman’s demise, fitting his contribution to blues and blues history. It seems the average lifespan of the Texas bluesman is about thirty- something, and it ends violently. He was suddenly taken, but his book would speak forever about Mance and the story here. But after finally reading it, a couple of times, I realized that the story needed translation or would end up gathering dust in our collective subconscious. Glen had written the majority of the manuscript in Mance’s African- American dialect. As valuable as it was, it was very understated, hard to read and even harder to process. I knew sooner or later I had to dig in and begin my own attempt to tell this story.Years have gone by since then and I have visited with scores of Navasota natives who have discreetly filled in many of the blanks which I had discovered during my own research while creating exhibits for the local museum. The iron box was beginning to pry open, and recently the fifteen year strong Navasota Bluesfest has put our town on the map and gained us the official title of “Blues Capital of Texas.” This identity inadvertently blew a fresh wind over the old iron box. As the dust was swept away, a tag pasted on the top could be faintly read: OPEN IN CASE OF EQUALITY. Now the story of Blues Valley can and should be told.
You will be amazed. Blues are quite popular worldwide, and its roots are known to many of its fans all around the world, and the story we thought we were hiding went on and wrote itself. It is not unusual to meet a European traveler in Navasota, hunting down legendary blues sites, full of passion for the music, assuming none of us know a thing about it. How could Texas blues be such a popular phenomenon in many parts of the world, but Texans are by and large clueless about it? I ask this even now after I have made this enigma a personal quest for several years, but knowing the answer even before I ask. The answer is simply racism. The Brazos Valley is an internationally famous staging ground for blues music, and its landmarks and characters truly studied and revered, and yet its own population is vaguely aware of the epic legacy it owns. Like many memories associated with unpleasant periods in our history, many of the details have been shoved to the back of our consciousness.But the music lives. Survivors of those dark times left Navasota and towns like it and spread worldwide and found the courage to begin the telling of our story through song. Blues are more celebrated in England and France or Germany than where they were born, and European blues journalists have quietly come across the ocean over the decades and photographed and interviewed and whisked away with the answers they came looking for, and left us no wiser.
And Blues Valley heroes emerged all over the country. Alvin Ailey ended up in New York and founded a nationally famous dance company. His first steps there were to interpret the Blues with dance. Seamstress Annie Mae Hunt wrote her memoirs. They have since been made into a play and a movie. And Mance Lipscomb traveled all over America and sang his songs, oh so diplomatically, forever capturing the spirit and times that were locked up in the iron box.As a wanna-be historian, it was disconcerting that I had never heard of, or at best knew very little about these people. I learned there were scores of blues recording artists from the Brazos and Navasota River Valleys. Strangely, I could find very few white counterparts. The story of these blues heroes and their struggles and achievements needed to be preserved and cherished.
But it seemed there was noone left who could remember much or piece it together. Many of the old prominent, landholding families had moved away as well. Those mythkeepers that would talk had become damage control experts, spin doctors of local history. As they reminisced, one could detect verbal choreography practiced to avoid the historical potholes. The ground not only haunted the victims, but the victors as well in this Faulknerian tale on steroids. The memories and the bones and the spilled blood were left behind, to fertilize the garden, but there were no grand monuments in the region’s history, where there should have been some. As we gave France our blues legacy, they loaned us one of their legends. The French explorer La Salle has been immortalized in bronze on Navasota’s main avenue, and his bust planted in a downtown park, as if he was a local legend, with no evidence that he actually was, a suspicious contrivance to fill a void.When I moved to Plantersville as a young man, I scoured the game board of Grimes County history and wondered who the great men of the area’s history were. It was such old ground, having been settled as early as any place in Texas, except for the Spanish towns like El Paso, San Antonio or Nacogdoches. A part of the original Austin Colony, and a rich region where the Old South met the Old West. There was Stephen F. Austin, who first looked upon the place with commercial intent, but the local hall of fame was a pretty blank field, and way too tidy. The safe history had been written and sanctioned and canonized several generations before. Unsuspecting newcomers would never imagine what stories the ground could tell. And many of the blacks left behind in the region seemed to be private, church going types that thought blues music was a subversive embarrassment. They had chosen a different kind of music in which to find identify and strength. Few local blacks enjoyed or celebrated their own blues heritage. The recordings, wherever they were, were the only witnesses to their own existence.
How could so many distinguished black people have come from here... yet we had such little record of them? The dancer created a legacy in New York, the seamstress stitched her life back together and inspired theater, a sharecropper became a living juke box with over three hundred songs filed in his head. But where were the school children following behind devoted educators, inspiring them with these legacies and stories of courage and perseverance?
Most of us in Navasota know about Mance by now, still very few have seen the documentary about him, or bothered to read his biography. Most people in Navasota have still never heard one of his songs. For too long we have turned a deaf ear. Lo and behold! We had no idea what ironies and treasures and legacies were in the iron box. A Navasota born black youth, T. Winston Cole went on to become the president of Wiley College and served on two U. S. Presidential Cabinets. There were famous Black evangelists, even a prominent Judge, and half a dozen “name” blues musicians from Blues Valley that recorded and performed statewide before Mance was ever discovered. Mance was just the songster left behind. The story was much bigger than him. And, that story was the very mission of his music.
This crack in the lid whet my appetite, and I began to beat on the iron box until I got some satisfaction. Sometimes the answers and conclusions were awesome, sometimes chilling. Sometimes I wanted to stick them back in. I took guided tours through the county with the acknowledged myth-keepers of our region. I dug in rare books and listened to strange music. As I did, I finally understood why b lacks would always look upon me with cynicism.I claimed to love history, but if I knew what they knew, I would hate it. At the very least I would look at it differently, and perhaps even prefer it be locked up as some have, and glossed over if possible. I would not love what I was about to find, or find much nostalgia learning that one of the bloodiest race battles in American history, fought between civilians, was fought just a few miles up the river in the Brazos bottoms near Millican. Yet very few people, white or black have ever heard that story. You might have to go to the National Archives to get the full details, provided by the occupying Union forces after the War Between the States. Reported as a mysterious riot, it was simply a massacre with no name. There is no historical marker, no annual day of remembrance for those slain.
You might be mortified as I was by the lawless gun slinging and murders in the County Seat, where the most “upstanding” citizens in Grimes County abandoned our political system and tried to assassinate their own Sheriff, to establish white supremacy.Still, against all odds, there were heroes that emerged from both races. Ironically, a significant amount, perhaps a majority of accomplished and world famous citizens from Navasota have been our black neighbors, the ones who had been oppressed and suppressed. Theirs is a story of adversity, endurance and victory, yet this story was never written. Even the local media helped to obscure the story. Unlike Tombstone Arizona, in Navasota the local newspaper failed to expose the horrors and outrages, so that future generations might know. In fact you might say the local Media constructed the iron box. In Tombstone, Wyatt Earp was vilified and accused by the newspapers as a wanton killer, acting outside the boundaries of the law. Whether this is true or not, it forced the story into the light. Navasota papers during the same period edified the guilty and slandered the innocent, and worst of all, ignored egregious crimes perpetrated by its white readership. But as layer upon layer of dust settled on the iron box, the pungent memories survived and grew on. The truth does that.
Thank goodness for some relentless, intrepid truth gatherers like musician/writer Glen Alyn, music producer Chris Strachwitz, Mack McCormick, photographers Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, Lawrence Goodwyn and biographer Ruthe Winegarten who refused to look the other way. They have doggedly preserved and told parts of the story so now anybody can know, if they want to. And recovering racists like me, who thought they loved history, and “everybody,” have had to embrace a new reality. As Blues have become our legacy, and they really are, we must finally face the music.We chose to be ignorant of these things because we really did not care. In most cases we chose ignorance over justice, retribution, and healing. We were really hard-hearted. That’s the same hardness that inspired the blues. So I came to my own fork in the road of history. And one way led towards a chance to take a stand, go on record, tell the story never told, and yet leave something really positive for posterity. You are holding the product of that choice.
I could have done nothing. Then Navasota could be the Southern town that read about itself in books, heard about itself in songs, saw itself in movies and in dances and plays in New York, all the while claiming to be the Capital of the Blues while listening to Muzak, while its most famous son’s songs are played in other parts of the world.So that’s what this book is all about. Now the legends of Alvin, Annie Mae, Mance, and others will no longer be haunts, but can loom as revered legends in the land they lived.