Reflections on Greenville, Texas: “The Blackest Land And The Whitest People”

GreenvilleSign-1

One benefit of a few gray hairs is having had the time to see how beliefs change over time. Recent discussions with my brother-in-law, Paul Plunket, prompted my interest in Greenville, Texas’ infamous slogan–The Blackest Land And The Whitest People.

In 1957 or 1958 I first learned of this sign, crossing as it did a major street in downtown Greenville. My family had relocated to Richardson, Texas from the Kansas City area and would twice a year load up the 1950 blue Buick with its Dynaflow transmission and travel to Kansas City for the Christmas holidays and summer vacations. Greenville lies about sixty miles to the northeast of Richardson and is the county seat of Hunt County.

It was during one of these periodic family migrations that I first saw the sign and quizzed my parents about its curious message. Was it not flatly out racist? This sign bothered me then as it does now. The history of the sign proves interesting but the intent of the locals may have been different from what I originally assumed.

Will N. Harrison, the so-called “Land Man” of Greenville, created the slogan. Harrison’s business card that bore the slogan caught the eye of President-elect Woodrow Wilson. Harrison and his two sons who were leaders n the Greenville Booster Club and who spent substantial time in Washington, D.C. pushing policies and programs benefiting the hometown community. The whole time Will N. Harrison was passing out his cards with the unique slogan-one that surely grates on current sensibilities and haunts Greenville to the present day.

To honor Will N. Harrison, the city put up the famous banner in Greenville in about 1913 and had the slogan painted on its water tower. All of this rapidly spread around the country and the world.

Years later when I was courting my bride-to-be, Sarah Gertrude Plunket from Greenville, I delicately brought up the subject with her family. I learned Greenville sits astride a broad belt of rich black land  favorable for growing cotton. The early Greenville economy had been based on cotton, both its production and shipping. This part, namely The Blackest Soil, made sense.

The second part of the slogan, “The Whitest People” proved harder to swallow. To the locals “white” inferred good or pure, not racism per se. My brother-in-law, Paul Plunket, claims to having used the local interpretation of white when discussing the sign for almost 50 years and has yet to have anybody outside Greenville, buy it. Nevertheless, to family members in Greenville, this interpretation seemed  to make sense or at least less threatening to the reputation of their beloved hometown.

I rush to the defense of my family by marriage. After all in the early part of the 20th century, Trudy’s grandfather, Paul Plunket Sr. hid the local Catholic Priest at his lake house from the Ku Klux Klan. This defiance of the Klan risked recriminations had the good padre been discovered camping in the Plunket’s attic. While products of their age, Trudy’s family in general had more progressive views on race and religion than many other Greenville-ites. Regrettably use of the n-word in the community remained prevalent in the 1960s.

The infamous sign was removed int he 1960s following the request by then Texas Governor John Connally. Trudy maintains the local story in Greenville was the sign was taken down for repair and, amazingly, never reappeared. Was this the politically palatable way to remove a sign under attack by “Yankees” and out-of-towners?  The sign by then in the racially charged atmosphere of the 1960s had attracted great and unwanted national attention.

Maybe “white” had the connotation of pure and good in the early part of the 20th century. Likely little appreciation existed that its antonym, “black” must mean its opposite. Racism was institutionalized at the time and racial sensitivities were not developed to where they are these days. In any event sensitivity toward the feelings of others and fostering tolerance for the differing views and trying not to offend may be the takeaway message. I would welcome your thoughts.

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12 thoughts on “Reflections on Greenville, Texas: “The Blackest Land And The Whitest People”

  1. Paul McCoy June 16, 2014 at 4:33 pm Reply

    Lived there. Saw the sign. Got the postcard to prove I was not lying later, in the ’70s, as they were still proud of it. Never seen racism before I moved there. for a 10 year old, it was hard to deal with. Such is life. I would move back to Greenville now, however, in a heart beat. Every place has evil in its history.

  2. Randy Pennington December 18, 2014 at 10:17 am Reply

    Tim, I grew up with your wife and brother-in-law. And like them, I learned that “white” was the synonym for purity and goodness in the slogan. Was their racism in Greenville? Absolutely. Greenville was a small Texas town and had its share of racist tendencies. Then again, so did large northeastern cities such as Boston. The institutional racism was more a function of the time than the sign.

    And, there were many of us who grew up never associating the sign with any racial animosity whatsoever. Perhaps it was a function of our families, or maybe it was a generational thing. The 60’s, after all, did bring a wind of change, and even teenagers in sleepy little Greenville were tuning into Dylan’s message that “the times they are a changing.”

    Words and sensitivities change over time. Race is one example, but you can point to words associated with gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and age.

    The sign is a snapshot of a past that is no longer applicable today. I am still asked about the sign as I travel around the country today. I explain it the same way as Gertrude and Paul. People shake their heads. Context matters.

    Paul and I were in Boy Scouts together. Photos taken by their mother hung in my parents home forever.Please give them my best.

  3. Reginald Johnson August 21, 2015 at 9:11 pm Reply

    History: like you, having moved to Greenville in 1965, from Terrell Texas. As I Learned to read, I would see That Sign, and think to myself .( Something’s Wrong with That Sign ) I didn’t know what it was. It had to have been mid-late 60’s, when it came down. But, my Experience living there was Confusing To Me, in that My family was Professionals. My Father, was A Black Business Owner, and so was my Mother. And We were Treated Worse by Black people ( My own Kind ), Than by Any White Person. There were many Whites, that Helped My Parents, Respectfully. Than A Lot of Negro’s. To this day, I could Never Understand That. But, then again, I Do. Times, I Believe Were Changing.
    Thank You, for your Concern, on this Issue.

  4. Linda Patterson McLain March 6, 2016 at 2:50 pm Reply

    I never thought of this sign as being racist. I understood the meaning of the sign explained by my parents. It was sad that it was removed from Lee Street. As a child, I remember well the African Americans eating in the back room of the Lone Oak, TX cafe, African Americans having to set at the back of the bus, white only bathrooms and water fountains in the Court House. As a young child, I thought it was kinda sad that they had to eat in a backroom. I can remember asking my mother, why they ate in the back instead of being out in the front area. Things do change and generally changes are for the betterment of everyone.

  5. Rodney Follis March 7, 2016 at 3:04 pm Reply

    The sign was indeed taken down and later hung again with the “Whitest People” replaced by “the Greatest People”. It hung for several years until, while replacing light bulbs in the sign, it was noticed that the sign was so rusty and deteriorated that it was decided to take it down. Supposedly, it is in storage somewhere in Greenville.

  6. C Nelson March 9, 2016 at 11:41 pm Reply

    I grew up near Greenville and it was always known as pure and good people and NOT the color of their skin. It seems in this day and time so many people try to find the ugliness in everything instead of the good. Sad. There was a sign on hwy 380 entering town from the west as well as the one shown in the photo. It was removed as well.

  7. camilla rhornton March 10, 2016 at 12:43 am Reply

    Having being born in Greenville in 1942 and living there until 1984, I am really familiar with the sign that we cruised under on Lee Street many times on Saturday night. We never attached a racist meaning to the sign. We grew up with the idea that it meant good honest people. It is sad that things such as this and the Confederate battle flag become a racist issue in the eyes of a few without considering what the eyes of the majority see. These things are part of our history(good or bad) and we can not change history.. We can learn from history and work to make our present and future better.

    • Ron June 8, 2016 at 9:11 am Reply

      The majority of white racist groups (i.e. KKK, Aryan Brotherhood) proudly use the Confederate flag. Why? In my opinion, the Confederate flag symbolizes racism, hate, and white superiority which these groups practice and strongly believe in even today. Without question, racism is still alive and well in America and especially in Texas. Without question, the sign symbolized the feeling of the white community at the time it was posted. I am 59 years old raised in Greenville, Texas and my black parents and grandparents told me of their racist horror stories and experiences in Greenville.

      For the nonbelievers, I encourage you to read the book “Black like me” where a white person darken their skin and lived the life of a black person for a short period. He found out racism existed far above any of his expectations. Link to summary of the book:
      http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/blacklikeme/summary.html

  8. Faye Ray June 11, 2016 at 10:19 pm Reply

    I have an appointment with a doctor at the Hunt Hospital tomorrow. Since I would be driving from Prosper, I decided to really make the trip worthwhile by exploring Greenville. In my internet search for things to do and see in Greenville, I ran across this reference to the “sign”. It evoked memories of my reaction upon passing beneath that “sign” as a child.

    I can remember our summer trips to my grandfather’s farm in Jefferson Texas as a child in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It seemed like an eternity to drive from Ft Worth to Jefferson. One of those things that I still recall vividly was seeing that huge sign draped across the entire street boldly proclaiming, “Greenville, the Blackest Land and The Whitest People”. It was extremely frightening and seemed to scream, “Blacks are not welcome”. I immediately conjured up terrifying thoughts of what might happen to my father, mother, sisters, brothers and me if my daddy didn’t get us out of Greenville quickly enough.

    I had heard enough stories from my grandmother, Nanah. about hangings of black men she had seen in Louisiana, terrible beatings, fighting off sexual advances of white men, and working as sharecroppers all year with no pay at harvest and no allowed recourse. I had been told of my dad having had a fight with a white boy, hidden by his father under a load of wood in a wagon to escape the piney woods of east Texas and the wrath of white men searching for him. I had seen blacks step out of the way in deference to a white person walking toward him. I had been terrified of what might happen to us when my younger, 6 year old, sister drank from the WHITE water fountain instead of the COLORED water In Leonard Bros’ store in Ft Worth because she “wanted to see what the WHITE water tasted like” (luckily no one saw).

    So just imagine, for a minute, what that sign said to a black child who lived in a racist world constantly reminding us that we were not good enough, clean enough, smart enough, pure enough to be, not only, in Greenville but America at large. It said “move on quickly, get out of here, you are not wanted here!”.

    So while the sign holds nostalgic memories of the good old days for those who were the “pure” ones, it holds no such meaning for us “lesser beings”. It is simply a reminder of an era we would prefer not to remember. How do we ever forget when we are still reminded in both blatant and subtle ways every day of our lives that we are not equal?

    • Ron June 22, 2016 at 4:27 pm Reply

      Faye, I couldn’t agree more. See my post on this matter as I was raised in this city and little has changed other than things are more subtle and less blatant as they were back in the 1950s and 1960s. Racism is alive and well in the US

  9. Tom Locke July 30, 2017 at 8:32 pm Reply

    I was born in Greenville in 1943. I remember the distinct segregation of blacks and whites.
    The sign, however, had nothing to do with the races. There was an old phrase used, no longer in any context that was ” that’s white of you,” which meant that some one had performed a good deed for you this phrase was used as a response for that deed, meaning thank you. Anyone who ties the sign to race is mistaken.

    • Lou Ann Tanner August 20, 2017 at 10:08 am Reply

      I wonder if there are any black people who use that phrase? “That’s white of you”

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