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.