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.
Tagged: changing interpretations, Greenville, racism, Texas
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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
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.
I wonder if there are any black people who use that phrase? “That’s white of you”
I’ve remembered this sign since I saw it
When I was on a tour doing
Children’s plays. I think it was ‘58 or ‘59. I was
18 or 19… had been born and raised I Knoxville,
Tennessee… I was so shocked When we
drove into town that such a sign would be permitted… I’ve told friends over the years…they’re always shocked. It was a different time then…
As An American ( Afro American ) Born in 1962, in Terrell Texas. Iwe moved to Greenville in 65. I read that sign, as a Little Boy, knowing Something was wrong with that Sign…
Terrell had its Problems Too..
But, The Greatness of This Contry, Brought It Down ..
This is a ” GREAT COUNTRY ” !!!
And Greenville, it is a Good Town !!!!
I’m ” Proud ” , to Have Grownup, In Greenville…..
No People, And No Place is Perfect ,,.
I attended college at Texas A&M Commerce (formerly East Texas State University) in the 1990’s which was 15 miles from Greenville.
3 friends and I would regularly drive to Greenville to eat at Ryan’s Steakhouse (all you can eat) and one Friday night the KKK was protesting in a vacant lot across the street.
I got into a screaming match with some jackasses from the KKK (the jackass and I were nose to nose screaming at each other) because he was calling my friend Kelvin a ni55er and it pissed me off.
Those of us who actually know can attest to the fact that the BLACKEST LAND is a description of the Black soil in that region of Texas. You never want your vehicle to get stuck in the black soil, it’s a nightmare.
The WHITEST PEOPLE well, not cool!
Born there in 53 , the sign had nothing to do with skin color. It’s today’s over sensitive, racist idiots that think everything has to be about race.
Thanks for your input. You may wish to review the impressions of others, especially African-American folks from Greenville. Perceptions differ and largely by race, hence the importance of sharing these differing perspectives (please review the other posts). Hopefully developing sensitivities to how others view the sign will have a healing effect. Such is my hope.
Unless you lived the life of a black person, you are not in a position to label people over sensitive about a sign. I wish my grandparents and aunts from Greenville were alive so they could tell their horror stories during the 50s and 60s. Most racist don’t acknowledge it but God knows the truth and everyone must stand before God and will be judged.
I was born in Greenville in the early 60’s. We moved overseas shortly thereafter but returned for a few visits. My mom (a recent European immigrant) told me about the sign, segregated water fountains, etc, how she rode on the back of the bus with the blacks out of solidarity (and because she also felt like an outsider), and that she concluded they would have preferred that she didn’t because it drew unwelcome attention to them, or maybe they were just fearful of the potential trouble that could arise from being in close proximity to a white woman.
My father was the son of a Texas rancher, and I never heard him say a disparaging word towards blacks, but towards the end of his life he told me that he was ashamed at how they had treated their black workers on the ranch (late 40’s, early 50’s) “We just didn’t know any better then.” To his credit he spent a chunk of his savings helping out poor blacks in his last years, but that was one of the few regrets he ever mentioned to me.
In the mid-70’s in rural Ohio we had a black family with two kids move into our school district. The KKK burned a cross in that family’s yard two weeks later and I never saw those kids again. I’ll never get that image (seen through our school bus window) out of my mind and I can only imagine what effect it had on those kids.
We’ve evolved as a society in many ways, but we’ve still got work to do. Not just for blacks, but for everyone vulnerable, regardless of race, including the economically and educationally disadvantaged. But like any problem, you’ve got to own it before you can solve it.
Thank you Ron for sharing.
I too remember the sign very well. I graduated in 1965 and was in the same class as Trudy. However, it was not until we both attended Texas Tech that I knew her as Trudy and not Gertrude. I grew up in Greenville but hopefully have grown out of some of the beliefs I had during the 50s and 60s. If I recall the sign was changed from “Whitest People to Friendliest or Nicest People” but not sure about that. Lastly, Plunkett Studios took great portraits.
It’s hard to square assertions that the sign had nothing to do with race with the 1908 burning at the stake of a young black man. https://dissidentvoice.org/2017/07/the-lynching-of-ted-smith/, just 5 years before the sign went up.
I spent 4 yrs in Commerce (1959-1963) and well remember that sign when we drove to Greenville to shop or go to a doctor.
Good Lord, most of the comments here are textbook examples of American white fragility (look it up). “Racism was institutionalized *at the time*…”? News flash: It still is! As long as white Americans are choosing to be willfully ignorant and stubbornly, pridefully unrepentant about their truthful, honest history, NOTHING will change. ALL of America (north and south, east and west) needs to REPENT for its racial sins, and DESPERATELY needs a National Truth and Reconciliation Project. Most of these comments prove it. Delusional, or willfully evil? Most likely both! These comments reek of ‘We have investigated ourselves and have determined we have done nothing wrong. We’re sorry if anyone was offended, but that was in the past and is not our problem.’ The blood of lynched and massacred minority people cries out from the ground, an offense to Almighty God. God is just, vengeance is His, and He WILL repay America for her unrepentant racial sins.
Racism is alive in our Country. I remember looking at the racist sign, The Blackest Land and the Whitest People, from inside the El Sombrero on Lee Street, owned and operated by my mother, Nettie Moreno-Laisure and my father, Richard Laisure. I was elated when the sign was no longer on the main drag. Whitest People does refer to pure and “so-called Christians” of whom many do not follow the teachings of Christ. We were Catholic and also in a minority. When JFK was assassinated, a male high school student laughed and said, “your President was shot”.
I remember the first African American students attending our high school in the early sixties,
“Colored” and “White” Water Fountains in Woolworth’s and segregated restaurants. While I was in summer school, a teacher, Ms. C. made a racist remark in her thick southern drawl. I think she was from Georgia. Looking back, I wish I’d had been brave enough to challenge this teacher on her racism. I left Greenville in the 60’s and live in Venice, CA. The racism, homophobia and religious hypocrisy still exist not only in Greenville, but throughout this nation. People of color fill the prison system today (another form of racism).
Thanks to my mother, Nettie Laisure we were spared some of the racist remarks in our home. She taught us to love people without judgement. This world would be a better place if we could simply follow the golden rule. “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. Luke 6:31
Interesting article and perspectives about the sign. I’m actually helping someone do genealogy research and came upon this article. If anyone knows Clyde and Addie Champion, please let me know. They were teachers in Greenville’s African American school. I am particularly interested in Addie Lee Champion (at one time Addie Lee Ollison).
I lived in Greenville from 1964 to 1977 as a child and I don’t remember the sign but heard the words mentioned later on years after I had moved away ( by people that had traveled through) .
I never saw expressions of racism in people there although as child perhaps I was shielded by it. I also remember going to Sambo’s and in the early 70’s I never much interacted with black people except for kids I saw in school.
I will say that in school we actually had honest discussions about race so I never saw people other children exhibiting blatant racism.
I was born and raised here and am old enough to remember the sign that greeted the entrance to Lee St: “The Blackest Land, The Whitest People.” I also remember having my bottom slapped for for drinking from the “Colored” fountain in the courthouse (before I could read).
I’m glad to read that Linda L. Is thriving in CA, because I have fond memories of all the great food I ate at El Sombrero.
Sadly, our local newspaper headlines today reinforced that racism and opinions about “the whitest people” are in the majority in Greenville in December 2019.
Thank you Sandy for your personal experiences. You lived it and correctly point out that racism still exists. Greenville has made good progress as has our nation in my opinion. Thank you again for commenting. Best regards, Tom
[…] the faculties in Greenville, Texas — a city that flaunted its residents’ intolerance of Blacks — had been built-in. Lewis’ household lived in southwest Fresno in a solidly Black […]
This has nothing to do with the sign. I was born in Greenville in 1954 but moved away, my parents returned about 1958 or 1959 for just a few months. During this time, we lived in a house that was about 4′ off the ground next to a pasture, In the front was like a motel or rooms for rent and they were also on the right of the house when facing it. Does anyone know what street or part of town this might have been? I remember playing with kids about my age and I was about 4 or 5. Mary
GOD created THE HUMAN RACE,man created racism, we are all of one race,we all have melanin in our skin,some more than others. People are stupid. And this is coming from a Caucasian man in MS.
I remember the sign hanging across Lee Street (named for, who else, Robert E. Lee) when I was a child in the early 1950’s. Even then, I understood its racist connotations, “artfully” concealed in a double entendre. The town and its environs were permeated with racism. My grandmother once invited a black family to share Thanksgiving dinner on the front porch of her farmhouse a few miles north of the town. The head of the family replied, “It would be better for us, and for you, if we just ate out in the yard.” May God and these dear people forgive us.