- March! The Fight for Civil Rights in a Land of Fear
In March!, Stephen D. Delear examines race relations between blacks and whites in Nacogdoches, Texas, between 1929 and 1970, a period book-ended by two significant events. The first was a mass-expulsion of the black population from the thriving Church Street district. “Early in 1929,” he notes, “the white population of Nacogdoches drove their African American neighbors into a ghetto” as part of a “land grab.” The second was a May 1970 race riot which erupted when white police officers and residents responded aggressively to a civil rights march led by both black students from Stephen F. Austin State University and local black residents. In between, Delear examines the countervailing forces of racial repression—in the [End Page 220] form of Jim Crow laws, mob violence, and police brutality—and a rising civil rights movement under the leadership of local black activists working in league at times with national civil rights and labor organizations.
Delear writes in a concise and straightforward fashion, making March! a quick read. An activist in Nacogdoches, he concedes that one of his objectives is to support the black community in its ongoing battle for a louder voice in the struggle over race, memory, and property in that community. “African-American leaders are currently engaged in a drive to preserve buildings and physical structures associated with their community during segregation and the civil rights era,” he writes. “This work will aid in the preservation effort undertaken by the African-American community.” Delear relies largely on oral history which, he argues, “presents a source at least as accurate, if not more so, than official accounts.”
His approach enables him to recreate the 1929 expulsion, which white officials and newspapers at the time took pains to conceal. “While shame may partially explain the desire to forget the event, more practical matters also came into play,” he writes. “Acquisition by violence voids title to real estate. Only thirty years of adverse possession—uninterrupted occupation of the property without legal challenge—cures the defect.” He finds compelling evidence also in census data and insurance maps. Although the 1922 maps showed a vibrant black community, the 1929 maps showed “a sea of empty storefronts . . . In the shopping arcade formerly at the heart of the African–American district sits the offices of the Chamber of Commerce, a white organization.” His findings certainly support the vivid memories of the black community. “One night the whites came in . . . and told them to leave,” one woman recollected. “No one ever paid for their land or their belongings. It was a scary time.”
Essentially a passionately written local history, March! will be of value to anyone interested in the history of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement in Nacogdoches specifically or in East Texas more generally—the so-called “meanest part of the state.” In some places, the book’s narrative is a little too concise, giving it something of a choppy nature and stripping the narrative of some of its impact. Eschewing historiography and telling a story largely divorced from larger state and national events, the book will be of more limited utility for professional historians.