“To pick cotton, you have to stick your fingers into the boll, trying not to scrape your cuticles on the sharp, dried-out shell around the linty white ball,” writes Chris Tomlinson in the first paragraph of Tomlinson Hill.
The year is 2012. The author, a white fifth-generation Texan, has come to Tomlinson Hill, an old plantation near Marlin, Texas, to meet Charles Tomlinson, a black former sharecropper, and get a lesson in cotton picking. It is just one lesson in what would become a transformative education for the author, a five-year journey through the archives of history and into the living rooms of strangers in an attempt to, as he writes, “understand exactly what my ancestors had demanded from his ancestors, the slaves of Tomlinson Hill.”
From 1996 to 2007 Chris Tomlinson covered conflicts in Africa and the Middle East for the Associated Press. For a while, the adrenalin-fueled career of an international correspondent appealed to the young journalist, who was eager to escape a life back home that felt poor and provincial. As East Africa bureau chief, Tomlinson witnessed the end of apartheid in South Africa, violence in Somalia and genocide in Rwanda, where his reporting garnered a bounty on his head. Eventually the intensity of the job took its toll, and Tomlinson requested reassignment in the States. “I didn’t want to be surrounded by teenagers with assault rifles anymore,” he writes. “I didn’t want to see any more starving babies.” He moved back to Texas in 2007, haunted by Africa’s racially-motivated violence yet inspired by the hard-earned reconciliation he had witnessed there. He was determined to turn his journalistic attentions to America’s own racial past and his family’s part in it.
Tomlinson had always known that his family had owned slaves on Tomlinson Hill and that some of those slaves had taken the Tomlinson name. As a child he was told the slaves did so out of love and admiration for their masters, a myth he eagerly embraced. Growing up in Dallas, the author clung tightly to the rose-colored stories of his antebellum ancestry. The son of a bowling alley manager, Tomlinson’s life felt dramatically different from the romantic narratives of Southern aristocracy. “I think when you’re a poor white kid in urban Dallas, those stories are doubly powerful because they are a source of self-esteem,” says Tomlinson.
Chris knew about an NFL player named LaDainian Tomlinson who had played football at Texas Christian University and gone on to become a star running back for the San Diego Chargers in 2001. He suspected that LaDainian was descended from the slaves of Tomlinson Hill, and tracked down LaDainian’s mother in Marlin, who introduced him to more members of the black Tomlinson family.
Through interviews and research, Tomlinson pieced together the story of two Tomlinson families—one a family of slave owners, the other a family of slaves—their dual paths reflecting the greater course of American history and the ever-present, smoldering role of race in it.
While the author lacks the hard evidence to unequivocally implicate his ancestors in abuses against blacks—as slave owners, as the sharecropping bosses, and later as KKK members, his research is damning.
Tomlinson Hill may not break new ground in terms of historical revelation, but its intimate perspective offers anecdotes that stay with the reader long after the book is finished. “I want to give you some tips,” says a black mother to her son right before he integrates Marlin High School. “I want you to see your birth certificate. It says Lonnie D. Garrett. Now if you hear any other name, good or bad and it isn’t that, they’re not talking to you. When the n word comes up, you keep walking, ‘cause they’re not talking to you. Until they call this name. That’s the only time you’re supposed to respond.”
Tomlinson’s most salient point may be a warning: that progress in race relations is never constant or inevitable. “Let’s look at the history of the Klan,” he says. “It’s been defeated three times. It could come back a fourth time.” Noting the rise of extremism in American politics today, Tomlinson says, “Liberty and justice have to be constantly defended.”
Yet Tomlinson is hopeful. “Time breeds candor,” he says. “It’s hard for people to admit that they were wrong. It’s also difficult for people to admit that they were victims.”
“I learned a lot about how to face your history from the black Tomlinsons,” says Chris, who counts the day walking the fields with Charles Tomlinson and some of his relatives as one of the most precious of his life. “I think that they were excited to find someone who wanted to hear their stories,” says Chris. “I also think they were excited to have a white Tomlinson ask. To talk to a sharecropper who worked for my family 70 years ago was like passing through a time machine.”
After Charles and Chris walked Tomlinson Hill that day, they visited the nearby cemetery where Charles’ ancestors are buried. Overgrown and dilapidated, the gravesite looked forgotten. That afternoon Charles and Chris worked together to clear the graves, an old black man working next to a young white man, both reclaiming what was abandoned—a memorial from the past and a monument for the future.
Kirk Reed Forrester is a freelance writer based in Houston.