Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Long Black Line

I spent this past week in East Texas, visiting sites connected to a documentary that I co-wrote a few years ago. “The Long Black Line” is the multi-generational story of an African-American family from Jasper County. It surveys their path from slavery to present day, simultaneously reflecting changes in American culture at large. Recently, the film has become part of a major historical preservation effort, revolving around hundreds of old schoolhouses throughout the South.

The schoolhouses are known as “Rosenwald schools,” in honor of Julius Rosenwald – a Jewish philanthropist from Chicago who contributed a fair amount of his fortune to the education of black children. Influenced by Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald formed a partnership with black “freedom colonies” in the rural South, helping them to build schools that would allow their children to carve out a future in 20th century America. These schools are the foundations of a hugely important, but largely unsung, movement for equal rights.

Among the surviving Rosenwald schools in Jasper County are Huff Creek and Rock Hill. The former has been preserved as a church; the latter remodeled as a community center. Both of these sites are included on the new Long Black Line Tour, hosted by filmmaker Herman Wright Jr. and supported by the National Historic Trust. The tour also includes a trip through Mt. Union – a one-time freedom colony situated in the middle of an original 4,000-acre land grant given by the Spanish colonial government to Texas pioneer Sherod Wright. Mt. Union was settled by, and remains home to, descendants of slaves that were owned by Sherod Wright’s family.

The patriarch of the Mt. Union community is Benjamin Wright, the filmmaker’s great grandfather. After Emancipation, Benjamin had 21 children with two wives, and these children populated a community that was thriving by the 1930s, when Mt. Union got its own Rosenwald school: Walnut Hill. Although the building is long gone, Walnut Hill survives in the memories of those who attended it. The present-day Wright Brothers ranch encompasses much of the community land owned by three of Benjamin’s youngest children: Tim, Obie, and Benjamin Jr. The patriarch’s original ranch house has been lovingly restored (twice, actually – it was badly damaged by Hurricane Rita in 2005), and is now receiving visitors.

For anyone looking to experience, first-hand, the history of the long black line – or anyone simply looking for a peaceful weekend escape – this is a destination filled with inspiring sights and inspiring people. For more information, visit and stay tuned for more films and stories.

Huff Creek School

Rock Hill School (then)

Rock Hill School (now)

Wright Brothers Ranch

Benjamin Wright’s house - built in the 1890s, recently designated as a historic landmark by the state of Texas

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