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Chris Tomlinson Digs Up a Discomfiting Past in Tomlinson Hill

by Published on
Chris Tomlinson
Chris Tomlinson

Let’s start with a disclosure: I was offered this assignment because I have an abiding interest in Civil War history. That rationale, I see now, was of limited relevance. Tomlinson Hill is a noble, sprawling, partially flawed book with a central connection to Civil War-era Texas, but it is much more than a Civil War book.

As a memoir regarding race relations in Texas, Tomlinson Hill is especially timely, arriving as it does on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the book’s nobility resides in the task that its author, Chris Tomlinson, attempts: to deliver an honest accounting of his family’s culpability in slavery. A fifth-generation Texan, Tomlinson learned at an early age that his 19th-century ancestors owned a cotton plantation, known as Tomlinson Hill, in Falls County, Texas. Growing up, he heard his grandfather soft-pedal the family connection to “the peculiar institution,” asserting that “They [the Tomlinsons’ slaves] loved us so much, they took Tomlinson as their last name.” With lingering mid-20th-century pabulum on matters of race still carrying the day, Chris accepted the embellishment, but with a latent reporter’s suspicion that perhaps the story didn’t end with such rosy reconciliations. 

The arc of this expansive story begins with Tomlinson as a young man in the 1970s. He befriends black students at integrated public schools in Dallas, sees his parents divorced, graduates from high school, serves in military intelligence in Europe, and gets married and divorced himself. After an honorable discharge he enters the University of Texas at Austin in 1990. From there he finds work as an AP correspondent, spending a decade in Asia and Africa, where firsthand he witnesses genocide, terrorism and racism. He returns to Texas in 2007, carrying the strong impression made on him by Bishop Desmond Tutu’s efforts toward racial reconciliation in South Africa, and sets about uncovering the truth about his slave-owning kin.

Tomlinson Hill cover
St. Martin's Press
Tomlinson HIll
By Chris Tomlinson
St. Martin’s Press
448 pages; $26.99

It doubtless takes inner strength to own up to the slave-owning past of one’s family, especially when the ancestors of those slaves still live on the very spot of their historical servitude, but that’s what Tomlinson does. He visits his aging father in Dallas and questions him about the Tomlinson slaves. The normally reticent paterfamilias is unusually cooperative. As a result of this come-to-Jesus talk, Chris rediscovers an old scrapbook full of letters, obituaries and newspaper clippings, which he uses as a springboard to further searches via Ancestry.com and other resources. Soon the reporter-turned-historian is reading his dead ancestors’ mail and contacting the descendants of slaves named Tomlinson (including former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who penned a foreword for the book).

Another disclosure: Chris Tomlinson—an associate at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas and currently a biweekly business columnist for the Houston Chronicle—is a former managing editor of The Texas Observer. So it’s with familial trepidation that I venture a criticism of the book’s somewhat unwieldy scope. As mentioned before, Tomlinson Hill is not a book about the Civil War, but in places it tries to assume the prerogatives of one. For instance, Tomlinson writes a whole chapter devoted to the Battle of Galveston—including biographical information about commanders and descriptions of military movements by land and sea—that might be described as perfunctory. The battlefield account seems to be Tomlinson’s attempt to give context to his ancestors’ Civil War experience, but documentation of their participation is slim at best—hence the need to fill out the story with broad historical strokes. He conjectures that Tomlinson slaves were probably impressed as laborers in Galveston, an assertion he admits he cannot prove. “I don’t intend to provide a comprehensive history,” Tomlinson writes. But, in long stretches of the book, that’s exactly what he seems to be trying to do. 

Another chapter contains Tomlinson’s brief history of the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, focusing especially on the Klan’s activities in Dallas. The account is informative as regards larger events, but it diverts focus from an otherwise highly personal story, at least until Tomlinson avows, out of the clear blue, that his paternal great-grandfather “was almost certainly a Klansman.” Once again, there’s no proof. Yes, the Klan was a secretive organization known for lousy archiving, but the sudden shift between straight-up history and personal suspicion is jarring. 

Maybe intentionally so. Of his grandfather, Tomlinson writes: “There is no direct evidence of Tommy joining the Klan, but his sympathies certainly rested with the group, and he associated with many men who made their Klan affiliation known, including the Dallas police commissioner and the pastors of the largest Protestant churches.” 

“Almost certainly… There is no direct evidence…” Here Tomlinson is delivering neither historical analysis nor personal history but gut-level hunches that, given the tenor of the times under scrutiny, just feel true. A larger narrative history, the sprawling big picture, has to stand in as evidence of what might be true in his family’s story. This is a problem common to genealogical research: Certain details simply vanish forever, never to yield answers, no matter how probingly we ask. How much easier the search would be if the ghosts of our past just gave up their secrets without forcing us to rely on reckoning and intuition.    

In contrast to Chris’ search for answers, the present-day black Tomlinsons never seem to suffer any particular angst over the Tomlinson name. Out of necessity, the former slaves took their former owners’ last name following emancipation—an event that registers as little more than afterthought to succeeding generations. LaDainian Tomlinson, born in 1979, tells us in his foreword, “I can’t recall a single time where there was a white person who tried to oppress me.” His grandparents, he writes, never had much to say of their family’s enslaved past. The pressing urge was always to move forward, to live in the present. 

And then a white man with a shared surname shows up trying to reconcile the present with the past. One of the most touching aspects of Tomlinson Hill is the ready acceptance the black Tomlinsons extend toward Chris. One might have expected them to resist close inspection of their historical relationship with slavery, Jim Crow segregation and systematic discrimination—a past they share with this scrutinizing white man—but apparently they didn’t. The first chapter features a poignant scene in which Charles Tomlinson, a black descendant, drives from Kansas to Texas in late summer just to meet Chris and show him how sharecroppers used to pick cotton. That either man would agree to such a rendezvous in the withering Texas heat must surely be testament to progress in race relations.

Charles may be willing to let him off the hook, but in the book’s subsequent 400 pages Chris insists on revealing his ancestors for the oppressors they were, even if the recounting comes down mostly to supposition. The Tomlinsons’ slave-owning record does not reveal much in the way of details: no recorded lynching trials, no rapes, no stripped-down beatings as seen in 12 Years a Slave. No, the 19th-century Tomlinsons seem to have been simply garden-variety slave-owners who believed in their own bedrock benevolence and decency. 

Nevertheless, the author’s need to take personal responsibility for collective sins is powerful in this book. “Many people,” Tomlinson writes, “have asked whether I felt bad about revealing my ancestors’ dirty laundry. I emphatically tell them no. In South Africa and Rwanda, I learned that the only way a civilization can heal after one community commits a heinous crime against another is to confess and make amends.”   

Confession is surely Tomlinson’s way of making good on his goal, stated early in the book’s preface, “to understand the sins of our fathers.” If memory is flawed—and it is almost always flawed—perhaps it can be made whole by humility. That is the hope expressed by Tomlinson Hill—one white man’s effort to correct the flawed memory of a family, and of a nation, by way of unflinching acknowledgement of guilt. In that important regard, the book fulfills its promise. 

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