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From Porch To Paper

In his new book, Bill Minutaglio goes In Search of the Blues
by Published on
Photo by Randy Eli Grothe
Bill Minutaglio and blues musician Joe Cooper, 1985

In January 1976,  Larry L. King was not yet rich and famous for writing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but he was widely regarded as the state’s leading journalist. King had written extensively for the Observer and Harper’s, and he was contributing to a new publication, Texas Monthly. King enjoyed working with TM’s young editor, William Broyles Jr., but he couldn’t help offering some advice. In a letter mailed Jan. 8, King told Broyles, “The Monthly’s one shortcoming, I think, has been a lack of covering ‘the other Texas’—the poor, the blacks, the chicanos, etc. I do not mean to say that you should become a bleeding heart magazine, but it does appear to me that a vital part of what Texas constitutes is being missed there.”

King’s note could have been sent to every major newspaper in the state. Few of the state’s media outlets paid any attention to the “other Texas.”

Around the same time, a young reporter arrived in Abilene, fresh from New York City. Bill Minutaglio had grown up reading Langston Hughes. As a student at Columbia University, he had worked for the U.S. Agriculture Department, handing out vitamin-laden “super-doughnuts” to poor kids in Harlem. Minutaglio spent a couple of years in Abilene and then moved to newspapers in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. At each he confronted an ugly reality: Black Texans rarely made the news in their hometowns unless accused of a crime. (Minutaglio also writes the regular “State of the Media” column for the Observer.)

Let’s consider the ramifications. Let’s say you’re a historian and you want to write a history of Texas in the 20th century. A primary source for historians is newspapers, which many still mistakenly consider models of “objectivity.” Powerful newspaper publishers dominated Texas cities for generations, and the official, establishment views reported in their pages didn’t just marginalize Texas’ African-American population; in many cases they were hostile to it. The proverbial trio of blind men did a better job of describing an elephant than Texas’ newspapers did at chronicling the African-American population.

Minutaglio recognized that entire communities’ histories were being lost. Drawn to African-American heritage, he wanted to help preserve it. He went to barbecue joints, record stores, churches and blues clubs. He began walking neighborhoods, hanging out on front porches, and knocking on doors. He wasn’t always welcome, at least not at first, but his quiet, respectful persistence paid off. Before long, Minutaglio was getting the stories he sought published in The Dallas Morning News. He wrote about everything from the people who lived on “Congo Street” in Dallas to underappreciated blues pianist Alex Moore, who died at 89 while carrying groceries home on a city bus. As Minutaglio noted, “People that age should never have to wait at bus stops. People that age should never stand alone at night, big brown bags of groceries tucked under their arms.”

You can imagine how some editors at these newspapers reacted to the New York kid’s pushy agenda. Minutaglio often had to fight to get his stories in the paper, and he heard murmurs about being a “lover” of certain types of people. Gradually, as diversity came into favor and his stories began winning awards, Minutaglio’s position became more secure. By the end of his career as a newspaper journalist in the 1990s, Minutaglio had published hundreds of stories on African Americans in Texas. His writing is informed by a deep passion for the blues, and he works in a rhythmic, circular motion, gathering groups of words until, startlingly, they take flight. Minutaglio’s journalism has evolved into history, chronicling people and places that otherwise would have been lost.

This is where the Southwestern Writers Collection Book Series steps in. Our newest title is In Search of the Blues: A Journey to the Soul of Black Texas, by Minutaglio. As series editor, I take my cues from people like Américo Paredes, the rebellious soul who became the godfather of Chicano literature. In 1958, Paredes noted the plethora of books on the Texas Rangers—a phenomenon that continues unabated to this day—by observing that, “If all the books written about the Rangers were put one on top of the other, the resulting pile would be almost as tall as some of the tales they contain.”

Like Paredes, I believe that we have too damn many books on the Texas Rangers. And let’s not forget the Alamo. How many more times are we going to have to fight that battle? The perpetual fixation on violent conflict speaks to an adolescent streak in our culture. I would prefer to see Texans grow up a bit. Maybe it’s time we begin investigating how people live with each other, rather than how people kill each other.

As editor of the book series, my goal is to publish books about the “other Texas”—and to produce these books using our state’s best writers. For me, this Texas includes the same folks King identified in 1976: Texas Mexicans, African Americans and the working class. I expand the definition to include women writers, along with topics such as the environment, music and politics. Our series even ventures behind East Texas’ Pine Curtain, where Observer contributor and novelist Joe Lansdale explains how Elvis Presley ended up in a nursing home and teamed up with JFK to battle an Egyptian mummy named Bubba Ho-Tep.

The series springs from the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos. It is published primarily by the University of Texas Press. For several years, I worked closely with Connie Todd, who served as series editor from 1998 to 2008. One of the most important books we’ve done is Hecho en Tejas, the first-ever anthology of Texas Mexican literature, edited by the writer Dagoberto Gilb. The Wittliff Collections recognized that Texas Mexican writers have been marginalized by the literary establishment since … well, since the fall of the Alamo.

The theme of recovering lost history is present in In Search of the Blues. This volume collects Minutaglio’s best and most enduring writing about African Americans in Texas. From his report on a neglected community on the outskirts of Dallas, where running water remains a dream, to his profile of Percy Sutton, the San Antonio native who became Malcolm X’s lawyer and owner of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Minutaglio’s stories shift the axis of our state’s literature, opening a world too long hidden from most white Texans.

Minutaglio’s work demonstrates why writing—and publishing—matters, even in this age of social media and 140-character tweets. Minutaglio’s book succeeds as “art” while contributing to our understanding of humanity—in particular the “other Texas.” In Search of the Blues is an excellent example of why our book series exists.

Steve Davis is an assistant curator at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos, which holds the literary papers of some of the region’s leading writers. His books include Texas Literary Outlaws and J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind.