The North Texas version of History Harvest was the first project carried out somewhere other than Nebraska, making it the first step towards a long-term goal envisioned when History Harvest was first created. As the primary coordinator of the inaugural version of the North Texas History Harvest (NTHH), it falls to me to reflect on how successful we were in reaching the goals we set for the NTHH.
From the outset the primary goal of the first NTHH was to collect histories from a predominantly African American community on the southeast side of Denton, a Northeast Texas city of about 115,000 people roughly forty miles north of Dallas. The neighborhood, which tends to refer to itself as SEDNA (from their community organization, Southeast Denton Neighborhood Association), has a history that is somehow unique yet sadly typical for Texas all at the same time.
The predecessor to SEDNA was a middle-class self-segregated community called Quakertown that formed just north of the town square not long after Emancipation. Its vicinity to the white women’s college (today Texas Woman’s University) in the first decades of the twentieth century soon became a problem for the larger, white community, and by 1923 the nearly seventy homes and dozens of businesses and community centers in Quakertown had either been torn down or physically relocated to the east and southeast sides of Denton, literally on the other side of the tracks, under the guise of the town desperately needing a civic center park. Although the former Quakertown community has now been officially recognized in Denton, the effects of the forced relocation have lingered in SEDNA for the past ninety years. Many of these lingering effects have been recovered in the past two decades, but because the interpretation of history is forever in flux we felt there was still more to be learned about SEDNA and set out to do so.
Of course, because of these lingering effects, I knew that as a young, white (dare I even say naïve-looking?) university graduate student, marketing to long-term SEDNA residents was going to be
my biggest challenge – even more challenging than securing a venue for the History Harvest and attracting sponsors and collaborators. I also knew that marketing to community partners was going to be the biggest key to our success, which doubled the pressure. In our meetings we exhausted all possibilities of how to market – creating fliers and social media web pages, foot trafficking door-to-door, contacting the local newspaper, attending SEDNA meetings, advertising at local events, and so forth. In the end, all of our marketing ventures were achieved. But did those achievements mean droves of people would come out to NTHH as we hoped? Did it mean that we were successful in achieving our overall goals?
Only four individuals came out and participated in NTHH. At first that number is a little disheartening. But those four people brought more than fifty documents, images, and physical items documenting the SEDNA community that for the most part had never been seen by anyone but their owners. Currently the images captured from NTHH are still in the process of being uploaded to the Portal to Texas History website and therefore final analysis has not yet been completed, but some conclusions can be drawn about the participants (or the lack thereof).
The first conclusion is that if there were fifty-four never before seen documents from only four individuals, there is still a wealth of historical items taking up space in people’s attics and closets that would reveal so much about the SEDNA community. This reaffirms my belief that there is still so much to be learned about the community. For example, SEDNA resident Alma Clark shared with us an autograph book that had been owned by a former Quakertown resident and teacher at Denton’s all-black Frederick Douglass School, Maggie Hampton. The book came from Hampton’s college tenure in 1906-7 at Prairie View College (today Prairie View A&M University), a historically black Texas college. Fewer than 1% of African Americans attended college at the time. The people who autographed Hampton’s book came
from all over the state, and every one of them surely had a compelling story—which we now have to go out and discover. It’s in mint condition and it’s a treasure.
The second conclusion is that we might need to approach the Harvest differently. UNL has organized the Harvest as a group project for an undergraduate course, but we structured this one as an independent study for me, for graduate credit. Even though I had helpers at every stage of the process, one official coordinator (me) was probably not enough.
The third is that if there is anything I would have done differently, besides having another coordinator, I would have interacted with the community more. The only participants who showed up were the ones I had previously sat down with and talked to the longest. They were the ones who initially told me they didn’t have anything to contribute, but in the end showed up with over fifty documents cumulatively. A picture of Maggie Hampton is on display at Denton County’s African American Museum, and if I hadn’t have spent time with Mrs. Clark we probably would have never seen Maggie’s autograph book. The biggest lesson learned from NTHH, which could probably be said for a lot of grassroots historical research, is that these people really thought they didn’t have anything to contribute, that their histories were unimportant. I failed to reveal the opposite to them, in part, I think, because I was fixated on quantity, not quality.
Fortunately for us, this venture into a History Harvest project doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a one-time experience. I do believe there will be a chance to correct my mistakes. One of the helpers at NTHH was a woman on the historical commission of another Denton County town who wanted to do a Harvest for her community. I am still waiting to hear whether that will happen and gladly look forward to helping her in return if it does. Denton County’s local museum office, the Office of History and Culture, has expressed interest in doing a Harvest in yet another city within the county. And at UNT, there have been limited discussions of doing a Harvest for an African American community in Fort
Worth and even doing a repeat SEDNA Harvest at the community’s Juneteenth celebration in summer 2014.
So with all that said, was the first round of the North Texas History Harvest successful? I think that’s still open for interpretation, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.