THE DRAMA OF THE IMAGINATION

Newspapers around the country in 1860 called it “the Texas Troubles.” Rumors—fanned by letters written by Charles R. Pryor, editor of the Dallas Herald—claimed that a mysterious fire on Sunday, July 8, which burned the newspaper office and all the buildings on the Dallas square except the brick courthouse, was an abolitionist plot “to devastate, with fire and assassination the whole of Northern Texas . . . .”

On the same day, other fires destroyed half of the square in Denton and burned a store in Pilot Point. Fires also erupted in Honey Grove, Jefferson, and Austin. The city leaders of Dallas (population 775) first believed the extreme heat—105 to 113 degrees––caused spontaneous combustion of the new and volatile phosphorous matches. They concluded that the matches, stored in a box of wood shavings at a drug store, ignited and quickly consumed the entire building before spreading over the downtown. Citizens in Denton, after experiencing similar problems with “prairie matches,” concluded that spontaneous combustion caused their city’s fire.

In Dallas, however, white leaders stirred by the prospect of Abraham Lincoln’s election and encouraged by Pryor’s claims, decided on a sinister slave plot hatched up by two white abolitionist preachers from Iowa. They jailed the preachers, publically whipped them, and sent them out of the county.

A committee of fifty-two men organized to mete out justice to the slaves in the county. At first, the vigilante committee favored hanging every one of the almost 100 Negro slaves in the county, then cooler heads prevailed and decided to hang only three. Two days later the men were hung on the banks of the Trinity River near the present Triple Overpass. The remaining slaves, out of consideration of their property value, were given a good flogging. Later, a judge who had been part of the vigilante committee said that the three murdered slaves were probably innocent, but because of the “inflamed state of the public mind, someone had to be hanged.”

The “troubles” were not over. By the end of July, towns throughout North and Central Texas organized vigilance committees to find and punish the conspirators. The committees terrorized the slave community. Interrogations focused on white itinerant preachers who were cited as insurrection leaders.

Despite fears of a slave rebellion that lasted until after the Civil War, there was never an organized group of slaves in Texas that shed white blood. Vigilantes often obtained “confessions” and evidence points to white leaders spreading the rumors to garner public support for secession.

Estimates vary from thirty to 100 Negroes and whites who died before the panic subsided. One historian described the times as “the drama of the imagination.”

The Bell With A Past

Church Bell, Port Lavaca United Methodist Church

Church Bell, Port Lavaca United Methodist Church

The bell sitting on a brick platform next to the United Methodist church building in Port Lavaca has a colorful past. Originally, it belonged to the Indianola Methodist Church about nine miles down the coast from Port Lavaca, but a hurricane in 1875 destroyed much of the thriving seaport and most of the church buildings. Although Indianola continued as a port city, the Methodists never rebuilt. In 1886 another horrible storm and subsequent fire turned Indianola into a ghost town.

That 1886 storm also caused major damage forty miles inland to the Victoria Methodist Church. After the congregation completed repairs to their building, they sent a group of men down to Indianola to retrieve “the finest bell in Texas” from the wrecked Methodist Church.

Melinda Harris, a tiny black woman, the only surviving member of the destroyed church still living in the abandoned town, met the men and told them that the bell belonged to her and they couldn’t have it. They returned to Victoria empty-handed.

Meantime, Melinda Harris moved up the coast to Port Lavaca and when the Methodists built a new building, she gave the old Indianola bell to the congregation. Old timers remembered her as Aunt Malindy, owner of a white boarding house. She went about town wearing a starched white apron and sat on the back row at the Methodist church every Sunday morning.

The Frontier Times reprinted a story written in 1925 by Rev. M.A. Dunn in which he says that when he arrived to serve the Port Lavaca church in 1901, a little black woman named Malinda Harris came to him wanting to pay to have the church painted. When the work was completed and he went to collect the payment, Aunt Malindy drew thirteen ten-dollar bills from an old Bible. He said the money was so stiff that he thought of Noah’s Ark. Then, he realized that those bills had been gathered from the floodwater after the Indianola storm and pressed dry because they stood up like cardboards.

When Malinda Harris died in 1914 she left her property consisting of one-half lot worth two-hundred-fifty dollars and personal property worth twenty-five to the church.

The bell story continues: The Methodist congregation outgrew its site and moved in 1958 to a new location. The sales agreement called for the congregation to take the church bell. However, the new facility didn’t have a sanctuary, only a fellowship hall and classrooms. The bell was left behind and forgotten.

L.E. Gross did not forget. He said he was a country boy and never got to enjoy a church bell until he had moved to Port Lavaca. He nagged his men’s Sunday school class until they raised the money to hire a crane and move the bell to the new church site where it was placed on the ground and covered with a tarpaulin.

In 1975, when the church built a sanctuary L.E. Gross remembered that bell. Again, he nagged his men’s class until they raised the money to repair the old bell and build a brick stand on which to mount it. Until his death, L.E. Gross rang that church bell before every worship service.

Rev. Dunn wrote in his article: “Today, if you are in Port Lavaca, and hear the Methodist Church bell ring, you will hear the bell that survived the storms of Indianola both 1875 and 1886. It will tell you that the workmen are buried, but the Church of God still survives.”

Ex-Slave Becomes Community Leader

Born into slavery in Arkansas in 1845, Nelson Taylor Denson moved, at age eleven, to Falls County in East Texas with his master.  Denson, who had been educated by his master, developed high regard for Sam Houston after hearing Houston speak when he visited Marlin in his campaign for governor.  Denson admired Houston’s devotion to his personal beliefs that prompted him to resign from the governorship rather than support secession.  During the Civil War, Denson accompanied his master in the Confederate Army, serving as a saddle boy looking after the horses.UHP-IND146

An account titled Slaves Narratives—Rural NW Louisiana African American Genealogy includes Denson’s account of the Civil War in which he praises Sam Houston for standing by his principles and refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy.  Denson says he was fourteen when Texas seceded and at sixteen he went to war with his master as his “bodyguard.”  Denson’s account of the night before the Battle at Mansfield on the Sabine River is gripping in his description of the sound of whippoorwills calling as the men listen for an attack from the Yankees camped just across the river.

Interestingly, Denson sees the slaves who ran away and joined the Union forces as not properly taking care of the women and children left behind on the plantations.  He goes on to share his concern after the war for the change in the “old order,” and the decline in virtue and chivalry.

Denson kept records of dates and events and describes in careful detail his original trip from Arkansas to Texas over and around the Great Raft that clogged portions of the Red River above Shreveport, Louisiana.

After the Civil War, Denson returned to Falls County as a free man and began working to fulfill his two dreams–to preach and to teach.  With a deep understanding of human needs and rights, Denson became a circuit preacher in the Baptist denomination.

On November 8, 1868, the Reverend Denson, his wife, and eleven other blacks organized the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, the first black congregation in Falls County.  Denson believed that black citizens must have the basic rudiments of education, and he taught fundamental skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  He helped start a school sponsored by the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, and others soon followed.  By the mid-1880s Denson won election as county commissioner, becoming the first black official in the county.  His good judgment and spirit of cooperation won the respect of both the black and white communities, and he continued to be respected and called on for advice and counsel until his death in 1938 at the age of ninety-three.

The Rev. Nelson T. Denson and the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church historical marker is located at 507 Bennett at George Street in Marlin, Falls County.