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. During the Civil War, Denson accompanied his master in the Confederate Army, serving as a saddle boy looking after the horses.

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, which resulted in Governor Houston being removed from office. Denson says he that at age sixteen he went to war as his master’s “bodyguard.” In his gripping account of the night before the Battle at Mansfield on the Sabine River, he describes the sound of whippoorwills calling and the low mummer of the men singing spirituals and listing for an attack from the Yankees camped just across the river.

Denson views the slaves who ran away and joined the Union forces as not properly caring for 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.

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. Incorporating 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, which led him to teach the 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 the 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.on

William Cowper Brann–The Iconoclast

William Cowper Brann

William Cowper Brann

His supporters called him a visionary and a brilliant writer. Some even dubbed him the “Prairie Voltaire” and the “American Carlyle.” His detractors called him the “Devil’s Disciple.” Even his biographer Charles Carver described him as “a mean Mark Twain.” Upon his death, after a gun battle that also killed his assailant, those who hated him said, “At long last he’s in hell where he belongs.”

W.C. Brann acquired a third grade education, ran away at age thirteen in 1868 from the Illinois family who took him in after his mother’s death. He bounced around the country until he found work as a printer’s devil and cub reporter. He wrote for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Galveston Evening-Tribune, Austin Statesman, San Antonio Express, and Houston Post, soon gaining a reputation as a brilliant though vitriolic editorialist.

Brann and his wife had two daughters and a son. After his thirteen-year-old daughter committed suicide in Houston in 1890, the family moved to Austin where Brann decided his editorial experience and the publication of three of his plays offered reason enough for him to use the limited family savings to begin publishing his “journal of personal protest,” the Iconoclast. It quickly failed.

Brann sold the journal to William Sydney Porter, the Austin writer who later became famous as O. Henry. After several more moves Brann ended up in Waco in 1894 as chief editorialist for the Waco Daily News. The following year he acquired the journal from Porter and started publishing the Iconoclast. This time the savagery of his writing gained attention across the U.S. and in many foreign countries, growing the circulation in three years to almost 100,000.

His articulate criticisms, even cruel comments fascinated his readers. He raged against the status quo and insulted people and institutions he viewed as overly sanctimonious or hypocritical. He held Episcopalians and Baptist in equal disdain but his attacks on Baptists garnered even more sensation because he published the Iconoclast in Waco, home of Baylor University, Texas’ premiere Baptist institution. He wrote that Baylor was “that great storm-center of misinformation.” He is quoted in a local publication as saying, “I have nothing against Baptists. I just believe they were not held under long enough.”

Despite his screeds against fundamentalism and its preachers, he wrote very little about religion and did not attack theology. In one essay he deplored the commercialization of Christmas. In another he said, “Remember that God is everywhere—even in church.” The subjects of his opinion pieces ranged from cats, to cows, to cold feet. He called politics an “unsavory stew of Macbeth’s witches.”

Brann’s hatred included wealthy eastern socialites such as the Vanderbilts, anything having to do with Great Britain and its people, the New York social scene, and women. He reserved his most vicious remarks for African Americans, and after reading one of his essays it is hard to imagine his popularity even in a day when lynching was accepted in many communities.

Despite his many friends and supporters, the anger he stirred in Waco boiled over in October 1897 when a group of Baylor students kidnapped Brann and demanded he retract his statements about the university. A few days later a Baptist judge and two other men beat Brann.

Finally, on April 1, 1898, the father of a female Baylor student, shot Brann in the back on one of Waco’s downtown streets. Despite having taken a bullet, Brann turned and began firing at his assailant, emptying his borrowed Colt Single Action Army Revolver into the man’s body. Brann’s attacker, writhing in agony on the ground, continued firing until he emptied his gun. Both men died the following day.

The word TRUTH is engraved on Brann’s monument in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery. Beneath the word is Brann’s profile with a bullet hole in it.

Baylor University holds the William Cowper Brann Collection in its Texas Collection.

The Complete Works of Brann The Iconoclast

The Complete Works of Brann The Iconoclast

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.

Preacher With A Gun

William “Choctaw Bill” Robinson, a Baptist preacher, came to Texas in 1848 and preached with his gun beside his Bible until his death at the age of eighty-nine.  By the time fgRobinson came to Texas his first wife was dead after giving birth to eight children.  He and his second wife had another six children, and all the family accompanied Robinson to Texas where he became licensed as a Baptist minister.  The tall, dark, longhaired and bearded preacher believed so strongly in his gospel message that he did not hesitate to exhort those beliefs in four-hour sermons. He became known as “Choctaw Bill” after word spread that a group of Choctaws departed during one of his sermons saying, “White man lie. Him talk too long.”

Part of Choctaw Bill’s enthusiasm included his certainty that only members of the Baptist faith knew the “true religion.”  Since Methodists made up the largest number of non-Baptists on the frontier, Choctaw Bill carried a Methodist Discipline and used every Bible text at his command to prove his Methodist brothers wrong.

Over the years Robinson organized or served as pastor of at least twenty Baptist Churches.  Since ministers of that day did not receive a salary, Robinson supported his wife and large family by farming and raising cattle.  Some report that he carried his branding iron regularly and was rather “free” in its use.  On weekends he rode a horse (some say a mule) to preach in settlements that did not have organized congregations.  At one village, it is reported that ruffians had broken up earlier attempts to hold services.  Robinson leaned his rifle against the pulpit and placed a pistol on each side of his Bible.  He looked intently at the congregation for a few minutes and then announced that he was there to preach the gospel by the grace of God and his trusty rifle.  There were no disturbances.

In later years Choctaw Bill operated a sawmill and gristmill at Hazel Dell, one of the roughest towns in Texas, located between present Waco and Abilene.  Some claim that of the first ten settlers in the community, Choctaw Bill is the only one who escaped a violent death.  He held services under the shade of an oak tree across the road from a store and saloon and preached to the patrons who came from the saloon.  The tree became known as “Choctaw Robinson Oak.”

Despite arriving in Texas with considerable wealth, Robinson at the age of eighty, wrote to the State Baptist paper:  “I have preached on the Texas frontier from the Red River to the Rio Grande.  Now I am old and feeble with no finances and no home.  Help me what you can.”  Choctaw Bill died a poor man in 1898.

WILLIAM COWPER BRANN–THE ICONOCLAST

His supporters called him a visionary and a brilliant writer.  Some even dubbed him the “Prairie Voltaire” and the “American Carlyle.”  His detractors called him the “Devil’s Disciple.”  Even his biographer Charles Carver described him as “a mean Mark Twain.”  Upon his death, after a gun battle that also killed his assailant, those who hated him said, “At long last he’s in hell where he belongs.”

W.C. Brann acquired a third grade education, ran away at age thirteen in 1868 from the Illinois family who took him in after his mother’s death, and bounced around the country until he found work as a printer’s devil and cub reporter.  He wrote for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Galveston Evening-Tribune, Austin Statesman, San Antonio Express, and Houston Post, soon gaining a reputation as a brilliant though vitriolic editorialist.

Brann and his wife had two daughters and a son.  After his thirteen-year-old daughter committed suicide in Houston in 1890, the family moved to Austin where Brann decided his editorial experience and the publication of three of his plays offered reason enough for him to use the limited family savings to begin publishing his “journal of personal protest,” the Iconoclast.  It quickly failed. 

Brann sold the journal to William Sydney Porter, the Austin writer who later became famous as O. Henry.  After several more moves Brann ended up in Waco in 1894 as chief editorialist for the Waco Daily News.  The following year he acquired the journal from Porter and started publishing the Iconoclast.  This time the savagery of his writing coupled with the wisdom, wit and well-turned phrase gained attention across the U.S. and it many foreign countries, growing the circulation in three years to almost 100,000.

His articulate criticisms, even cruel comments fascinated his readers.  He raged against the status quo and insulted people and institutions he viewed as overly sanctimonious or hypocritical. He held Episcopalians and Baptist in equal disdain but his attacks on Baptists garnered even more sensation because he published the Iconoclast in Waco, home of Baylor University, Texas’ premiere Baptist institution.  He wrote that Baylor was “that great storm-center of misinformation.”  He is quoted in a local publication as saying, “I have nothing against Baptists.  I just believe they were not held under long enough.”

He wrote about a potential sex scandal involving the son-in-law of the president of Baylor University and he accused male faculty members of having sex with their female students saying Baylor was “a factory for the manufacture of ministers and magdalenes.”

Despite his screeds against fundamentalism and its preachers, he wrote very little about religion and did not attack theology.  In one essay he deplored the commercialization of Christmas.  In another he said, “Remember that God is everywhere—even in church.”  The subjects of his opinion pieces ranged from cats, to cows, to cold feet.  He called politics an “unsavory stew of Macbeth’s witches.”

Brann attacked wealthy eastern socialites such as the Vanderbilts, anything having to do with Great Britain and its people, the New York social scene, and women.  He reserved his most vicious remarks for African Americans, and after reading one of his essays it is hard to imagine his popularity even in a day when lynching was accepted in many communities.

Despite his many friends and supporters, the anger he stirred in Waco boiled over in October 1897 when a group of Baylor students kidnapped Brann and demanded he retract his statements about the university.  A few days later a Baptist judge and two other men beat Brann.  A year later a street fight between one of Brann’s supporters and two Baylor loyalists resulted in the supporter losing his arm and both men in the Baylor faction being killed.

Finally, on April 1, 1898, Tom E. Davis, father of a female Baylor student, shot Brann in the back on one of Waco’s downtown streets.  Despite having taken a bullet, Brann turned and began firing at his assailant, emptying his borrowed Colt Single Action Army Revolver into the body of Davis.  Davis, writhing in agony on the ground, continued firing until he emptied his gun.  Both men died the following day.

The word TRUTH is engraved on Brann’s monument in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery.  Beneath the word is Brann’s profile with a bullet hole in it.

photo credit: Sara Gail Cranford

One source claims Brann’s wife Carrie Belle moved the Iconoclast to Chicago and continued covering Texas issues.

Baylor University holds the William Cowper Brann Collection in its Texas Collection.