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.


If you are in deep East Texas on TX 63 southwest of Burkeville, be sure to read the historical marker designating the site of Shankleville, a black community named for an ex-slave.

Jim Shankle was born in 1811 on a Mississippi plantation.  When he married Winnie, she already had three children.  Soon after the marriage, their master sold Winnie and her children.  Jim heard enough of the business deal to know that they were taken to a plantation in East Texas.  He grieved for several days.  Then, determined to find his family, he ran away.  With a price on his head as a runaway slave, he headed west, always moving at night, foraging in fields for his food, and hiding in the fields when he heard others on the road.  Not daring to use a ferry, he swam both the Mississippi and Sabine rivers.

After a 400-mile journey, he reached East Texas and moved at night from plantation to plantation asking about Winnie.  Finally, Jim found her as she collected water at a spring.  For several days, Winnie hid Jim and brought food to him at night.  Some accounts say Winnie’s master found Jim, other stories say she told her master about her husband.  Whatever the truth, the plantation owner agreed to buy Jim.

In addition to Winnie’s three children, they raised six of their own.  When emancipation came following the Civil War they became farmers and began buying land with their partner Steve McBride.  Eventually they held 4,000 acres in the black community called Shankleville, which boasted schools, churches, a cotton gin, sawmills, and gristmills.

Steve McBride, who could not read, married one of the Shankle daughters.  He established McBride College (1883-1909), fulfilling his dream of helping others receive the education he had been denied.

Winnie Shankle died in 1883 and Jim died five years later, ending a love story that became a legend.