A Love Story

Jim Shankle was born in 1811 on a Mississippi plantation. When he married Winnie, she already had three children fathered by the plantation owner. Soon after the marriage, Jim overheard the business deal their master made with a planter to sell Winnie and her children. He knew they were taken to a plantation in East Texas. He grieved for several days and then made up his mind to find his family. 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, and as other black families began settling in the area, they formed the community of Shankleville. The Shankles and McBride oversaw the building of a school, church, a cotton gin, sawmill, and gristmill.

Stephen McBride

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 has become an East Texas legend.

Texas Historical Marker story of Shanklesville.
Courtesy Barclay Gibson

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Rachel Whitfield, Free Woman

Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I began searching for more. How did an uneducated black woman survive after the Civil War? I found Rachel’s story, which was written by her granddaughter Lela Jackson, included in Women in Early Texas.

In 1852 Jim and Rachel Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri. Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again. Rachel and the children were placed together on the auction block. Washington McLaughlin purchased the family, and they began a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and others times in an oxcart. They settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.

The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting. Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and at times whipped the slaves.” At other times he gave them passes in compliance with the law that required slaves to carry a pass any time they left the owner’s property. If they were caught without a pass, they could be whipped for being out without permission.

Sometime during the Civil War, soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and then headed south. One of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom.” He said nothing until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people. You are free as I am. You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you. I can do without you.”

The slaves stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant. Finally, the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family. After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.

They slipped along the San Gabriel River, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise. Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek. They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts. The owner of a stray cow gave the family permission to keep the milk in exchange for raising the calf for its owner. They kept milk, butter, and cream fresh by storing it in a bucket lowered into a well. With the change of seasons, they moved about, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners. They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums. They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons heated on a fire log in the yard. Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached, and used for the lining.

The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services. People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances. When someone died, Rachel and her daughter Demmie prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.

Lela Jackson writes that her grandmother, who lived until she was ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.

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