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Mon July 21, 2014
On 'Tomlinson Hill,' Journalist Seeks Truth And Reconciliation
Originally published on Mon July 21, 2014 2:36 pm
As the great-great-grandson of Texas slaveholders, journalist Chris Tomlinson wanted to find out what crimes his ancestors had committed to maintain power and privilege.
So he went to Tomlinson Hill, the plantation his ancestors built in the 1850s, to not only explore the slave-owning part of his family tree, but also to find the descendants of the slaves who kept the Tomlinson name after they were freed.
Tomlinson had spent 11 years for the Associated Press reporting on wars and conflicts, mostly in Africa, including the end of apartheid and the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. All the conflicts he covered included an element of bigotry.
"It almost became kind of my specialty to understand why people hated each other and what the struggle was really about," Tomlinson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "That's when it began to occur to me that, while we talk about race a lot in America, we don't talk about the history of race and why we feel the way we do and what actually happened 50 years ago. I thought writing about my family would be a personal journey to look into that."
In his new book, Tomlinson Hill, Tomlinson examines America's history of race and bigotry through the paternal lines of two families — one white and one black.
During his research, Tomlinson discovered that former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who wrote the introduction to the book, is a descendant of a Tomlinson Hill slave.
LaDainian's brother, Lavar Tomlinson, says he didn't know anything about his personal ancestral history before this book.
"I have four daughters, and I would like every last one of them to know and understand where we come from," Lavar says. "I think it's very important ... for any person to know where they come from. That's what makes you who you are."
Tomlinson says his first job as a journalist, covering the end of apartheid in South Africa and the election of Nelson Mandela, helped inform him as he worked on his book.
That era "was reminiscent, to me, of the debates that my ancestors — that my grandfather had — during the 1950s and 1960s, about what the civil rights movement was hoping to accomplish in the United States," Tomlinson says. "I had listened to people talk about all of the things to do with race that I knew that my ancestors had believed. Watching that, almost like a time traveler, made me think about my family and my history."
On finding descendants of his family's slaves
The first time I went to Tomlinson Hill, [I] started basically knocking on doors in what is largely a rural, poor black community. Just by introducing myself as a Tomlinson, I think it opened the door immediately. They knew that my name was the one on the hill and they knew what that meant. In fact, they knew it far more than I did. I was surprised to find that they were more comfortable with it than I was, frankly.
I had never lived on Tomlinson Hill. To me, slavery was in the distant past. I didn't have a sense of belonging to that place. However, the descendants of the slaves I met on the hill ... they lived with that fact every day. When they drove by Tomlinson Hill, it was a reminder of that history. They had known white Tomlinsons in the past. So while it was not unusual for them to know the descendants of the people who held them in slavery, it was not at all something I had experienced.
On his family's conflicting attitudes about its slaveholding past
My grandfather took almost a perverse pride in being the grandson of slaveholders. It was something for him to brag about. In Texas, countless people will tell you that they're fourth generation, fifth generation, sixth generation Texans. There's this amazing sense of pride in your family being an early settler. During the civil rights era, my grandfather — who as a young man I suspect was a member of the Klan — liked to provoke people by saying, "My family owned slaves — and they loved it so much, they took our last name." He was very proud of that.
My father, on the other hand, was not. In fact, he considered it something shameful. And it was strange growing up as a child, hearing my grandfather take this one view and my father telling me, "You know, that's not really something you should be so proud of."
On how he was taught about slavery in school in Texas
We learned slavery was bad. Roots came on television while I was learning about slavery, but the teachers always used the passive voice to talk about it. Slavery was evil but no one was responsible. There was no agency. There was no confrontation of the fact that maybe our ancestors had held slaves.
It was: "Mistakes were made. Slavery was a thing and it's not anymore and that's good and slavery is bad. Let's move on and go sing [the Confederate anthem] Dixie and be proud of our heritage."
On how he was inspired by post-apartheid South Africa
It was inspiring to me to be in South Africa after the election [of Nelson Mandela] and to see that reckoning. Bishop Desmond Tutu established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and at the time, his argument was that before there can be reconciliation, you have to have a sharing of the truth and it has to be a common truth. One community can't have one idea of what happened and the other community ... a different idea. If you want them to reconcile, they have to agree about what happened. And that requires — for lack of a better word — confession and contrition. ...
I don't think that's something that's happened in the United States. And it certainly didn't happen in my life. And so writing this book was my opportunity to go through that process — if, for no one else, [than] for the African-American Tomlinsons and my side of the family, that we have that truth and reconciliation.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As the great-great-grandson of Texas slaveholders, my guest Chris Tomlinson wanted to find out what crimes his ancestors had committed to maintain their power and privilege. In his new book "Tomlinson Hill," he writes about the slave-owning part of his family tree. He also writes about slaves who kept the Tomlinson name after they were freed and traces their family tree. One of those slave's descendants, Lavar Tomlinson, will join us later. His brother, former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson, wrote the introduction to the book. Chris Tomlinson says that he intended the book to examine America's history of race and bigotry, through the paternal lines of these two families. Tomlinson is a journalist who spent 11 years with the Associated Press - reporting on wars and conflicts, mostly in Africa, including the end of apartheid and the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. All the conflicts he covered included an element of bigotry. His book "Tomlinson Hill" gets its title from the name of the plantation his ancestors built in the late 1850s. Chris Tomlinson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Was this a subject your family was interested in talking about - the fact that they were descended from slave owners?
CHRIS TOMLINSON: My grandfather took almost a perverse pride in being the grandson of slaveholders. It was something for him to brag about being a - you know, in Texas countless people will tell you that they're fourth-generation, fifth-generation, sixth-generation Texans. There's this amazing sense of pride in your family being an early settler. And during the civil rights era, my grandfather, who as a young man I suspect was a member of the Klan, liked to provoke people by saying, you know, my family owned slaves and they loved it so much they took our last name. So he was very proud of that. My father, on the other hand, was not. In fact, he considered it something shameful. And it was strange growing up as a child, hearing my grandfather take this one view and my father telling me, you know, that's not really something you should be so proud of.
GROSS: Well, really that the slaves liked their owner so much they took their name. That's the story your grandfather actually believed?
C. TOMLINSON: I don't know whether he sincerely believed it, but that was the legend. And it's one that I hear more and more, as I talk to people about my book, is these white Southerners who will inevitably say, yes, I had ancestors who had slaves. But we were the good slaveholders - that our slaves loved us. Our slaves cried when they had to leave the plantation. I've not met a descendent of slaveholders yet, who will say, you know what, my great-great-grandfather was like the character in "12 Years A Slave." He was a sadistic, brutal master, who tortured people. You just don't hear that. And when I was working on the book, I discovered that the Confederate veterans, in the late 1890s and the early 1900s, worked very hard to rewrite history to make the Civil War about, you know, states' rights - about some sort of noble, chivalric, Southern tradition and not about slavery and not about the brutality. Or the fundamental crime it is to hold another person in bondage.
GROSS: Well, you write that you grew up being taught in school that the Civil War was about the South fighting for states' rights. What did you learn about slavery?
C. TOMLINSON: Well, we learned slavery was bad. "Roots" came on television while I was learning about slavery. But the teachers always use the passive voice to talk about it. You know, I mean, slavery was evil, but no one was responsible. There was no agency. You know, there was no confrontation of the fact that maybe our ancestors had held slaves. It was, you know, mistakes were made, slavery was a thing and it's not anymore. And that's good and slavery is bad. Let's move on and go sing "Dixie" and be proud of our heritage.
GROSS: So you have reasons for doing this book and for tracing your family tree and the family tree of the people, whose ancestors were owned by your family - has to do with the fact that you were a reporter in Africa for several years. And you covered a lot of racial conflicts and ethnic conflicts. And explain how covering those conflicts affected your interest in writing this book.
C. TOMLINSON: My first job as a journalist was covering the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. And it was reminiscent, to me, of the debates of my ancestors - that my grandfather had during the 1950s and the 1960s about what the civil rights movement was hoping to accomplish in the United States. I had listened to people talk about all the things to do with race that I knew that my ancestors have believed. And watching that, almost like a time traveler, made me think about my family and my history. I did go on to cover the end of the genocide in Rwanda, the ethnic fighting - the clan fighting in Somalia, the religious battles in Sudan. And it almost became kind of my specialties to understand why people hated each other and what the struggle was really about. And that's when it began to occur to me that, while we talk about race a lot in America, we don't talk about the history of race. And why we feel the way we do and what actually happened 50 years ago. And I thought writing about my family would be a kind of a personal journey to look into that.
GROSS: This leads to another motivation for writing this book. While covering conflicts in Africa, you were also exposed to Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And you started to really believe in the importance of being honest about the truth and being honest about misdeeds. And you're trying to do that in your life.
C. TOMLINSON: Absolutely, it was inspiring to me to be in South Africa after the election and to see that reckoning. And Bishop Desmond Tutu established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And at the time, his argument was that before there can be reconciliation, you have to have a sharing of the truth. And it has to be a common truth. One community can't have one idea of what happened and the other community has a different idea. If you want them to reconcile, they have to agree about what happened. And that requires, for lack of a better word, confession and contrition. In Rwanda after the genocide, I covered the Gacaca courts, which is a traditional justice system where people come together in front of the entire village and confessed their crimes. And the witnesses say what they felt or what they saw and it's a sharing of points of view to come to a common truth. And once you can agree on that, then you can reconcile, then you can move on. And I don't think that's something that's happened in the United States and it certainly didn't happen in my life. And so writing this book was my opportunity to go through that process and, if for no one else, for the African-American Tomlinsons and my side of the family that we have the truth and reconciliation.
GROSS: Who was the first slave owner in your family?
C. TOMLINSON: That would have been a man named Aaron Bryant Tomlinson (ph) who was a North Carolinian. He was a captain in the Revolutionary Army and he operated a tobacco plantation. So my family goes back to the founding of the country and slavery has always been a part of that. And then their descendants became the entrepreneurs or the startup specialists of their era. In an agricultural economy, you would buy a plot of land that is undeveloped, employee your slave labor, develop into a profitable plantation, take that money buy more virgin land, perhaps in another state, and work your way up the financial ladder. And that's how it started.
GROSS: So one of those entrepreneurs, as you put it, was Churchill Jones, who owned the land that became Tomlinson Hill.
C. TOMLINSON: Yes, Churchill Jones was an Alabaman, a politician. And he was on - he was looking for his third major plantation when he came to Texas in 1849 and saw the falls on the Brazos River, which is northern most navigable point of the Brazos River, leading to the Gulf of Mexico. And he bought 128,000 acres for basically 10 cents an acre.
GROSS: That's just amazing. Yeah, go ahead.
C. TOMLINSON: His wife was Susan Tomlinson Jones, a leader, if you will, within the community in Alabama. And when she saw the land, she thought it was perfect for her brother, James K. Tomlinson and invited him to come buy some land from Churchill. And she picked out a special hill near her house and that became Tomlinson Hill.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Tomlinson. He's a journalist who's covered many conflicts in Africa and he has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan. But his new book is very personal. It's about the ancestors in his family who were slave owners in Texas and it's also about the family tree of the people who has been his ancestor's slaves. And the book is called "Tomlinson Hill" and Tomlinson Hill is where the family plantation was. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Chris Tomlinson and his new book "Tomlinson Hill" is about the ancestors in his family who owned a plantation in Texas and owned many slaves. The book is also about the descendants of those slaves. It's called "Tomlinson Hill." So you've spoken of how you were brought up thinking - you know - hearing people talk about the descendants in their own families who were slave owners as having been, you know, like more, you know, kindly slave owners. And you reprint a couple of letters from your ancestors in this book - not so kindly. So there's a letter I want you to read on page 23 from Churchill Jones and he is again one of the, you know, quote, entrepreneurs who bought a lot of land to build plantations on. Tell us who this letter is to.
C. TOMLINSON: So after Churchill bought the land, he sent his oldest son and a nephew to start developing the land - to clear it, build homes, to build slave quarters. And so he managed via letter. And this is what he wrote - on July 25, 1853 - (reading) George, I'm afraid you've got the Negroes to like you and not fear you. If it is the case, you cannot get on nor take care of anything. They must know when you speak they have to obey. And to do this you have to stand square up to them and show yourself master. You cannot coax a Negro to do his duty. You have to force him. And if they only like you and not fear you, they will soon hate you and get tired of you. That is the nature of Negros. But to make them fear you and like you both, you can do anything you want with them.
GROSS: What was your reaction when you saw - when you read these letters from one of your own ancestors?
C. TOMLINSON: It was shocking. I was - I was taken aback. And I was taken back by the brutality that he espouses but even more so by how it was a business for him - that he thought, you know, beating people and whipping them and withholding food and that sort of thing was the same as greasing an engine. It was - it was just part of doing business. And perhaps he's not the sadist that we all think of, but it's almost worse that he does this as a business, as kind of a calculated business proposition.
GROSS: What else did you learn about Churchill Jones's business practices so to speak or your great-great-grandfather's practices as a slave owner? Your great-great-grandfather, you know, owned the Tomlinson Hill plantation. He bought the land from Churchill Jones.
C. TOMLINSON: One of the surprises in the 1860 census is that they have an appendix, which is called the slave schedule. And it lists the ages and gender and race of every slave that was held on that property. And out of the 48 slaves that James K. Tomlinson reported on the census, eight of them were mulatto children - and I use that term because that's - that's the way they were classified - mixed-race children. So I was a little surprised at how many mixed-race children there were. I was also surprised to learn that those slave holdings were the majority of my great-great-grandfather's wealth - that all of his capital was tied up in the slave holdings and the land. And the land was cheap but the slaves were not. And - and it was a careful balancing act to make sure that, you know, he took the right amount of mortgage out and - so that he could maximize production of the land, but it wasn't so much that he lost money when he sold the crop. It was a pretty sophisticated business.
GROSS: So when you found out that eight of the children were mixed race - what conclusions did you draw from that?
C. TOMLINSON: Well, based on the ages of the children, most of them were, you know under, 10 years old, which meant they were either born or conceived in their families later years in Georgia or once they first came to Texas. And when they came to Texas, Western Falls County had maybe three slave plantations and four white families. So, you know, the conclusion I can only come to is that the white Tomlinson's were having sex with their slaves.
GROSS: One of the things you learned to do for this book was to pick cotton. You didn't take a lot of cotton, but you wanted to know how was it done, what is it like? Who did you ask to teach you?
C. TOMLINSON: I asked a man named Charles Tomlinson and his wife is Zelma (ph). They're in their late 80s and they grew up as sharecroppers on Tomlinson Hill, working for one of my cousins - one of my great, great cousins. And it was a privilege to invite them to come home because they live in Kansas now and they hadn't been back to Falls County in a long time. And they were old enough and lived on the hill long enough that they could tell me its secrets. And they could take me to the different corners of the old plantation and show me where they lived. And - and one of the things that I asked them to do when I saw the cotton in the fields was to show me how to pick. And I wanted to understand exactly what labor it was that my ancestors had coerced. And if you can think of a cotton ball, that's - that's the size of one pick of cotton. And Zelma, this at 90 pound, five foot-tall woman would pick, you know, up to 700 pounds of cotton a day. Charles could pick 1000 thousand pounds of cotton in a day in the early September hundred-degree heat, working from sunup to sundown. And just walking those rows for an hour was enough to convince me of the brutality of that and how hard it was. It's amazing what people did.
GROSS: Texas, where your family had the plantation, was the last state to free its slaves. What did you learn about how your great-great grandfather handled it when this - the Emancipation Proclamation was announced?
C. TOMLINSON: My great-great-grandfather, James K. Tomlinson, had been an officer in the state militia. And his job was to ride up and down the coast of Texas, convincing slave owners to make slaves available to build the defenses along Galveston Island and the Houston area. While he was doing that, he contracted what I believe is malaria based on the descriptions in the letters. And so about a month before the war ended, he was back home and very ill. The Union troops arrived in Galveston and issued a general order number three on June 19, 1865, declaring the slaves in Texas free. And that was the last state to have such a formal declaration and we celebrate that as Juneteenth. When my great-great-grandfather found out, he called all of his former slaves together under a big oak tree. And he was carried out on a stretcher and he told them all - and I - this is passed down through family lore - that you are as free as me. You're welcome to stay, you may go. If you stay, I'll pay you wages. And that was it. He was carried back into his house and he was dead a month later.
GROSS: Chris Tomlinson will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Tomlinson Hill." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Chris Tomlinson. His new book tells two intertwining stories - one about his ancestors who owned slaves, the other about the descendants of those slaves, one of whom we'll meet a little later. Chris Tomlinson's book, "Tomlinson Hill," takes its title from the name of the Texas plantation owned by his great-great-grandfather James K. Tomlinson. He freed his slaves in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced in Texas. Now because he didn't have the money to actually buy the land the plantation was on - the slaves were his collateral - so when he lost his slaves he was functionally broke, right?
C. TOMLINSON: He was $21,000 in debt when the slaves were released. And that would be roughly equivalent to almost a $1 million in debt today. He lost everything. And then he lost his life and that left his wife, my great-great grandmother at the age of 42 as the - as the head of the plantation. And they declared bankruptcy. And they spent the next six years working the plantation, growing cotton, raising sheep for wool and raising corn and working their way out of that debt. But it certainly took Sarah (ph) Tomlinson from being high society, one of the wealthiest women in Falls County, to being an object of pity.
GROSS: But the family managed to build up their money by using sharecroppers and paying them probably very, very little.
C. TOMLINSON: If they paid the sharecroppers at all. A sharecropper is what today we'd call an independent contractor. They go into the field and they agree to pick a certain number of acres in return for a share of the crop when the crop is sold. So typically the sharecropper would grow cotton on 40 acres and then they would get the last third of the crop once it came in. So the landowner, my ancestors, would take two-thirds of the cotton crop and the best two-thirds, frankly, sell that and keep the money. And then the sharecropper would get the last third of the crop in payment and then the landowner would subtract whatever advance he gave the sharecroppers in the beginning. But that was the real scandal is that the landowners insisted on keeping all the books. So they kept track of the seed, of the food, of the clothing. They kept all of the accounts for what they invested in the sharecroppers. And then once the crop was sold, the landowner would tally up everything that the sharecropper owed and how much money was brought in from the cotton. And more often than not it was a wash. The sharecropper was either - got nothing or was in debt and therefore obligated to work the next season.
GROSS: So when your great-great-grandfather told his now former slaves that they were as free as he was - that wasn't true at all.
C. TOMLINSON: It wasn't even close. The - my great-great-grandfather's compatriots, the men he served with in the Confederate Army, immediately set about creating a new system that would make sure that blacks did not have political power, that they did not have the chance to vote, that they didn't learn how to keep their own books. I really - even - even 140 years later, Charles told me that his father - Charles Tomlinson - told me that his father told him you have to learn math to make sure that the white man doesn't rip you off. And - because that was the case. And while we had the Freedmen's Bureau and - who were generally these - I think of them as America's first civil rights workers - trying to make sure that the blacks in Texans were treated fairly - that ended by 1874. And the white Confederates were back in power and they made sure that - that you weren't free to go anywhere and that you were going to provide hard physical labor for the rest your life.
GROSS: Do you know how or why the slaves who were freed from your family's plantation decided to keep the name Tomlinson? Those who did decide to keep the name.
C. TOMLINSON: I don't have any account of why Milo, George and Phyllis chose to take Tomlinson as their name. I know that George - who was the older man - and he had been born in Africa in 1820 - and his son Milo lived physically closest to the white Tomlinson house. I know that Phyllis also worked inside the house as domestic help. So I think that may be part of my grandfather's justification for why they took the last name. On the other hand, I also know that a lot of the slaveholders insisted that their former slaves take their names and it became a way of social control within Falls County - that if you - if you had the last name of your former slaveholder, then you have an obligation to them. You're expected to be on their land, you're expected to work for them. There is one story of a young man who was 15 years old at emancipation and the story through the Travis family goes that he was on the back of a wagon going into Marlin to register as a citizen. And he didn't want to take the Thomason name because he felt the Tomlinson's were abusive and horrible and he wanted nothing to do with them anymore. And he saw a street sign that said Travis on it and he memorized the letters. And that's how he became to be known as a Travis, as kind of - a rejection of the Tomlinson name.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Chris Tomlinson. His new book is called "Tomlinson Hill." We'll talk more after break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is journalist Chris Tomlinson author of the new book "Tomlinson Hill" about his slave owning ancestors in Texas and the descendents of the slaves. We'll meet one of those descendents in a few minutes.
You write that you think some of your family members joined the Ku Klux Klan. What makes you suspect that?
C. TOMLINSON: When the clan had its reemergence in the late 1910s and early 1920s it took on a very political bent. Its goal was basically to take over the Democratic Party in the South. Now, clan membership was secret and the rules were that the minute someone asked you whether or not you are a member of the clan you were immediately suspended so that you could say no. However, in Falls County there was - it was a pretty open secret who was a Klansman and who wasn't. And in the newspaper when they reported about the Democratic primary result the newspaper publisher made a point of saying who was not clan while not saying who definitely was. And my great-grandfather was one of the men who was not named as someone who was against the clan and I think that was code. I think it would also be consistent because one of the clan leaders was a cousin. My grandfather graduated from Texas A&M and arrived in Dallas in 1922 as a young engineer and he was involved with the Masons which many people who - and I'm not trying to equate the two - but there were a lot of people who were Masons who were also Klansmen. And he immediately became friends with some of the most powerful people in Dallas - the police chief, the police commissioner, he got a job at one of the most prestigious construction firms. And the people who ran those firms and those politicians and those leaders that he knew were all Klansmen. So while none of this is absolute proof if they weren't Klansmen they were certainly sympathizers and fellow travelers.
GROSS: So this is your grandfather, this is your father's father that you're talking about?
C. TOMLINSON: Yes.
GROSS: So your father grew up in an environment where racism was just a fact in a family.
C. TOMLINSON: It was rampant I mean my father, who I interviewed over probably almost 20 hours, was very matter-of-fact about my grandfather's racism. When I was growing up he used racial slurs casually and often.
GROSS: Who, your grandfather or your father
C. TOMLINSON: My grandfather did, my grandfather did. My father rejected this when he was a teenager. And so my father raised me to not think that way and to be open-minded and, actually, if there is one thing that he would severely punish me for is if I ever did use a racial slur. But my grandfather - it was commonplace I heard it all the time.
GROSS: And when you were growing up your father owned a bowling-supply store.
C. TOMLINSON: Yes he did.
GROSS: So it's not like he was a very wealthy landowner.
C. TOMLINSON: No, No actually my father dropped out of college. And my grandfather started the blowing-supply business to give my father some way to make money and life. It was not successful and shortly after my grandfather died the company went bankrupt and so I did not grow up with the privilege that my father did or that my grandfather did. My father kind of rejected this upper-class Dallas high society. He rejected his father's insistence that he go to Texas A&M. My father rebelled in many ways.
GROSS: So one of the people descended from slaves owned by your ancestors is here with us. He's one of the people who you spoke to as research for your book. And Chris, I'm going to ask you to introduce Lavar Tomlinson for us.
C. TOMLINSON: Yes. Lavar Tomlinson is a sixth generation Tomlinson and a direct descendent of George Thomason who was a slave held on Tomlinson Hill. I met him through his mother and he was kind enough to share his stories with me.
GROSS: Lavar, what was your reaction when Chris contacted you wanting to know about your life and about what you knew about your connection to your slave ancestors? Well, first of all let me say six generations I did not know that - thank you, Chris. That's pretty cool to be a sixth generation Texan. But when he first came - first off he came to my mother and he talked my mother first. They were doing some work back home in Falls County. And he talked to my mom first and then he went to my sister and they told me that they wanted to speak to me about it and of course it was a no. I didn't know who this man was for one thing, and for two, speaking on something so personal, you know, slavery is a tragedy it's a blemish in America's history and that's something that not even my own father wanted to talk about to his children. So of course it was an uncomfortable situation wanting to speak to if I may say a white man about his ancestors owning my ancestors.
GROSS: But you decided to do it anyways?
LAVAR TOMLINSON: Yeah, 'cause once we - my mom and my sister had a chance to talk to him of course they came to me and they was telling me how cool he was a wasn't anything bad. He was actually trying to make people aware of what the history of America was so once I finally sat down and talk to it became really easy to speak to Chris 'cause once you meet him, you realize that there isn't a piece of his ancestors off in him. I mean, of course, he wouldn't be who he is without his great-great-grandfather or even his grandfather but he has none of those traits. None of those evil, hateful traits. So it made it really easy.
GROSS: So you said that your father basically refused to talk about slavery. He just didn't want to, you know, talk about it. So how much did you know before this book about your slave ancestors? And how much did you want to know? Like did you want to know more?
L. TOMLINSON: Well, to answer the first part of the question - I knew zero about my personal ancestral history until this book. But we learned, you know, slavery in school, you know, in elementary school we learned about it in middle school but it wasn't a lot to really care about, you know, that was a horrible time and one thing I didn't want to think about or find out is that one of my ancestors was hanging from a tree somewhere or, you know, tried to run and got his feet chopped off or, you know, some crazy sadistic thing.
GROSS: So your father grew up on Tomlinson Hill -what was the neighborhood like, what was the community like?- yeah, go ahead.
L. TOMLINSON: Very country. Dirt roads, barn yards, cows, chickens you name it.
C. TOMLINSON: You had a pet pig.
L. TOMLINSON: (Laughing) We had a pet pig, yes we did. That ended up being bacon the next day I believe. It was very country. You know a very laid-back very do-it-yourself
GROSS: So you grew up on the hill?
L. TOMLINSON: I didn't grow up there I was born there, stayed there first three years of my life and then we moved away to Waco Texas. But my father always stayed there so we were always back-and-forth visiting staying there weeks at a time months of at a time.
GROSS: And how close was at the site of the plantation and what was left of the plantation when you were growing up?
L. TOMLINSON: I think about what - a quarter-mile?
C. TOMLINSON: Its 100 yards.
L. TOMLINSON: 100 yards.
C. TOMLINSON: Yeah, I mean, the land where Lavar's father lived is the same land where the slaves quarters were it's the same plot of land.
GROSS: So did your father pick cotton or anything related to the former plantation? And was there still cotton and being grown there?
L. TOMLINSON: From what I know, he did for a little while. My father was born in the 1930s, you know, so that type of work was still very popular back then. Even my mom my mom was born in 1950 even she picked little cotton growing up. That was just part of southern Texas culture back then.
GROSS: So you really had kind of out of self-protection not learned about his slave ancestors until Chris Tomlinson started writing this book.
L. TOMLINSON: Right.
GROSS: Now that you shared some of the history with Chris you've learned a lot about his ancestors you've learned more about your ancestors is that helpful in any way?
L. TOMLINSON: Well, I think it's always helpful to know where you come from. It's always good to learn about that and even to read the book and see that those tragedies that happened to a lot of African-American families back then didn't necessarily happen to my family. I mean we went through slavery just like every other black family in America and we had hard times just the same but to learn that my grandfather and his father were Freemasons and they were pillars in the black community and that whenever there were problems within the black community, they would come to my grandfather my great-grandfather and my great-grandfather they would solve the issues they would speak to the whites and solve the issues. So that was great to learn about that type of stuff.
GROSS: My guests are Chris Tomlinson whose book "Tomlinson Hill" is about his slaveholding ancestors and the slaves they owned. Also with us is Lavar Tomlinson who is the descendent of one of those slaves. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, I have two guests. Chris Tomlinson is the author of "Tomlinson Hill" about his slave-holding ancestors and the slaves they owned. Lavar Tomlinson is the descendent of one of those slaves. He handles public relations for the Tomlinson's Touching Lives Foundation, which was founded by his brother, the former NFL running back, LaDainian Tomlinson. When we left off, Lavar was talking about his family.
Your father didn't want to talk with you about slavery. And you're fine with that 'cause you didn't want to be exposed to horrors from the past. Now that you know more about your ancestors and about the people who owned your ancestors, I don't know if you have children or not but if you do are you going to share this information with them? Do you want them to know - if you have them?
L. TOMLINSON: Yes, I have children. I have four daughters, and I would like every last one of them to know and understand where we come from. I think it's very important for, like I said, any person to know where they come from because that's what makes you who you are, that's what makes your family either the great family that they are, you know, or the not so great family that they are. It depends on how you look at it. But I need every last one of my children to know their history, their family history. I need them to know who their grandfather was, who their great-grandfather was and what they stood for and what they died for.
C. TOMLINSON: If I may, Terry, one of the things that really surprised me is how much pride OT, Lavar's father, and Lavar and LaDainian and how much they really - and Lavar's sister Londria, how much they loved that hill. I mean, there's so much affection for that and a strong sense of place and I was just asked Lavar, you know, why do you think that your family feels so attached to a place where so many horrible things happened?
L. TOMLINSON: You know, that's a question that I really can't answer. It's just - it's an us. You know, that's where we originated from. That's our roots. Like you said, the hill is great man. I was out there Fourth of July weekend and I went back home and took a look at everything and man I just wanted to stay. You know, I was like, I don't want to go back to the city I just want to stay here in the country with all the trees and the weeds and everything that's not supposed to be out there. You know, the snakes and boogey people. But it was great going home and it's just something that's off in us. It always feels good there. You know, it always feels good there.
GROSS: So, Chris, at the end of your book, you write about how the research you did for this book and learning about your ancestors who were slave holders - that all this made you question your own success.
C. TOMLINSON: There's no way I can be sure that I ever earned everything that I have, on a level playing field because of the history. When my great-grandfather went to Texas A&M, he didn't have to compete with black people. When my grandfather was getting a job in Dallas, it was his white skin and family connections that gave him a leg up. Even as a child growing up, I went to a number of different schools because of busing, and I could pass anywhere without hindrance because of my white skin and my blue eyes and my ability to not stand out in a predominantly white society.
You know, I said, I don't come from a wealthy family, I joined the Army when I was 17, and I'd like to believe that I worked hard for what I have but I also have to acknowledge that I had a head start because of the way I look.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us. Thank you, Chris Tomlinson and Lavar Tomlinson.
L. TOMLINSON: Thank you.
C. TOMLINSON: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Chris Tomlinson is the author of the new book "Tomlinson Hill" about his slave-owning ancestors and the descendants of the slaves they owned. Lavar Tomlinson is one of those descendants. He handles public relations for the Tomlinson's Touching Lives Foundation, which was founded by his brother, former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson. You can read an excerpt of "Tomlinson Hill" on our website, freshair.npr.org Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.