Time was when they were scattered throughout the post–Civil War South, tiny enclaves far removed from the urban byways, little more than dot-on-the-map reminders of a historical transformation that was often overlooked by a nation busily congratulating itself for having set free its slave laborers. These small all-black settlements, hidden down back roads, were the gateway to freedom.
Pelham, Texas, just over an hour’s drive south of glitzy and ever-growing Dallas, was one of those communities that sprang to life back in 1866 after landowners allotted each of their former slaves 200 acres of rich cotton and grain farmland on which to begin new lives. And with that land, they built a community. In time, there were a couple of churches, a general store, a grocery, a cotton gin and a café. As the population steadily grew to an estimated 325 residents, they recognized the need for education, prompting the hiring of teachers and the building of a small two-story frame structure that housed the elementary students downstairs and the older students upstairs.
By the early 1900s, Pelham was thriving. Crops were bountiful, new businesses opened, and there was regular mail delivery and telephone service. Residents worked hard and played hard. The Pelham High Panthers basketball team soon gained a reputation that spread far beyond the flatlands of the little town that it represented. In the summers, the local baseball team played in its own ballpark and produced such standouts as shortstop Elmer McMullen, who later was a semipro star in California in the days before the major leagues welcomed black athletes into the fold.
And unlike so many of the nation’s all-black communities that faded to memory in the 1960s once a more enlightened nation adhered to the concept of integration in its schools, workplaces and businesses, Pelham remains. Today it is one of the nation’s last entirely African-American communities. Not because of lingering anger over past social injustices or any aversion to mingling with other races, but because for the 35 to 40 who still call it home, it remains their heartland.
Alfred Martin, now 88 and the town’s self-appointed historian, understands better than most. The grandson of a slave who could neither read nor write, he was born in Pelham and, after a long absence during which he sought higher education in a San Antonio junior college and briefly at the University of Minnesota (and served as a member of the flight line crew for the legendary Tuskegee Airmen in Alabama during World War II), it has been his home since moving back in 1969.
And he has been an eyewitness to its changing.
Pelham today is far different from that of his childhood, little more than a faint reminder of times past. The thriving businesses are gone. Across Farm Road 744, the Pelham School is now a museum, filled with photographs, genealogy archives and artifacts of a time gone by. The sound of children laughing fell silent long ago.
When asked for the mean age of those who still reside in Pelham, Martin smiles as he pictures his neighbors, a finger pointing in the direction of each house that remains. “Let’s see,” he says, “82 … 93 … 85 … 80 … .” Only the elderly, now past days of tending fields and watching the town grow, remain.
He was, he says, the last in the community to retire after having farmed as many as 2,500 acres. Today, his sprawling fields and those owned by friends are leased out to a new generation of farmers, who reside in the nearby towns of Corsicana and Hubbard. There is a degree of irony and a sign of social progress attached to the fact that those who now till the soil and harvest the crops are white.
There is, in truth, no longer need for the isolation of a Pelham, no cause to shrink from the outside world that has become a rich melting pot of races. “It’s a different world altogether for black people,” Martin quickly volunteers. “Now, there’s opportunity everywhere one looks.”
And that, he says, pleases him greatly. Still, one must have a comforting place to call home. For Alfred Martin and the declining number of his neighbors, Pelham, Texas, established 146 years ago, still serves that need. And it will likely continue to do so until everyone is gone and it, too, quietly vanishes into a historical footnote.