Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families Who Share the Tomlinson Name - One White, One Black

Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families Who Share the Tomlinson Name - One White, One Black

by Chris Tomlinson

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now


A New York Times Best Seller!

Tomlinson Hill is the stunning story of two families—one white, one black—who trace their roots to a slave plantation that bears their name.

Internationally recognized for his work as a fearless war correspondent, award-winning journalist Chris Tomlinson grew up hearing stories about his family's abandoned cotton plantation in Falls County, Texas. Most of the tales lionized his white ancestors for pioneering along the Brazos River. His grandfather often said the family's slaves loved them so much that they also took Tomlinson as their last name.

LaDainian Tomlinson, football great and former running back for the San Diego Chargers, spent part of his childhood playing on the same land that his black ancestors had worked as slaves. As a child, LaDainian believed the Hill was named after his family. Not until he was old enough to read an historical plaque did he realize that the Hill was named for his ancestor's slaveholders.

A masterpiece of authentic American history, Tomlinson Hill traces the true and very revealing story of these two families. From the beginning in 1854— when the first Tomlinson, a white woman, arrived—to 2007, when the last Tomlinson, LaDainian's father, left, the book unflinchingly explores the history of race and bigotry in Texas. Along the way it also manages to disclose a great many untruths that are latent in the unsettling and complex story of America.

Tomlinson Hill is also the basis for a film and an interactive web project. The award-winning film, which airs on PBS, concentrates on present-day Marlin, Texas and how the community struggles with poverty and the legacy of race today, and is accompanied by an interactive web site called Voice of Marlin, which stores the oral histories collected along the way.

Chris Tomlinson has used the reporting skills he honed as a highly respected reporter covering ethnic violence in Africa and the Middle East to fashion a perfect microcosm of America's own ethnic strife. The economic inequality, political shenanigans, cruelty and racism—both subtle and overt—that informs the history of Tomlinson Hill also live on in many ways to this very day in our country as a whole. The author has used his impressive credentials and honest humanity to create a classic work of American history that will take its place alongside the timeless work of our finest historians

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466850507
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/22/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 1,055,045
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

CHRIS TOMLINSON grew up in Dallas and became a reporter in 1994 covering the end of Apartheid in South Africa. He has reported from 50 countries and nine war zones, including Rwanda, Somalia, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. He now lives in Austin with his wife Shalini Ramanathan and writes for The Houston Chronicle.

CHRIS TOMLINSON grew up in Dallas and became a reporter in 1994 covering the end of Apartheid in South Africa. He has reported from 50 countries and nine war zones, including Rwanda, Somalia, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. He now lives in Austin with his wife Shalini Ramanathan and writes for The Houston Chronicle.

Read an Excerpt




They loved us so much, they took Tomlinson as their last name.

—Tommy Tomlinson

When I was a child, my father told me about Tomlinson Hill. He said it was not much of a hill; just a plot of flat land along the Brazos River. But it was the place our family came from, the origin of our Texaness. My great-grandfather bought the Hill in 1856, grew cotton, and owned slaves. Yet my father never took me there. I was told it was just a boring open field, with a picnic pavilion for Memorial Day barbecues and family reunions. My parents never went to those reunions, but other Tomlinsons did.

When I spent the night at my grandparents’ house on Twin Tree Lane in Dallas, I slept in my father’s childhood bed. Stacked on a bookshelf in his room sat some old leather-bound scrapbooks. The articles, on amber-colored newsprint, were written in English and German. Most of them were about my grandmother’s family, the Fretzes, but I wanted to know what it meant to be a Tomlinson. I already knew my middle name, Lee, was my father’s middle name, my grandfather’s middle name, and my great-grandfather’s middle name. I found a folded-up obituary for a Robert Edward Lee Tomlinson in the back of one scrapbook. He was born on Tomlinson Hill in 1861.

The old family photos and newspaper articles talked about Texas Rangers, cowboys, and proud southerners. My father had told me I was a fifth-generation Texan, something few white people could claim. There was also talk about a Tomlinson who died defending the Alamo. The clippings suggested an epic family history, and I created elaborate fantasies about my ancestors and their exploits.

The reality of my home life prompted much of this. My father, Bob Tomlinson, co-owned a bowling-supply shop with his father. We didn’t have much money, and Dad spent his evenings and weekends in bowling alleys. When he was home, my parents fought, usually about money and often about my father’s lack of ambition. He was overweight, wore his hair long, and had a 1970s mustache. He wore garish shirts and high-heeled boots and listened to jazz on Sunday mornings in his bathrobe. He believed in corporal punishment, usually administered with a belt.

My paternal grandfather, Albert “Tommy” Tomlinson, was a taciturn man, and he and my father fought a lot, too. My memories of him are few, but I know he wore a small gray Stetson, which made him look like President Lyndon B. Johnson. My grandmother Mary cautioned me not to make a lot of noise or bother him while I was at their house, as he was easily angered. I spent most of my time in the kitchen with her and their African-American housekeeper, Faye.

So I was excited to find the scrapbooks. The obituaries and anniversary notices mentioned Tomlinson Hill but provided no details. When I asked about it, relatives provided me with only one fact about the old slave plantation: When emancipation came, the former slaves had taken our name as their own. There were black Tomlinsons, too.

To a white boy growing up in the midst of civil rights turmoil in Dallas, this was a staggering revelation. In the early 1970s, it was perhaps the most important topic in Dallas, where the school board was dragging its feet on desegregation and everyone worried about the consequences. Parents and activists, teachers and politicians, liberals and conservatives were all fighting over how to deal with generations of bigotry and discrimination. We watched race riots sparked by busing in Boston on the nightly news, and I wondered if that would happen at my school.

Before he died, on New Year’s Eve in 1973, my grandfather tried to make me proud of being a Texan. My father tried to keep me from becoming a racist. And bringing both points home in my young imagination was the knowledge that somewhere in rural Texas there were black Tomlinsons who shared our heritage.

My ancestors had owned their ancestors.

I tried to imagine the black Tomlinsons. Could their family have moved to Dallas, too? Were they still in the country? What an irony that would be. I had always imagined blacks to be urban and the countryside to be white. To me, rural Texas was the backwoods, a place where the sun didn’t reach the forest floor, where rednecks still grew cotton, hunted deer, gigged frogs, and fried catfish. It was the place where the Ku Klux Klan roamed the red clay roads and burned crosses at night. The country was where the bogeyman lived.


Thirty years later, I was standing on a mountain ridge near Tora Bora, covering Osama bin Laden’s last stand in Afghanistan. Fighter jets screamed through the bitterly cold winter sky, dropping laser-guided bombs on the caves where al-Qaeda had fled following the September eleventh terrorist attacks. At night, I slept in a mud hut a farmer had been using to dry peanuts. His compound was the closest shelter to the front line. The Associated Press team and a handful of other writers and photographers huddled around propane heaters to escape the mountain cold. We could hear the relentless explosions of two-thousand-pound bombs in the next valley over, but occasionally one would go astray and fall close enough to shake the walls of our shack.

We spent our days with the mujahideen at the front lines as they fought their way to reach Osama’s redoubt. At night, we sipped tea with Pashtu warlords, transmitted our stories and photographs by satellite phone, and planned for the next day.

At the same time, on the other side of the planet, a young African-American athlete worked hard to prove himself in his rookie year in the National Football League. LaDainian Tomlinson had led the NCAA in rushing his senior year at Texas Christian University, carrying the ball for 2,158 yards and scoring twenty-two touchdowns. The San Diego Chargers recognized his talent and picked him in the first round of the 2001 draft. LaDainian was one of the best running backs in the NFL, but the Chargers were one of the worst teams. He planned to change that.

On December 15, 2001, I was sitting in the sun with Afghan warlords while they used a walkie-talkie to negotiate the surrender of al-Qaeda fighters, who were decimated and demoralized by American air power. LaDainian was in Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, being pummeled by the Oakland Raiders in a game that would end with a 6-13 loss for the Chargers.

We had never met, but we shared a common legacy. We both traced our heritage to Tomlinson Hill. And we both had traveled far from Texas to create better lives for ourselves. I was the city boy who became a foreign correspondent; he was the country boy who became a millionaire football player.

My father first told me about LaDainian in 1999 and guessed he must be a descendant of Tomlinson Hill slaves. He was right. LaDainian had spent summers with his grandparents playing in the fields where his great-grandfather had been a slave and picked cotton.


By 2007, I was growing weary after eleven years covering war and destruction in Africa and the Middle East. I had spent most of 2006 traveling to Somalia, getting to know the clan leaders and covering the war there, and I had lost my stomach for it. I wasn’t frightened for my life, nor was I feeling any foreboding. I had just stopped enjoying my work. I didn’t want to be surrounded by teenagers with assault rifles anymore; I didn’t want to see any more starving babies. Somalia had already been destroyed by civil war and fourteen years of anarchy. I had just witnessed another wave of violence, and I knew there was another one coming. For the first time, I felt despair.

And then Anthony died.

When I became the East Africa bureau chief, I knew one of my staff would likely die on assignment. The two bureau chiefs before me had both lost someone. But I had worked hard to train everyone to stay alive in the four war zones we covered from Nairobi. I lectured endlessly on tactics and procedures. I had felt especially responsible for Anthony Mitchell. He had been expelled from Ethiopia because of his reporting, and as a result, his wife had lost her job, their main source of income. I couldn’t do much to help him in terms of money, but I tried to give him special assignments that he enjoyed, hoping to make up for his low pay and long hours. Coming home from one of those assignments, his plane crashed nose-first into a jungle in Cameroon, leaving his two small children without a father. Telling Catherine that her husband’s plane was lost and that Anthony was likely dead tripped a circuit breaker in my heart. I’d had enough death. So a few months later, when my wife, Shalini, told me she had an interview scheduled for an exciting job in Texas, I knew fate was telling me it was time to go home.

The return to Texas was fraught with emotional land mines. Since I had left home at seventeen, I’d rarely spoken to any of my relatives. When I left for South Africa in 1993, my maternal grandmother was sure that even if I managed to escape the tribal violence, a wild animal would maul me. To people without passports and little knowledge of the world, my decision to go to Africa was unfathomable. No one ever directly asked me why I wanted to go, but neither did I offer any explanation except to say I wanted adventure. Meeting Nelson Mandela or marching through eastern Congo with Laurent Kabila’s rebel army did not impress them. They would occasionally ask me if I was making enough money, but that was about all.

After years of avoiding what Shalini called my “southern gothic” family, we moved to Austin, just a few hours’ drive away from my father. I was at a stage where I was ready to tackle whatever skeletons would leap out of the Tomlinson closet. I had made friends with Somali warlords, negotiated with drunken child soldiers, and faced down a mob of angry Rwandan refugees. How bad could my family really be? Besides, I was also going to live in my favorite city with my closest friends, whom I loved deeply.

Once we settled in Austin, I kept working for the AP on a part-time basis, making trips from Austin to Iraq and Africa on special assignments. But in between my overseas trips, I was remembering what it means to be a Texan. I saw my best friend from high school several times a week. Shalini and I would take walks on the University of Texas campus, where we had met. But I was also excited to learn the truth about my family and its legacy. I planned to go to Tomlinson Hill for the first time, and I wanted to find the black Tomlinsons.


I decided the first step was to find those old scrapbooks. I hoped my father, Bob, would still have them and tell me more about our family. The only problem was our strained relationship. We rarely called each other on the phone. I thought maybe this would be a chance to bridge the gap.

Bob had the scrapbooks tucked away in a rented storage locker, along with his favorite bowling balls. Most of his life had been spent in bowling alleys, in one capacity or another. In the early 1980s, he started collecting cameras, and that became a part-time business. Now retired, he supplemented his Social Security check by trolling garage sales, buying old cameras for pennies and then selling them for dollars on eBay.

I drove to his home in McKinney, north of Dallas, and parked in front of the small brick house he shared with his third wife. I knocked on the hollow steel door, causing a startling amount of noise. I heard a muffled voice inside shout “Come in.” When I walked inside, Dad was at a table, which was covered with haphazardly stacked cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, plastic bags, a few screwdrivers, and four old cameras. Despite a recent bout of colon cancer that took forty pounds off his frame, he was obese again and his breathing was labored. He complained about allergies, and I could see why. The house had not been properly cleaned in years. The royal blue carpet was blotted with large stains that turned it black in places. Pet food was strewn around the house and a cat was perched on a side table next to a water bowl. A deaf and blind seventeen-year-old dog of indeterminable breed sniffed around the clutter. Allergic to animal hair since childhood, I had taken two antihistamine tablets in the car, but the smell of animals and mildew made me wonder if the pills would do any good.

On the right-hand corner of the dining table, Dad had cleared a spot, and a scrapbook was open before him. He had pulled out some loose newspaper clippings and set them aside. “I’ve been going through this stuff to see what you might need,” he said, with no acknowledgment that we hadn’t seen each other in four years. He was being the smooth bowling ball salesman of my youth, living up to my friends’ nickname for him: “Smilin’ Bob.”

The scrapbook had a red leather cover, but the binding had disintegrated long ago. Someone had glued the closely trimmed newspaper articles to the pages in a way that made use of every square inch. Most of the stories were from the early 1900s. The majority of the clips were in English, but there were also a good number of German clippings. I had learned German in school and in the army, but when my father asked me to read some of the articles, I discovered they were from a local Dallas newspaper that published its articles in an archaic form of Swiss German. I could understand some of what was written, but most parts left me flummoxed.

“This scrapbook was kept by my grandmother on the Fretz side,” Dad explained. “I’m not sure who began it, but maybe my great-grandmother, judging by the age of the clippings.”

The vast majority of the stories were about the Fretz family and the Swiss German community in Dallas. Emil A. Fretz, my great-grandfather, had founded the Dallas Parks Board. On the day the Marsalis Dallas Zoo opened, a photo of Emil’s daughter Mary—my grandmother—was on the front page of the Dallas Morning News. She was cuddling a baby cheetah.

“The smartest thing your grandfather ever did was marry your grandmother, because the Fretzes were a wealthy family,” Dad said. “She is largely the reason he was able to retire at fifty.”

After my grandparents married in 1926, the scrapbook’s breadth expanded to include the Tomlinsons. The entries were mostly obituaries or family announcements clipped from the Dallas Morning News and other newspapers. Unlike most of the Fretz articles, the Tomlinson clippings were not glued in; someone had dropped them inside the back cover.

These carefully folded pieces of newsprint, some held together with straight pins, had once provided the earliest knowledge of my family history. They had launched my curiosity and imagination. But now that I saw these clippings, they were far fewer and shorter than I remembered. There were just eleven articles, eight of them obituaries. One was my grandparent’s wedding announcement, another a story about a fiftieth wedding anniversary, and the last was a story about a bridge collapse that had killed a cousin of my great-grandfather Robert Edward Lee Tomlinson.

I also discovered the fallibility of an eight-year-old’s memory. I had conflated my great-grandfather’s life with that of his brother Eldridge Alexander Tomlinson. Eldridge had been the Texas Ranger and cowboy, while R.E.L. had been a farmer, a real estate agent, and a school-teacher.

Trained in the art of teaching, R. E. L. Tomlinson took his place as chief pedagogue at Busby School where the Blue Back Speller and Friday afternoon Spelling Matches were the vogue. Mr. Tomlinson taught the principles of the Bible as well as fundamentals of good citizenship.1

This same story revealed other forgotten details about Tomlinson Hill.

The double wedding of R. E. L. Tomlinson and Frank M. Stallworth to the popular Bettie and Billah Etheridge twins December 23, 1891 was the social event of the season. Old Beulah Church was packed with folks from all over the county to witness the nuptial ceremony performed by the popular Baptist preacher Rev. J. R. M. N. Touchstone.… Following the wedding an old fashioned In-Fare and recreation was enjoyed by the guests. Tables groaned under the weight of fried and baked chicken and all the trimmings. The festivities even followed the two couples to Marlin, where they made their home.

As a child, I had grasped for evidence of Texan aristocracy. Reading R.E.L.’s obituary as a child had given me pride in my southern heritage, but now the same words made me cringe. In an obituary entitled “Beloved Pioneer and Leader Expires Tuesday,” the language was too easy to decipher:

He was born at Tomlinson Hill Jan. 25, 1862 son of James K. Tomlinson and Sarah Jemima Stallworth Tomlinson, at a time when the star of the Confederate States of America shone in its greatest brilliance. Of a great family of Southerners, with typical devotion to the cause and its leader the young son born during the war, was named after the famous Confederate commander-in-chief.2

Recognizing these southern dog whistles as an adult, I knew that my eight-year-old self would likely be disappointed by what I might find as I researched my family. But the investigative reporter in me was even more intrigued.

The obituaries told me that R.E.L.’s father-in-law, W. G. Etheridge, was a well-educated Unionist who had spoken out against slavery and opposed Texas secession. When the Civil War began, Etheridge fled to the North, but afterward he returned to Falls County and served as sheriff from 1875 to 1876 and was elected to the state legislature in 1882.3 I wondered what Etheridge would have thought about the fact his daughter was marrying into a slaveholding family that supported the Confederacy. I wondered which legacy would have a stronger influence on my family.

Growing up in Texas, I had known many racists, and I understood something of their netherworld. While visiting my mother’s parents in another part of East Texas, I had heard Baptist preachers claim that black skin was the “mark of Cain.” God’s curse, they argued, justified segregation. I listened to the county constable and my maternal grandfather talk about those “damned niggers” who lived across the river in Coffee City. I always knew when white men were talking about black men, because it was the only time they referred to an adult as a “boy.” Unless they were talking about a “good ol’ boy,” which meant the man was white and “dependable.” A “boy” could never be forgiven, while a “good ol’ boy” could do no wrong.

I remember going to a pool party when I was thirteen and seeing how the wealthy white family that owned the home became annoyed because the school required the parents to invite their daughter’s African-American classmates. My classmate complained that her parents would have to drain the pool afterward because of the “oils” they imagined the African-American kids would leave behind.

None of these white people would have dared reveal his or her true feelings in “mixed company.” Most would sincerely have denied they were racist. Instead, they would have argued they were realistic. I knew their attitudes were wrong, but I never spoke up. I either felt outnumbered or thought that my protests wouldn’t make a difference. I came to accept this was how most of my white friends behaved.

R.E.L. had died when Bob was only two, so he had no memory of his grandfather, nor did he know anything about James, his great-grandfather. The only thing he possessed that was linked to James was a small buckskin wallet with white stitching. The wallet was trifold, with a leather strap used to hold it closed. There were a few handwritten markings on the outside, but they were too faded to make out. But when I opened it, there was another flap over a change purse with three pockets. Using a fountain pen, someone had written in cursive script across the inside cover, “This book is an old heirloom.” Across the closure for the change purse, in the same handwriting, was written “R. E. L. Tomlinson.” Below that, on the purse itself, someone had written “R. E. L. Tomlinson Marlin, Tex. July 15, 1883.” Under the flap of the change purse, the same person had written, “J. K. Tomlinson 1850 Ala.” There were a few coins inside, including a nineteenth-century German ten pfennig piece and a buffalo nickel. We guessed that the wallet must have belonged to James K. Tomlinson, who moved to Texas from Alabama. R.E.L. was only four when his father died in 1865, so it appears that when R.E.L. turned twenty-one, his brothers gave him the wallet as a memento of the father he’d never known. R. E. L. had decided to make sure everyone knew the wallet’s provenance.

Dad said his father, Tommy, born in 1901, rarely talked about the family’s history. “He had the stock line that we treated our slaves so good that they kept the Tomlinson name after they were freed,” he told me. “But that might not be the reason they kept the name.”

My father then produced R.E.L.’s teaching certificates from the Sam Houston Normal Institute in Huntsville. The first was dated June 10, 1886, and the second was from May 31, 1888. This was how he had become the chief pedagogue. But R.E.L. had started out at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas in 1881, where he received a military education.

My father said Tommy talked about R.E.L. only in fragments. “R. E. L. Tomlinson had done some farming, and from what my Dad said, there were one too many floods on the Brazos,” Bob recalled. “The second or third time it happened, that finished him off.” “He was pretty prominent, but how prominent do you have to be in a town of five thousand?” Bob said. “Although Marlin was a pretty rockin’ town back then.”

In the early twentieth century, Marlin was known for its hot springs, and it is still called “the Official Mineral Water City of Texas.” Visitors came from across the state to “take the waters,” and it was a popular resort destination. Bob said his memories of visiting Marlin, all before he turned ten, were few but vivid. He said his grandmother lived in a wood-framed house with a big porch near the center of town.

“I do remember walking from their house down to the square, and there was a fire station down there. They still had an old horse-drawn fire truck,” Dad said. “They weren’t using it, but it was still there.”

Bob said that reflection was not in Tommy’s temperament, nor was Marlin dear to his heart. “He graduated from A&M in 1923 and never looked back. He moved straight to Dallas,” Dad explained. “He didn’t worry about the past; he was a builder. He wanted to put new stuff up. It if meant tearing down the [family’s] Liberty Street house to put in a parking lot to serve a building he had built for another company next door, no problem.”

Unlike his father, Bob holds on to history like a precious gem, in particular Dallas’s history. He knows the stories of the city’s inner neighborhoods and he laments the loss of landmarks from his childhood. He talks about the old Dr Pepper headquarters on Mockingbird Lane and how angry he was when the historic clock tower was accidentally destroyed during the construction of new condominiums. He told me stories about the Fretz family going back three generations, but he claimed to know little about Tomlinson history, and, frankly, he didn’t seem to have much interest in it. He said he had tried to go to Tomlinson Hill only once, but he got lost on the back roads and couldn’t find anyone who knew where it was. Whenever he spoke about his father, he would take a quick gasp of breath and then his voice would harden.

“He wanted to retire at fifty so he could drive himself bonkers losing at gin rummy and getting drunk every afternoon at the Lakewood Country Club,” Bob finally said. “When he decided he needed to give me a way of supporting myself, we started a bowling-supply store.”

I pressed him, and Bob began to reveal more about my grandfather.

“He was an all-purpose bigot,” Bob said, speaking quietly, as if someone else might hear. “At different times, he would go off on anybody, and when he came to Dallas, the chief of police was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. That is a known fact. I don’t know if my father was ever a member, but he certainly had some sympathy for them back in the twenties and thirties. He became slightly more tolerant as time passed, but it was still right there. R.E.L. was a good southern man always loyal to the cause, so I guess we know where it came from.”

It was hard to hear that my grandfather’s racism ran so deep. In my heart, I wanted my family to be above the fray. There has always been a liberal intellectual tradition in the South, and I wanted that to be my heritage, not the desperate and twisted world of racist populism. But I was finished with fantasies; I wanted to know the truth, no matter how ugly.

Race relations were on my mind when I watched Barack Obama, the African-American senator from Illinois, clinch the Democratic presidential nomination. When Obama had visited Kenya in 2006, his public speeches had impressed me, but I had dismissed talk of an Obama presidency because I didn’t think the people of the United States would elect a black man president.

I listened to Obama’s victory speech, which was absent of rancor, full of hope, and reached out to anyone who would join him. He reminded me of Nelson Mandela, whom I had met while covering the 1994 presidential campaign in South Africa. In his campaign, Mandela had resisted political expediency and taken the high road; the one that required true leadership to bring substantive change to his country, rather than just transferring power from a white tyrant to a black one. He was not the demagogic African dictator that whites had expected and feared. Mandela’s speeches were not filled with sarcasm and vitriol like those of many American politicians. Mandela exemplified grace.

Obama was following Mandela’s example, trying to disarm the less committed bigots and win over everyone else. After spending most of my adult life overseas, I found myself comparing race in America to the ethnic massacres I’d observed in Rwanda and Congo. This new political development fueled my desire to delve deeper into the legacy of Tomlinson Hill. If America was ready for a black president, I hoped it was ready to come to terms with its past.


Copyright © 2014 by Chris Tomlinson

Foreword copyright © 2014 by LaDainian Tomlinson

Customer Reviews