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Greenville, Texas

Greenville, Texas is known for two major significant events, the lynching of Ted Smith in 1908 and the famous banner and slogan over Lee Street that reads, "Welcome to Greenville, Texas, The Blackest Land, The Whitest People." As times have changed throughout the town, what was once a proud public display of inherent beliefs has now become a national embarrassment that will remain prevalent in the towns history.

The city of Greenville, Texas was founded back in 1846, named after Thomas J. Green, a main character in the establishment of the Texas Republic. When the Civil War was being brought about, the residents and officials of Greenville had mixed opinions over the idea of succession. Post-Civil War, the economy of Greenville was driven by cotton. Hunt county was known as the cotton capital of the world, as it had the largest inland cotton compress until the mid-1900s. The economy in Greenville was great, and with the growing cotton industry came a large swell in growth for the population of the town. Agriculture fueled the initial growth of the town, gradually shifting to industrialization in the 1950s when the city developed its first industrial park. [1]

On July 7, 1921 a large banner was posted over West Lee Street, which was the main street downtown in Greenville. This banner, posted with the slogan “Welcome to Greenville, The Blackest Land, The Whitest People,” remained over the city for about 40 years up until the 1960’s. This slogan was created by Will N. Harrison, known as “The Land Man,” amongst the locals. Harrison had been in the land business since 1886. He had this slogan printed on his business cards, which caught the attention of President Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson obtained Harrison’s card at an address in Kansas City, where wanting to meet the President, Harrison sent his personal card over to Wilson’s hotel. Though being told that the President was not going to be meeting anyone before the evening speech, Harrison’s tactic proved to be successful as Wilson was so intrigued by Harrison’s unique and creative slogan, that he then wanted to meet Harrison. [2]

This moment was reported of locally which shifted the perspective of this slogan, one initially used for private use now had the capability to be used as an advertisement for the city. The slogan had quick impact, as those who came across it began using it in the town’s Chamber of Commerce causing its popularity to blossom, leading to the official adoption of the slogan by Greenville in 1921. Harrison, The Land Man, was a strong advocate for advertisement and business, his creativity was unmatched. Harrison passed away a few months later after meeting with President Wilson, but he definitely left his mark on the town and its history to come.

It is said that the initial intent of this sign came from the black and rich soil that cotton would grow on in Greenville, which was very significant to the economy at that point, and the use of ‘whitest’ people was derived from the idea that ‘white’ meant pure or good. The slogan was aiming to praise citizens of Greenville and their friendliness, not making an attack on race. Though, despite this origin story, the racial undertones in the posting of this slogan for so long over the town cannot be ignored. In that time, calling something or someone ‘white’ also meant that you were opposite of the blacks, inherently calling blacks neither good nor pure. [2]

The large banner was very expensive, as well, at the time, measuring at about 24 feet, this was not a small sign. On the evening of July 7th, the banner and slogan were revealed to the Greenville townspeople and Hunt County and eventually painted on the water tower, too. The presentation was led by Dr. Joe Becton, the president of the Chamber of Commerce. This banner lasted in the town up until 1965 when Texas Governor John Connally called for the removal of the sign. The banner was taken down for repairs after it was hit by a truck and was never put back up. A few years later in 1968, the sign was reestablished by Sybil Maddux, who changed it to read, “The Greatest People,” instead of, “The Whitest People.” Overtime this slogan was put to rest, as it still promoted the ideas behind the original sign. [2]

Tom Hutton, a resident of Richardson, Texas back in the 1950’s had to travel to Kansas City often to see family. In his travels, he had to pass through Greenville, Texas, where he had his first encounters with the sign. In passing through, Hutton notes the banner as being off-putting and flat out racist and questions his parents about the meaning and purpose of the slogan. Hutton did not learn of the banners intended meaning behind the slogan until many years later after his initial sightings, but he believed the locals explanation to be nothing but a way to generally protect the reputation of the town. [2]

Greenville is not only famous for its banner and slogan, but its lynching in 1908 of Ted Smith, an 18-year-old black male who was burned to death in public view of the town. Smith worked with his family for R. H. Delancey, less than ten miles outside of Hunt County. It is said that Smith had a secret relationship with Delancey’s young daughter, Viola. One day, Violas parents discovered the relationship and pressed charges against Smith. He was accused of raping this white woman and was arrested and brought to Greenville for persecution after trying to escape the advancements of the local law enforcement. When captured, he claimed he did nothing wrong, but was unfortunately met with dismay when Viola did not vouch for him when he was brought in for identification, but instead fed the lie she had spun to protect herself. [4]

He was attacked by a mob of about 2,000 people at his cell the next day, but rather than the custom hanging as an execution, he was laid under piles of wood, covered with kerosene, and burned alive in broad daylight. In the town, this was widely accepted to have preceded with a case as so, despite what may have been thought about it nationwide. This was not uncommon to the area though, as lynchings were prevalent in their society and no action would be taken against those who perform such horrendous acts. Any outcry from an African American about the lynchings or racial unrest would be met with immediate violence and shaming. Viola, later, recounted what she said about Smith and explained that he was innocent, but the language back then was not set out to persecute and punish white people in any way, so she was never charged for falsifying her story, neither was no one punished for the lynching in general. It was also not uncommon for a white woman to fabricate a story like this, but they were typically always believed. People did not usually need much consideration to proceed with a lynching. [4]

This lynching, though, taking place in 1908 in Greenville really sets the stage for the supposedly unintentionally racist sign to come about less than two decades later, putting their townspeople up on a pedestal claiming they are the nicest people despite race. This was not true. If that sign was not intended to be racist or have those connotations, the sign would’ve come down very quickly and definitely would not have lasted at least 40 years. Unfortunately, this was the common language at the time, though. There was racism and violence towards people of color and that slogan served as a reminder of the core values of the town. The whites of the town believed they were innocent when it came to the famous slogan, but as times have evolved the thing of the past will be the embarrassment, the sore spot in Greenville history forever now.

Audio

Michael Phillips A discussion with Michael Phillips, a U.S. History professor at Collin College and author of, "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001," over the history of Greenville, Texas and its slogan that promoted racism throughout the town for years to come.

Images

Cotton Market Greenville, Texas was known as the cotton capital of the world, sitting on rich soil and having the largest inland cotton compress known to exist. Source: http://www.carolctaylor.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/cottonwagons.jpg
Greenville, Texas Banner The infamous banner posted over Lee Street in downtown Greenville, depicting the slogan, "The Blackest Land, The Whitest People." Source: https://tomhuttonmd.com/2013/11/23/reflections-on-greenville-texas-the-blackest-land-and-the-whitest-people/
Greenville Postcard A postcard from Greenville, Texas during the time the banner and slogan were very popular, shows that this was not the only type of display of the slogan and there was much pride taken into incorporating it in other forms of daily life. Source: https://www.marylmartin.com/product/greenville-texas-birdseye-view-of-city-antique-postcard-k54288/
Greenville Phonebook This phonebook shows the business information for Will N. Harrison, also known as The Land Man and creator of Greenville's slogan that caught the attention of President Wilson, leading to the Greenville to adopt the saying as the official slogan of the town. Source: http://phorum.dallashistory.org/read.php?2,72844
Lynching of Ted Smith Ted Smith was an 18-year-old black man who was burned alive in Greenville, Texas back in 1908 in broad daylight because of false accounts of him raping a young white woman were made against him. Source: https://dissidentvoice.org/2017/07/the-lynching-of-ted-smith/

Location

Metadata

Aria E. Zaruba, “Greenville, Texas,” East Texas History, accessed September 30, 2022, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/300.