Marshall, Texas: A Small Town with a Large Historical Legacy

February being Black History Month, the National Civic League suggests a visit to any number of monuments or museums that have been established in recent years to commemorate important people, places and events associated with the civil rights movement.

One, out-of-the-way destination to consider is Marshall, Texas, a small city in the Piney Woods region, a 45-minute drive west of Shreveport, Louisiana. In 2014, the local historical preservation board mapped out a self-guided tour to celebrate the city’s outsized importance when it comes to African-American history.

The Buard Historic Trail is a 90-minute driving tour with multiple markers and stops along the way. Named after Rebecca Buard (1909-2000), a local educator who gathered oral histories and developed the Marshall Public Library’s collection of black history, the trail is the subject of the following student-made video:

For a city of 23,000, Marshall has an outsized prominence in the annals of African-American history and the civil rights movement. During the final years of the Civil War, tens of thousands of African-Americans were “refugeed,” that is, forcibly relocated to East Texas by southern planters fleeing the Union Army and its enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.

With the federal occupation of Texas, a Freedman’s Bureau was established in Marshall to assist the area’s swelling population for former slaves. The railroad brought in more African-Americans. Others were drawn to Wiley College, founded in 1873, the oldest historically black college west of the Mississippi.

It was Melvin B. Tolson, a Wiley College English professor, who coached the first black debate team to compete in national forensic competitions. The story of the Wiley debate team is told in the 2007 Denzel Washington film, the Great Debaters.

Tolson inspired a generation of African-American students, notably, James Farmer, Jr., a founder of the Committee on Racial Equality (CORE), one of the “big four” civil rights organizations, and Herman Sweatt who sued the state to become the first African-American to attend the University of Texas School of Law. Both were members of Wiley’s talented 1935 debate team.

A footnote: It’s well worth reading more about James Farmer, whose contributions to the civil right movement aren’t as widely or fully appreciated as they should be. Before Martin Luther King, Jr. was quoting Gandhi, Farmer was a committed passivist who adopted nonviolent resistance tactics to protest segregated lunch counters in Chicago during the early 1940s.

His most important contribution, however, was organizing the Freedom Rides in 1961, when groups of students rode Trailways buses into some of the most dangerous outposts of the segregated south, a brilliant strategic move that changed the course of civil rights history.

With local heroes such as Farmer, Tolson, Sweatt, Buard, not to mention the many brave students who fought against racism and segregation locally and elsewhere, Marshall has good reason to be proud, especially during Black History Month.

Marshall, Texas, was named an All-America City in 2015. Read about the city’s other civic accomplishments by accessing the National Civic League’s database of community innovation stories.

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