Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

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November 22, 2012

Pelham history museum shows strength of community

Corsicana — The local historians in Pelham decided to put together a history museum before they really knew what all was involved.

“We wanted to preserve our history of our community, families and alumni,” explained Darlene Porter Holloway. “Our children live everywhere and we’re struggling to keep it, the handful that was left.”

At one time, Pelham had more than 200 residents, but currently has about 35 full-time residents.

The size of the challenge wasn’t apparent until they were in the middle of it, Catherine Porter agreed.

“We didn’t realize it was this much,” she said. “You have it in your mind that you can do it, then you’ve  just got to keep going.”

Comparing it to swimming across a rushing river, Alva Jean Porter said: “You can’t turn around, you have to keep paddling or drown.”

But the people of Pelham have triumphed in their efforts, turning the former schoolhouse into a remarkable slice of life in one of the few all-African American communities left in Texas.

Pelham was settled in 1866 by former slaves freed after the Civil War. First named Forks of the Creek, the town’s name was changed to Pelham to honor the wife of the postmaster, who had come from Pelham, Alabama. The town is just off FM 744 in the western part of Navarro County. Equipped with only rough tools and a desire to carve out free lives for themselves and their children, the settlers realized they had good, fertile land and could prosper with hard work.

Along the walls are those tools, household items, school-related items and personal possessions of those early ancestors, the most recent of which is from the late 20th century.

“We have tools, quilts, books of family history, and odds and ends,” Catherine Porter explained.

Collecting the items wasn’t a problem, since many of the residents are self-admitted collectors.

“I was glad to give it away,” said Alva Jean Porter.

In a scandalized voice, Catherine Porter added: “Some people threw it away. It’s history. I didn’t see any reason to throw it away.”

The collection of items is obviously crucial, but of perhaps greater value are the family histories compiled by the local historians of each family in the community, arranged by folders and available for genealogists. They also have histories of who served in various military branches and the conflicts, and maps showing where their houses were.

There’s plenty of crossover, since almost everyone in the community is related to Henry Caruthers, Catherine Porter explained.

The family histories are particularly fascinating, so a guided tour is a must when visiting the Pelham museum.

John Caruthers, for example, was the community’s first teacher. A freed slave, John was the half-brother of a white boy named Joseph Lawrence who secretly taught his enslaved brother how to read and write. When he was freed, John was one of those first settlers in Pelham.

Later, the community acquired a principal and certificates on the wall show that Mary Tull Porter had teaching certificates from the 1880s and 1890s.

The remarkable staying power, and the exclusivity of a community that has stood the test of time and integration for nearly 150 years has attracted plenty of outside attention this year. The community was featured in “American Way,” the airline magazine for American Airlines; in the San Antonio Express, and as recently as last weekend on the front page of the Dallas Morning News.

Making them unique is that they hung onto their land and their heritage, said Alva Jean Porter.

“People have moved away from their communities,” she said, listing off former African American communities in Navarro County that have declined sharply, including Babylon, Antioch, Brushie Prairie and Irene. “We kept our community.”

Pelham was the first African American community in Texas to get a state historical marker back in 1975. The tiny community now has four markers. In 2010, Catherine Porter was chosen as Historian of the Year by the Navarro County Historical Society.

Taking out the schools affected a lot of those communities, Alva Jean said, but the other difference was that Pelham residents kept their land rather than selling it.

“We still have a little bit of spirit to keep it going,” Alva Jean Porter said.

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Janet Jacobs may be reached via email at jjacobs@corsicanadailysun.com. Want to “soundoff” to this article? Email: Soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com

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