First Available Cell: Desegregation of the Texas Prison System

By Chad R. Trulson; James W. Marquart | Go to book overview

Introduction

It was Sunday, April 23, 1939, and it was a day of rest for the men clad in white in Otey, Texas. This was not going to be like any other Sunday at the Ramsey State Prison Farm, however. On this day a visitor drove up to the prison and had special clearance to talk to the black men. He also had permission to listen to and record the convicts sing their work songs. The visitor’s name was John Lomax—the “ballad hunter”—and he set about recording the songs used by the black Texas convicts in the fields about hoeing and flat weeding, felling timber with double-bladed axes, picking and chopping cotton, their dreams of freedom and far-off places, their hated bosses and tracker dogs, their girlfriends and wives, and their mothers. He recorded various songs sung by James “Iron Head” Baker (“My Pore Mother Keeps A-prayin for Me”), Wade “Monkey” Bolden, Mose “Clear Rock” Platt, W. S. “Jaybird” Harrison, Wallace “Big Stavin’ Chain” Chains, and Lightnin’ Washington.

Lomax, who was raised near Meridian, Texas, right where the 98th parallel passes through and divides Texas into two distinct geographical and cultural traditions, toured other southern prison farms in search of the “perfect ballad” or song untouched by the outside world. Yet the Texas prison farms of the 1930s, or any other decade, were not isolated completely from the outside world. The inmate world he encountered was shaped by what the felons brought with them into the farms and reworked to be useful in the tanks and hoe squads and turn rows. John Lomax was, among other things, a trailblazer, and he opened the Texas prison system to successive generations of researchers and outsiders in search of their own “perfect ballads.”

Bruce Jackson, Harvard-educated folklorist, picked up where Lomax left off. He recorded numerous African American convict work songs (some at the Ramsey State Prison Farm) in the 1960s and took many photographs of the convicts’ world as it teetered on the brink of the sea change examined in

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First Available Cell: Desegregation of the Texas Prison System
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Foreword ix
  • Acknowledgments xii
  • Introduction xiv
  • From Segregation to Desegregation in Texas Prisons- A Timeline xvi
  • Part I - The outside 1
  • Chapter 1 - Broken Barriers 3
  • Chapter 2 - An Institutional Fault Line 15
  • Chapter 3 - 18,000 Days 42
  • Part II - The Inside 59
  • Chapter 4 - The Color Line Persists 61
  • Chapter 5 - Cracks in the Color Line 89
  • Chapter 6 - Full Assault on the Color Line 111
  • Chapter 7 - The Color Line Breaks 134
  • Chapter 8 - 7,000 Days Later 163
  • Chapter 9 - Life in the First Available Cell 176
  • Part III - A Colorless Society? 201
  • Chapter 10 - The Most Unlikely Place 203
  • Notes 225
  • Select Bibliography 265
  • Index 269
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