The Metamorphosis of a Community
One only has to travel a few steps west of the city of DeKalb, Texas to find yourself in a community so steeped in history that volumes and volumes could not record it all.
There is no post office, no general store. In fact, if you don’t know it’s there, you would drive right through it without knowing. Yet buried in the rich farming soil and rooted in those descended from the storied ancestors of the Garland Community is a saga of determination, will, and heritage that rival any tome ever put down on paper.
This is their story.
The descendants of the Garland Community and its founders hold their history as priceless. It is a history born of some of the darkest days of American history, as they are each the direct descendants of slaves, with their bloodline traced back to slaves owned by Colonel John C. Garland. Garland is recorded as being a kind plantation owner who freed his slaves in 1862, long before news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the region.
After freeing his slaves, he then continued his kindness by giving them land or selling it at greatly reduced costs, and then also later donating land to the community for a cemetery and schools. Education became a key part of their lives in those early days, as Garland provided some sort of education to those in his charge, allowing some to learn to read and write.
From those meager and humble beginnings, the descendants of the Garland Community were born, and from that day began a phoenix-like rising that now boasts a family of doctors, educators, military leaders and a consortium of people that have made the world a better place for all mankind.
It is still to this day a community where the bonds of family and heritage hold them all together, and a place where education was a key factor in making the Garland Community different from most others made up of freed slaves after the Civil War.
It is noted by Dr. Mattie Shavers Johnson, in her book The Children of Ruth, “change is the only event that is constant in this universe.” There is no doubt that the family that began as slaves, then became modest farmers, and are now what they are today have seen many changes.
Another descendant, Dr. Raynard Kington, now Head of School at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, is quoted as saying, ““This was also a time of extraordinary uncertainty, when a new system of racial oppression was evolving. And yet, my ancestors had the ability to both prepare for the future by embracing knowledge and to live in the blessing of the moment—to appreciate the beauty in their everyday lives.”
Among the original 25 homesteads that came after their emancipation was one that many hold as the matriarch of their family, the beginning of their roots in the community. Ruth Garland came to Texas as a slave along with the Garland family from Tennessee. She and her husband James Garland would one day have 13 children, and those 13 children would become the roots and framework for those still living in the community today. Her son, James Polk Garland, is the grandfather and great-grandfather of those living today.
The Garland Community today is still a tight-knit family. Most of those living there today live on lands and homesteads that trace back to the lands given to their ancestors by Colonel Garland, with those lands remaining as treasured pieces of their history. There is a bond that reaches out across the family that keep the lands inside their roots, with a pride and protection of their heritage that keep them from selling their lands to anyone outside their family tree.
These are bonds cemented by conviction, forged in pride, and hewn from a deep sense of faith. The churches there, Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church and Mt. Pisgah CME Church, stand still today as monuments of their faith, as they have for generations. Congregations still gather on the same sacred grounds once donated by Colonel Garland.
Adjacent to the churches are the grounds that housed the first school. The community’s school evolved rapidly from a one-room log building with four white men as teachers in 1875, to a four year accredited Rosenwald School in 1936 that had sent 31 teachers out into the world , and had been given a Class A designation from the State Board of Education.
Under the leadership of its most prominent leader, Major J. Johnson, the Garland School expanded to a 32 acre property with updated buildings and far better teaching supplies than the original school. The garland School thrived and stayed an important part of the community until it was consolidated with Marvin Pynes School in DeKalb, in the early 1950’s.
From that original school came teachers, bankers and scholars. Down the road just a little way, is the home of the late Colonel Iverson Shavers. The Shavers family joined with members of the original Garland family in the early 1900’s.
It was there at that home where I, a very green journalist new to the area, was honored to be invited to the annual Garland family reunion on several occasions, and first saw the deep roots and shared love of their ancestry.
Colonel Shavers and Mrs. Jenna Benton took the time to introduce me to their children, cousins, nieces and nephews, and did so with a sense of pride that shone from their faces like the sun.
In the coming weeks, each week of February and continuing until the story is told, the Tribune will feature different pieces of the Garland family history. We will look at their schools, their faith, and their people.
It will be an in-depth look at the community with pictures, stories from those who live there, and a homage to all of those who have been a part of the history, and have allowed us to share it.
On one of his childhood visits to Texas, Dr. Raynard Kington and his siblings found a burlap sack filled with family photos tucked away in his grandmother’s closet. One in particular caught his attention and at first he did’t care for it. He stated, “Everyone looked rather grim.” But over time he grew to learn its importance to his heritage saying, “I am where I am because huge numbers of other people sacrificed.”
The photo shows Kington’s great-great-grandmother with some wildflowers in her hand, her two boys, and a daughter holding an open book.. Their father’s well-worn pants are neatly patched at the knees.
“That animated book and small bunch of flowers now mean everything to me,” Kington said. “They symbolize that the family survived the horror of that brutal and dehumanizing system of oppression—a system fueled by greed—and that they survived that system of enslavement with their minds and hearts intact.”