After serving as a war correspondent in South Africa, Rwanda and the Middle East where he witnessed apartheid, ethnic cleansing and genocide, Chris Tomlinson returned to the United States and assessed ethnic violence in our own history. His personal journey in trying to understand racism is at the heart of his book, “Tomlinson Hill.”
He examined archival material from the “Dallas Morning News” and the “Marlin Democrat” about his family’s roots in Eastern Texas, then compiled and unpacked the multi-generational stories of two Tomlinson families, one white, the other black. The result is a depiction of racism that covers more than 150 years.
The relentless accounts of lynching, vengeance and inhumanity are difficult to read at times, but accurately depict appalling acts. Tomlinson weaves together the two cultures, the white and black Tomlinson families represent as they live side by side—one privileged, the other deprived. His opening chapters on “The Reconstruction Era” are riveting and especially disturbing.
Much of the latter half of the book is autobiographical. The author relates his school desegregation experiences in Dallas where he lived with his family. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, Tomlinson, was transferred between several schools as the trustees of the school board attempted to meet federal desegregation guidelines. While being jostled from one school to the next, Tomlinson made some significant, life-changing relationships with members of the diverse student bodies. It was as a high school student that he decided one day he would write a book on his family history.
As Tomlinson presents his family as a case study about the dynamics of racism, he also provides the opportunity for the reader to look through a wider lens and see the effects of racism throughout United States society. In incident after incident he elucidates the redistribution of power.
Beginning with The Emancipation, the whites’ fear of losing power is demonstrated in multiple horrendous acts as they seek to hold onto control. At the same time, the blacks are overwhelmed and not sure what to do with their newfound freedom and power. And ever since, legislatures, businesses, educational and religious institutions have struggled to address this redistribution of power.
Tomlinson describes many shameful national moments, and many victorious ones, as the country has sought some level of equanimity. Reading this century and a half historical record, the reader gets a sense of the tension that has been and continues to be a part of America’s racial experience.
Chris Tomlinson is currently a reporter for the “Houston Chronicle.” This work skillfully adds to the corpus of books on American civil rights history and to the ongoing discussion of racism. Tomlinson urges the United States to seek a new self-identity where racism is no longer a major player in the distribution of power. Readers who are interested in how family and societal systems move and change, as well as those who cannot get enough Civil War history will particularly find this book important.