By Ashley Pérez
My third novel is about disasters. The disaster that catalyzes many of the events—a 1937 school explosion in New London, Texas—captured international media attention at the time. A more pervasive disaster—systemic racial inequality and unequal access to opportunity—didn’t raise an eyebrow.
Before the explosion, New London was seen as one of the luckiest towns in the country. A small farming village made suddenly prosperous by the discovery of oil, New London was spared the worst effects of the Great Depression. In fact, tax revenues from oil production were what made the building of the New London school possible. It was described in newspapers as “the richest rural school in the world.” At a time when schools in other communities could barely pay their teachers half wages, the New London school had chemistry laboratories, a home economics cottage with a suite of electric sewing machines, musical instruments and band uniforms for all the children, sports, foreign languages and fine arts, even college-credit courses. These opportunities were remarkable for the time and in that they were made available to the many children of the oilfield workers who flooded the area in search of work.
In the end, more than 200 of these children were killed. The estimate is 217, although it’s impossible to know for sure. Many of the bodies were not identifiable or intact after the explosion, meaning that identifications depended on the recovery of personal objects or body parts that had unique characteristics (scars, birthmarks, and the like). In addition, the oilfield workers in New London came and went at all times of the year, meaning that it was hard to know who was enrolled at the time of the explosion. Some families that lost children simply collected the bodies of their kids, packed up, and drove out of town, heading back toward West Texas or Oklahoma or wherever they called home. A systematic record of recovered bodies was not established until hours after the explosion, meaning that some dead children may not have been included in the final count.
As I learned more about the disaster, I found myself returning to a question: what might the New London explosion have meant for black Americans whose children were spared precisely because of their exclusion from the state-of-the-art white school? The oral histories and documentary materials on the explosion make no reference to African American experiences. This kind of exclusion was typical of the time; news in the black community—whether good or bad—rarely received coverage. In many ways, then, the novel narrates from a gap or a silence in the historical record, imagining possibilities based on other histories and on the dynamics between the characters I invent. (I talk about gaps in the historical record a bit more here.)
My research also led to the discovery that at least one Hispanic child was killed in the explosion, and I began to imagine the unique confluence of circumstances that could make it possible for a Mexican-American child to attend a white school in 1930s Texas. At that time, and for decades to follow, any place in Texas with a significant Hispanic population employed a tripartite segregation system: white schools, black schools, and even more inferior “Mexican” schools that systematically marginalized students and worked to force them out of the public school system altogether. (More on that process here.) Unlike cities like San Antonio or the rural towns of South Texas, New London did not have an established Mexican-American community. The oil boom—and the prospect of work—attracted people from all over the state and country. In Gather, the opportunity to attend the New London School is what brings the Mexican-American protagonist and her twin siblings to East Texas in the first place.
A shared history of school segregation is something that unites the protagonist and her eventual love interest, the handsome son of the principal of the London Colored School. But there are important differences to note, too, about their experiences in school. While African-Americans in 1930s faced gross inequalities when it came to educational resources, the pioneering efforts of many individuals to use education as a tool for advancement meant that finishing high school and possibly even attending an all-black college were at least possible. Not so for most Mexican-American students in Texas, where most kids were essentially forced out of public school by sixth grade.
Enormously overcrowded classrooms in the “Mexican” schools made learning difficult, putting the students further behind their white peers with each year. On top of that, the school districts in Texas often divided each elementary grade into two years (for example, “lower first,” “upper first”) in “Mexican” schools. The result was that–by middle school—these students were often told they were “too old” for the grade they should have been able to join in the (white) middle school. Access to high school was extremely limited; in Houston in the 30s, for example, only a handful of Mexican-Americans (usually lighter skinned) graduated from high school at all despite a significant Hispanic population in the area. These students faced discrimination in white schools, and there was no “Mexican” public high school. Access to university-level study would have been limited to those students who could pass for white.
In addition, unlike African-Americans, whose teachers–also African-American–were usually committed to helping students use education to combat their circumstances, Mexican-American children were almost invariably taught by white teachers who often considered this an “undesirable” placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students.
While these experiences of inequality wouldn’t seem to be central to the novel, in many ways they condition both the possibility of the story and the particulars of its unfolding. And they are the dark current that runs beneath and through the events of the school explosion and its aftermath in the story. For a taste of this novel, which is forthcoming in 2015 from Carolrhoda Lab, check out the excerpt recently published by The Texas Observer.
Images and credits:
The New London School during the all-night recovery effort, March 19, 1937 (Photo credit: Prints and Photographs Collection, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. 1976/11-7.)
“No Spanish or Mexicans” sign (Photo by Russell Lee. 1949, Dimmitt, Texas. Archived at the Center for American History, University of Texas.)