SFA Story: The History of Stephen F. Austin State University

The Early Steen Administration: An Explosion

Something About East Texas

An Article by Ralph W. Steen

[In 1962, partially in response to the Griffith Park controversy and other incidents which confirmed his prejudices about East Texas being an area with a “negative attitude,” Ralph Steen wrote a strange little article for the Philosophical Society of Texas. William Harlow his biographer wrote: “It is difficult to determine when Steen acquired this view. Perhaps it was in the 1940's when he taught at SFA; perhaps it was after he became president. ... When asked to address the society on the subject of East Texas, Steen agreed to do so but wrote, ‘You must know that as a West Texan, I will be looking at East Texas as an outsider’.” The condensed version below will give a taste of his thoughts in 1962 and show the connection with Webb. - JLJ]

The very name of East Texas is one which results in controversy because there is no such thing as a definition of the area acceptable to all people. To the Chamber of Commerce, East Texas includes practically all of the area east of Dallas. Others think of it as Texas east of the Trinity and the Piney Woods area. ... For the purpose of this talk, I should like to think of East Texas as the piney woods area east of the Trinity. This includes the Deep East Texas region and most of the area which can trace a history of settlement back to the 1820s. This region can truly be described as a corner of the Old South.

Since 1865 this region has had a negative attitude. It has looked back with nostalgia to what it calls the good old days. The result has been a lack of aggressive leadership and a failure to keep pace with the other areas in economic development. There has been, consequently, failure to develop industries to replace those which were declining and this has caused many of the more capable and ambitious young people to leave the area and seek livelihoods in more progressive regions.

... It remained an area peopled entirely by Anglo-Americans and, of course, by Negroes. Between 1845 and 1860 many thousands of Europeans came into the new state and again most of them came by water and few if any made their way into East Texas. Between 1860 and 1900 a number of Yankees moved into the East Texas region and since 1900 some Europeans have arrived. However, there is no other part of Texas in which the white population is so completely Anglo-American as in East Texas.

As a result of the limited amount of immigration, many of the small towns retain traditions from the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee. One example of this provincialism is the habit of placing an a before verbs (a-running, a-talking).

The population trends in East Texas show that many of the counties have about the same population today as in 1900. ... The decline in the average county can be traced in part to the attitude which tends to worship the past and provide little in the way of leadership for the present or the future. As one deep East Texan has said, 'There are too many people who like to sit in the shade of the family tree and listen to the hardening of their arteries.” There are many hundreds who have dedicated themselves to ”taking care of what papa left me.” Unfortunately for the area, many of the more capable people have moved to other cities and other states. Many East Texans are now important figures in state and national business and politics, but they gained these places of prominence outside East Texas.

East Texas is a religious area and can properly be described as part of the Bible Belt. The regular Protestant churches are strong but there are also many off-beat churches. To some degree, the great number of off-beat churches can be traced to the individualism of the early colonial period. ... Education in colonial times was entirely in the hands of individuals and church groups. There was no such thing as a public school. ... Public schools began operating in some East Texas counties before the Civil War but in general public education in the area became important after the war.

Even though the East Texas region is one of the oldest in the state in terms of settlement, it was one of the last regions to gain state supported colleges. ... East Texas State College at Commerce and Stephen F. Austin State College at Nacogdoches trace their origin to action by the Legislature in 1917.

Another example of the fact that East Texas has often been neglected by the Legislature is found in the location of museums. ... there is no state supported museum. The old Stone Fort is located on the campus of Stephen F. Austin State College and was built by the state in 1936, but it is kept open with funds taken from the students of the college.

The highways in East Texas present a great deal in the way of beautiful scenery but until recently have been among the poorest in the state. ... Since 1930 cotton has ceased to be a major crop in East Texas, and the end of the cotton economy has been one of the reasons for the decline in population of East Texas counties. ... The region is now devoted largely to tree farming, the grazing of cattle, the growing of truck crops, and roses, and dairying. ... All of East Texas has benefited from the discovery of oil and gas and some counties, particularly those in the neighborhood of the great East Texas field, have come to depend very largely upon oil and industry for their welfare. Industry other than that associated with oil and gas is relatively new in East Texas but is making considerable progress. The Lone Star Steel plant and the paper mill in Lufkin are examples of industries using local materials. ... East Texas has a great deal to offer, and there is no reason why its future should not be far better than the past has ever been. The area has land, timber, water, gas, oil, and of course, history for tourism.

If the future is to be all that the resources of the area will support, East Texans will have to look upon the past as an origin, not as a goal. They must look forward to an ideal which may never be reached, but the region will gain from trying to reach it.