Chris Tomlinson traveled the world reporting on ethnic conflict before he decided to dive into his own family’s complex racial history in Falls County, Texas.
The veteran Associated Press reporter has produced a documentary that explores the legacy of his ancestors’ slave plantation, called Tomlinson Hill, and modern-day race relations in nearby Marlin.
Tomlinson will be at Baylor on Monday for a lecture and a screening of the film, also called “Tomlinson Hill.”
He will speak to journalism students at the Marrs-McLean Science Building and will participate in a discussion after the 6:30 p.m. screening of the film at the same hall. Both events are free and open to the public.
Tomlinson said the documentary shares a personal journey, but it should have broad appeal, especially for those interested in the history and social realities of Central Texas. The 75-minute documentary aired this June on PBS stations nationwide.
In the documentary, Tomlinson interviews black descendants of his ancestors’ former slaves. After emancipation, many of those former slaves took on the Tomlinson name, and some remained at Tomlinson Hill, creating a community that has lasted for generations.
In the film, Chris Tomlinson meets with descendant Loreane Tomlinson, a Marlin resident and the mother of former star NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson. In encounters with her and other Marlin residents, he attempts to explore how racial tension persists some 150 years after slaves were freed.
Chris Tomlinson, who has covered Africa and Iraq for the AP, said getting to know residents of Falls County was an education.
“What I tried to do is report on the history of these two families, as a foreign correspondent who was informed by witnessing the end of apartheid in South Africa and the effects of genocide in Rwanda,” said Tomlinson, who is now AP supervisory correspondent for Texas, in an interview.
Tomlinson said he approached the ex-slaves’ descendants with a mixture of emotions, including fear of how he would be received.
In meeting one of the descendants who lived in poverty at Tomlinson Hill, he said he thought of “how my ancestors had actively ensured that his ancestors could not get an education, get a decent job or own land.”
“What staggered me was the casualness of the black community’s acceptance of this history and the white descendants who they meet,” he said. “After I got a chance to know Loreane, she calls me ‘a brother from another mother.’ Some of the black Tomlinsons refer to me as a cousin, not because we’re related by DNA, but that’s how closely our families are intertwined.”
The film’s director, Southern Methodist University film professor Lisa Kaselak, followed Tomlinson around Marlin and Falls County on numerous visits.
“She’d hit record when we got there, and she wouldn’t turn it off,” Tomlinson said. “This is the story we found.”
Tomlinson said some people in Marlin have accused the team of doing a “hatchet job” on their town, but others have thanked him for telling their story and taking on a difficult topic.
“I think the film is really very hopeful,” he said. “I think the film shows good people working very hard to build a better life for their community. That’s a good-news story.”
Tomlinson is planning to release a book in June that will tell a more complete history of the Tomlinson families and Falls County.
Tomlinson and Kaselak teamed with the Baylor Institute for Oral History to preserve and transcribe the full video interviews from the documentary. The institute is sponsoring the Monday evening event.
Stephen Sloan, associate history professor and head of the institute, said Tomlinson’s work documents a piece of Texas history that otherwise might slip away. He said Falls County history is “underdocumented,” as is Central Texas’ racial history in general.
He said Tomlinson’s personal approach makes history come alive.
“As a historian, I’m interested in works that show the long reach of events that most folks feel are simply historical,” Sloan said. “What this film does well is to look at a long span of time and talk about the relevance of the past to comprehend the present.”