When Chris and I embarked on the journey back in 2006 to make Tomlinson Hill, we had many moments of self-doubt. Did we have the right to tell this story? Was America finally ready to accept the reality of our shared history? Our motivation was to educate our audience to this incredible story and bring the truth to light. Since then, our country has changed in fundamental ways, with the nation’s first black President, and finally, at long last, widespread acknowledgement of the terrible truth of the inequity of the black experience in America. Change cannot begin in earnest unless we acknowledge the past, together.
On Saturday, LaDanian Tomlinson was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. I was so proud to watch him accept the reward for his dedication and passion to the sport he loved so much, but was even prouder to hear his inspiring speech about America’s unity.
“I firmly believe God chose me to help bring two races together under one last name, Tomlinson,” the longtime San Diego Chargers running back said. “I pray we dedicate ourselves to be the best team we can be, working and living together, representing the highest ideals of mankind, leading the way for all nations to follow.”
In what feels like dark times for our nation, I couldn’t be prouder of the work that Chris and I, LT and Loreane have done to contribute to this critical conversation.
Watch the entirety of the speech below.
LaDanian’s Inspiring Hall of Fame Induction Speech
I was so saddened today to hear of the passing of Karen Meyer. Karen was just a delightful, inspirational person. When it came to her beloved home, Marlin, she dedicated herself to her community and just rolled up her shirtsleeves and dove into problem-solving every way she knew how. Everyone who saw the film remarked on how inspirational Karen was. I am so glad to have met her and to have had an opportunity to work with her.
I was equally saddened to hear of the passing of David Tinsley in late September. David was a one-of-a-kind; a man who truly exemplified what it means to be a Texan. He was an avid steward of the land, a great humanitarian and wonderfully funny, spirited and generous. Even though I hadn’t seen David in a couple of years, I missed his presence on the planet instantly.
We lost a number of participants in the Tomlinson Hill documentary over the last four years; significant losses, all. The film was dedicated to the memories of Pinky Taylor Price and Ray Charles Lang, both of whom passed shortly before the film was released. About a year later, we also heard that Bess Sebesta had passed on. She was well into her 90′s when we interviewed her. Her personality and memories were sharp and clear and provided a critical perspective on her experience teaching in the Marlin school system.
More than ever, these losses have underscored the need and importance of capturing critical oral histories before they are lost forever.
Chris and I are grateful to have had some beautiful moments with all of these lovely people. Don’t hesitate to ask your loved ones for their stories, before they are gone. You’ll be glad you did.
Tomlinson Hill is now officially a New York Times Bestseller after coming in at #23 in its first week on sale.
Thank you to everyone who pre-ordered the book and made sure we got off to a running start. I have no idea whether we will stay on the list, but even if its only for one week, I am deeply grateful, humbled and thrilled at the wonderful response it has received so far.
We’ve also been lucky to have so many people review the book, and we really haven’t gotten a bad review yet. You can find excerpts and links on the Book Reviews Page.
Community support for the book has also been tremendous. We had standing-room-only crowds at readings in Austin, Houston and Dallas. I’ve also had a chance to do dozens of radio interviews across the country. This is all part of the hard work of making sure a book gets read.
I know I’ve already asked for some of your hard-earned cash, now I want to ask for a bit of your time. One key to getting a book to a wider audience is making sure it gets online reviews at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Let your friends know about the conversation I am trying to start about the history of race relations in the United States, and how facing up to the truth is the only path to reconciliation for the sins of the past.
None of this would be happening without you – my friends, family and supporters – buying books and extending the conversation. This book is convincing people to reconsider what they learned about their family history, which was always my dream, and the more people it touches the further the message of hope will spread.
Last week I drove up to Fort Worth to pick up Lavar Tomlinson for an appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. For those who don’t know, Terry Gross is one of the most popular hosts on National Public Radio and her show appears on more than 500 radio stations around the world.
The best part: Terry Gross fans buy books.
Terry rightfully insisted on having both a white and a black Tomlinson on the show. During the 90 minutes we taped, she spent the first half asking me to explain what I had learned about the Tomlinson Hill plantation, then she brought Lavar in to get his perspective. The show aired on Monday, July 21 the day before the book launched.
If you want to know how important a Terry Gross interview can be for an author: My Amazon ranking went from 54,308 on July 16 to 564 on July 22.
Here’s the interview: http://www.npr.org/2014/07/21/332607060/on-tomlinson-hill-journalist-seeks-truth-and-reconciliation
One of the most fun, and most informative, couples I met while working on Tomlinson Hill was Charles and Zelma Tomlinson. Charles is the grandson of Peter, the last black Tomlinson born into slavery on Tomlinson Hill. Zelma married Charles on the Hill when she was 17 years old and they’ve been together over 60 years.
Charles and Zelma agreed to meet me in Marlin in September 2012 to show me around the parts of Tomlinson Hill and Falls County that they called home. They showed me where the African American Tomlinsons lived when they were sharecroppers, and the home they built when sharecropping came to an end. Their memories, both good and bad, helped me understand our family stories so much better.
The cotton crop was coming in while we were visiting the Hill, and I asked them about pulling cotton, which is the phrase used by most former sharecroppers in Falls County. Zelma told me they are two different things, depending on whether the priority was to harvest the crop fast, or to bring in clean cotton, cotton that doesn’t have a lot of leaves and shells in it. We pulled into a field and she started walking a row, showing us the difference. This 90-pound woman who is barely 5-feet-tall described how she could pick 300 pounds of cotton a day, or pull 700 pounds.
During the filming of this clip, a Texas state trooper pulled up and asked us what we were doing. Zelma, even at 77, recoiled at the big, young white man wearing a badge and a stetson confronting us because we were on private property. He agreed to let us finish filming, but insisted we leave the cotton in the field. Otherwise, he said, it would be theft. Nevertheless, Zelma took some cotton twigs to show her grandchildren in Kansas. She wanted to show them how she had spent her childhood, picking cotton.
We’ll post a conversation with Charles soon.
A short video of LaDainian and I on Tomlinson Hill is now available. This is an outtake from the April 2013 interview we did when NFL Films asked us to show them around the old slave plantation for “A Football Life: LaDainian Tomlinson.”
LaDainian had told me about his life and what he’d been taught about his family history in an earlier interview for the book, but this was the first time I had a chance to tell him what I had learned from my research. The film’s director, James Weiner, decided to make LaDainian’s discovery of his ancestors’ courage and leadership the overarching narrative of the film.
This clip captures us standing outside his grandmother’s dilapidated house on Tomlinson Hill on a cold, rainy day as I tell him about his great, great, great grandfather Milo who first took the Tomlinson name upon emancipation, and then about Milo’s grandson Vincent, who was a deacon, a mason and the unofficial mayor of Tomlinson Hill until his death in 1972.
LaDainian was born after his grandfather Vincent had died, so he didn’t know any of these stories. This is one of the most satisfying parts of writing the book and making the film is letting people know about their history.
As we prepare for the book launch, look for more videos from the interviews we conducted for the film and book. All of them are compiled on the interactive site, Voice of Marlin, and will be on file at the Baylor Institute for Oral History.
The big thing now is make a trailer for your book, just as you would for a movie. Here’s the one for Tomlinson Hill.
Tomlinson Hill Book trailer from Lisa Kaselak and Lee Billington on Vimeo.
And if you haven’t see the Texas Monthly review of the book, it is a must read.
The subject of race relations and slave history is so multi-layered, it is often difficult for media to digest and summarize with meaningful breadth. Texas Monthly has done a great job of doing just that. Check out the review at the link below:
A writer never knows whether they have effectively communicated their ideas until the reader responds.
That’s why reviews are useful. Sure, there are critics who bring an agenda to their reviews, but because a writer’s purpose is to share an idea and communicate a thought, what a reader takes from their work is important. If readers don’t get it, that’s the author’s fault.
I am deeply gratified that the early reviewers of Tomlinson Hill understand what I set out to do. My goal was to use my family’s history, and the story of the descendants of the people my ancestors enslaved, to examine the experiences of whites and blacks in America. As a journalist, I know that one person’s story can illustrate larger truths. I also know that the larger truths place the individual’s experiences in context.
The person who wrote the Kirkus review understood my greatest goal is to start the “honest conversation necessary to begin healing the centuries-old racial rifts that have marred American history.” Beginning July 23 in Austin, I’ll be taking that conversation to cities across Texas and hopefully beyond. I’ll use every means available to let everyone know those dates. Some are already posted here.
For now, I am just deeply grateful for all the people who’ve spent hours talking with me about this book over the last decade, who insights, reaction and wisdom went into Tomlinson Hill. This book would not be as “cleareyed and courageously revealing” without your coaching.
If you haven’t pre-ordered your copy, please use one of the links here to get your copy on July 22. Pre-orders help determine the first run, so every order helps!
The first reviews for Tomlinson Hill are coming in, and they’ve been very positive so far.
Publisher’s Weekly calls the book “an engaging and poignant look into his own past but also a riveting glimpse of the history of race relations in Texas.” Read the full review here.
Booklist, the American Library Association’s trade magazine, said: “Tomlinson turns his journalist’s acute eye on his own family background to present an unflinching look at the racial history of one small Texas community.” It hasn’t been posted online yet.
This is good early news, but you can decide for yourself. Pre-order a copy of the book from one of the links found here.
We also have an Austin screening of the film along with a book signing planned for Aug. 21 at the Carver Center in East Austin. Come get a double dose of the book, which is about the Hill’s history, and the film, which focuses on present-day Marlin. Details here.
After seven years of hard work, I’m thrilled to finally share it with you. Thank you to everyone who helped make this possble.