From the outset the foundation walked a fine political and cultural line in its outreach to African American communities in Texas. Sutherland was a committed racial progressive, and under his leadership the foundation went out of its way to include diverse populations in its mental health outreach efforts, sometimes even over the objections of white Texans.
Sutherland was also a pragmatist, however. In order for the foundation to do its work spreading the rather new-fangled gospel of mental health, he believed, it would have to remain careful to recognize, and when necessary defer to, the conservative values of many of the Texas communities that he and his corps of “circuit riders” were visiting.
A particularly poignant example of the complexity of racial politics in Texas came in 1946 when the foundation embarked on a project in Slocum, a small town about 100 miles east of Waco that had been the site three decades earlier of a horrific racial massacre.
In July 1910, after a series of disputes between individual whites and blacks in Slocum, a group of whites organized a mob of hundreds from across the county to carry out an armed attack against the area’s black residents. According to one account, “white mobs marched through the area shooting blacks at will.” The rampage went on for several days and resulted in the deaths of at least eight black residents (almost certainly many more). Many others fled the area, never to return, while property that had belonged to blacks was seized by local whites. Although eleven whites were arrested and seven indicted, none was convicted.
At the time it was national and international news, but by 1946, when the foundation arrived in Slocum to launch its “Texas Family Life Study,” the events had been utterly erased from the official narrative of the area. The Hogg staff members involved knew nothing of it, nor that Slocum had once been a majority black town "with several black citizens considerably propertied, and a few owning stores, businesses, etc."
The foundation had chosen Slocum and the surrounding area because it was considered “representative of a large number of Texas rural areas.”
The project incorporated about 1,300 people living in a six-town region centered around Slocum, with the black population residing in a segregated section called Union Hope. The project's aims reflected Sutherland’s expansive, public-health inflected conception of community mental health. The stated goal was “to improve the standards of living” in both the white and black communities, based on needs identified by community members themselves, and then to provide expert assistance in addressing those needs. Small grants were to be awarded in the areas of “health, juvenile delinquency, housing, sanitation, and many other specific projects.”
The foundation identified local white and black leaders to help coordinate the project, though more authority was vested in the white liaisons, school superintendent Joe Hassell and his wife Dora, a home economics teacher, than in the black liaison, the Rev. C.C. Harris of the Union Hope Baptist Church.
From the start there was clear interest from the black community in participating in the process and taking advantage of the potential funding, but there was also more hesitance and silence from the residents than foundation staff members were accustomed to encountering in their outreach efforts. It had been the experience of the Hogg Foundation circuit riders, to that point, that their most enthusiastic reception tended to come from black Texans. In Slocum, however, something was different. Foundation consultants described black participation rates in Slocum as high but noted that individual black residents were quiet and withdrawn in interactions.
Very slowly the reason for this reticence emerged. An undated foundation memo from spring 1947 mentioned a “race riot” that had taken place “twenty years ago,” but it wasn’t until the foundation had been in Slocum for another few months that a fuller picture began to emerge. Black residents began to open up to Ernest E. Neal, an African American consultant who had worked with Sutherland on the American Youth Commission in the late 1930s.
"The people are beginning to confide some of their community secrets with me," Neal wrote. "One of the things that the people of Slocum would like to erase from history is a racial conflict that took place forty-five years ago. No one seems to remember exactly when it occurred or what it occurred about. But it did happen, and several Negroes were lynched. The people don’t like to talk about it. But a few Negroes and Whites still remember the incident and the bitter feelings that lingered long after the incident passed. Therefore, when Mr. and Mrs. Hassell met with the people of Union Hope in their church to discuss the project in family education, they did not receive the response expected. Mr. Hassell says that they were met with a sea of cold indifference and almost stony silence."
From Sutherland and Neal’s perspective, it was not just the history of violence that was responsible for the coldness toward Joe and Dora Hassell. It was also the Hassells themselves, who were sincere in their desire to work with the black community but also condescending. They clearly viewed local African Americans as inferiors in need of white-led uplift.
So, for instance, the Hassells worked hard to make sure that foundation money went toward substantial physical renovations to the segregated Union Hope elementary school, notably the provision of sanitary drinking water and working toilets — things that some segregated black schools lacked during the Jim Crow era. They took the additional steps of helping to bring the school’s curriculum and academic calendar in line with the white district's, raised black teachers’ salaries to parity with local white teachers, and in the process gained state accreditation for the Union Hope school.
On the other hand, when Sutherland awarded Union Hope’s three black teachers scholarships to attend summer leadership workshops in recognition of their contributions to the Union Hope project, Dora Hassell objected that the same awards should go to Slocum’s 10 white teachers, even though they did not need the funds and had overcome comparatively fewer obstacles in improving their schools.
Wryly noting “a very definite attitude of prejudice on the part of Mrs. Hassell,” Sutherland smoothed over the situation by extending the offer to sponsor any interested white teachers who wished to participate in the summer workshop, which was focused on helping teachers become better community leaders.
As it turned out, even the Hassells’ hybrid of good intentions and old-fashioned racism was too progressive for Slocum’s white leaders. In April 1948, the school board demanded their resignations, citing as reasons that they had “pushed the community too fast” and “had shown a rather high-hat attitude” toward some families.
“While I think some inner politics were involved,” Sutherland mused, “I also know that their aggressive action in community work, including the establishment of the Negro council, probably had something to do with their dismissal.”