African Immigrants in a Small Texas Town
Diversity can be found in some unlikely places
I grew up on a ranch north of the “small” town of Corsicana, Texas. The town was the county seat of Navarro County and the center of a regional economy supported by ranching and agriculture. Corsicana is what you might expect from a small town on the dividing line between east and central Texas. Rumors spread quickly, often through the halls of churches. Religion and the school district were the backbones of social life, as well as that great Texas small-town tradition, the weekly ritual of Friday night lights.
It was a simple way to live. You get up and go to work or school from 9 to 5, rush home for dinner, and watch television until bedtime. On the weekends, the main events were church and football.
Corsicana, like most small Texas towns, also has a darker history. Racism lurks like a thief in the shadows, ignored when not visible, but still lurking. It often attempts to steal the peace, but only in small ways. It’s like a mosquito that buzzes in your ear and sometimes bites and leaves an itch. It’s annoying and frustrating and sometimes offensive, but mostly harmless.
Until you remember how those fields outside the town were once worked by slaves and sharecroppers.
Out to the west, away from the town, is Navarro College. But before you get there, you drive through a town starkly divided along racial and economic lines. Interstate 45, the highway that connects Dallas to Houston, runs far to the east of town, but the Interstate 45 business spur runs just blocks east of downtown along the BNSF railway that used to take cotton and other goods to and from Corsicana. To the east of this railway is a poor, predominantly African-American community. There is another such community to the west of the railroad tracks, but south of Highway 31, the main east-west route across Corsicana that connects to Waco. But these communities seemed invisible unless you lived there and there was never a good reason to visit.
Corsicana has a historic county courthouse typical of Texas county seats. In front of the courthouse is a statue of Jose Antonio Navarro, a Tejano leader of the Texas Revolution who co-signed the fledgling republic’s declaration of independence. Collin Street Bakery is off Highway 31 south of this district, the creator of a world-famous fruitcake that is Corsicana’s claim to international fame.
Historical claims to fame are a theme: it was the site of the first commercial oil well in Texas and at one time was the richest city per capita in the state. That legacy oil money is all that supports the town now.
Agriculture has been consolidated into large family-owned or corporate operations, and the nearby city of Dallas has drained much of the talent and resources. This has left a rump service-based, public sector economy to serve those who remain. The town of the past has been hollowed out, and the resentment is palpable.
To the west is something of an oasis that defies the decline, and that is Navarro College. Navarro is a small community college that provides two-year degrees and vocational training. Many nurses, welders, and service technicians who work in the area were trained there. With 10,000 students, it is the size of many universities and has a diversity of backgrounds. There are former high-school athletes who couldn’t make the cut at universities, adults, often fathers and mothers, seeking a new career, young people looking for a good education without taking on debt, and people just down on their luck looking for something new.
It was an interesting place to learn and be exposed to the world as a young man, with a combination of the high school focus on athletics and an adult focus on self-improvement and income.
Navarro had dorms, which made it unique among community colleges in the United States and made it a destination for immigrant students who could not be admitted into universities. In some countries, particularly Africa, the credentials of schools are not widely recognized. Not out of spite, but because the education system in these countries is poorly run and corrupt. A high school graduate there may have gone to a good school, but this was an exception to the norm, and most universities will not take the time to parse the difference.
However, community colleges with automatic admission like Navarro College will accept these students. And, because Navarro is one of the few community colleges in the nation with on-campus housing, it is a destination for many of these students. My foreign classmates hailed from three different countries: the Gambia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. These students were mostly Christian and more religious than the majority of their classmates. In practice, they were more religious than most of the residents in little Corsicana.
Across the street from campus are two religious “missions”: the Baptist Student Union for Southern Baptists, and the United Christian Fellowship for Methodists. Once a week, these groups would serve a free lunch for all students, staff, and faculty, and every week a large group of these African students would gather there. The image is still burned in my mind of elderly, small-town women serving lunch to young African immigrants, and carrying on like there was nothing odd about it. And this was in a town where most residents rarely left the county, and likely had never come in contact with an immigrant from overseas.
I personally came to know many of these African students, and one of them would even become a co-worker and close friend. One of them was a classmate from Nigeria, Immanuel. He wanted to be a computer scientist and software developer and was hoping to get into a state university with a top-notch program. I spent several afternoons with him in the library tutoring him in physics. Different aspects of the culture clash bothered me at first, but I eventually came to terms with them.
I was just a 17-year-old kid who lived on a cattle ranch, and I had very rigid opinions on personal space that took time to adjust to someone from a culture with a much smaller personal bubble. This was one of many clashes that I learned much from. But I also saw similarities. He was here with the support of his parents, who would give anything to promote their son’s future. He would go on to graduate from Ohio State University and works as a software developer.
The other Africans who I got to know were my coworkers at the Navarro College tutorial lab. I was hired to teach liberal arts courses, including English, history, and government. Two of my fellow tutors where locals: they had grown up in small towns in Navarro County. The other three were from Africa. Haddie, who was from the Gambia, tutored biology and anatomy, had a sweet personality on the surface, but could still dish out sarcasm and retorts with the best of them. She was never flustered, despite the prodding of one of my boorish American co-workers.
The other two were cousins from Zimbabwe. Melissa was a brilliant student who tutored math, anatomy, and biology. She aced every test and would go on to be the valedictorian of my graduating class in 2011, delivering a powerful speech to an audience of small-town Texans during the graduation ceremony.
Her cousin Bongai would become a good friend and confidante. We would talk for up to an hour at a time in the tutorial lab when we had no students scheduled. He tutored mathematics and taught me a lot about what it’s like to deal with real struggle and hardship. His family had fled the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. Their journey here was not aspirational, but about finding refuge and improving their lot in life. And he hoped that once his life here was secure, he could return to Zimbabwe and help overthrow its dictator and build a democratic country.
Building relationships with African immigrants was a defining experience of my teenage years and gave me a perspective about life in this country that few people ever have at that age. And having this experience in a small Texas town is very unique, and one I would not expect to be replicated anywhere else in the country.
You learn much more about people and their character by how they interact with others as individuals. This is the case regardless of political views or background. Who someone might have voted for means very little. That woman who was born and raised in this small town and who voted for someone who supports immigration restrictions would also serve lunch to those African immigrant students, and treat them with respect and dignity.
This belief that every person has inherent worth and dignity, embodied in the actions and interactions of people from diverse backgrounds, is something this country could use a little more of.