September 29, 2023

“The Yellow Rose of Texas”: Black Historians Sound off on the History of the “The Yellow Rose”


“There’s a yellow girl in Texas
That I’m going down to see;
No other darkies know her,
No darkey, only me;
She cried so when I left her
That it like to broke my heart,
And if I only find her,
We never more will part.
She’s the sweetest girl of colour
That this darkey ever knew;
Her eyes are bright as diamonds,
And sparkle like the dew.
You may talk about your
Dearest Mae,
And sing of Rosa Lee,
But the yellow Rose of Texas
Beats the belles of Tennessee.”
-excerpt from song

Yellow Rose of Texas
While some call it legend, Black Historians contend the details of  the “Yellow Rose of Texas” is not only true, but also reveals an ironic African-American tragedy in Black history. It is the story of a Mulatto (fair-skinned yellow Negro) woman named Emily Morgan (West), who was not truly free by law, but a servant of James Morgan, an entrepreneur who capitalized on slaves, cheap land  and business opportunities in the Mexican colony which later became Texas. “Emily was a pawn caught in the middle of slave trade that exploited beautiful Black women to satisfy the sex desires of White men at that time,” Dr. James Butler, Black historian and sociologist at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana said. “Historically, Whites do not want these kinds of relevant truths exposed and linked to the horrors of slavery to be on the front pages of American history.”

A mulatto was a mixed-race female born of African-American and white parents. The original lyrics describing the Yellow Rose of Texas refers to her as the “yellow” rose, in keeping with the historical use of term “high yellow” as a description of light skin among people of color in the South. The fact revealed is that Morgan-West played a significant role in 1836 helping the General Sam Houston-led Texas rebels win the victory at San Jacinto over Mexican General and leader Santa Ana. It was the battle that secured Texas independence from Mexico.

Butler, who also heads the department of social sciences and government studies, said Black exploitation of Black women was accepted and common practice in southern states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and spread west into Texas territory.
It is one of the reasons for the many variations of skin colors among Black people,” he said. “They were chosen and used as sexual surrogates at the will of White men. They simply had no choice.” According to Black Historians, historical records and information from Texas State Historical Association, Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M, the story of Emily West has been told many ways, but one of the most intriguing accounts comes from a report from a “yellow” slave boy named Turner, who survived the battle to tell the story of how using Emily West as a sexual pawn played into the plans of the rebels to distract Santa Ana and overcome the Mexican Army.
This story is a tragedy because it presents a sense of irony, not service,” said Associate Professor Kenneth Howell, history program coordinator in the social work, behavioral and political sciences department at Prairie View A&M. “She was a slave and in Texas (at that time) would have always been a slave. She was caught in the middle and ended up playing a major role  in Texas liberation and independence.

It must be noted that Mexico outlawed slavery and that Santa Ana did free slaves who were captured in Texas territory. Many of the freed men and women ended up in Mexico. Her fate as the “Yellow Rose of Texas” began when she came into the service of Colonel James Morgan  after Morgan went to get workers for his settlement in 1835, according to Martha Ann Turner and her book, “Yellow Rose of Texas: Her Saga and Her Song“. About the same time Morgan was expanding, the Texas war for independence from Mexico was fully underway led by General Sam Houston. Morgan settled at the mouth of the San Jacinto River and provided some food and support provisions for Houston’s men. Morgan put Emily West in charge of loading flatboats with Houston’s supplies while he went to serve at the Port of Galveston protecting government officials and fugitives.

While this was going on General Santa Ana moved men into position for a full scale assault on Texas rebels. Others fled in advance of  his arrival, but West stayed behind to fulfill and keep her master’s orders. Santa Ana saw Emily West and was struck by her beauty. He captured the booty, meant for Houston’s men and took West and a boy named Turner. West convinced Turner to escape from Santa Ana’s men. Santa Ana was a ladies man who love playing the field and plundering the “goods” of women. Emily was a beautiful Black woman he could not resist and when Houston moved his camp closer after getting intelligence from Turner, he spied into the camp and saw her serving the general champagne and breakfast. Houston allegedly remarked that it was his hope that the slave girl would keep him in bed all day.

That afternoon, the final battle was waged and the Mexican Army was caught by surprise and Santa Ana was caught with his “pant’s down”. “It is not surprising that he was caught with his pants down,” Butler said. “Santa Ana was no different than White men who for years saw and took advantage of beautiful Black women being intrigued by their beauty and skin color. He desired that same encounter with the Black experience at any cost.” Some historians report that he ran away from the battle shirt open and using a dead soldiers blue smock. He was later captured. “His sexual liaison with Emily cost him,” Howell said. “She distracted him and it completely caused chaos with the Mexican Army.” Colonel Morgan found out about her work and had the story told and recorded far and wide. Black historians said details about Emily West Morgan are sketchy after the Texans victory.

No one really knows what happen to Emily after that. Some say she went to New York and others believe she still may be buried in the family cemetery near the Houston Ship Channel and San Jacinto area. A song was written in her honor that associates itself with the “Yellow Rose of Texas” and its connection to Texas independence. The Yellow Rose of Texas is one of the best known songs about Texas. Texas Confederate soldiers marched off to the Civil War singing the song as a tribute to that great moment in history and for motivation to defeat the North. Also, her heroic efforts are celebrated and remembered by the members of the Knights of the Yellow Rose of Texas each April 21 at San Jacinto.

Black historians said that she will never receive a posthumous medal or national recognition for her efforts because she was Black woman and a slave tied to a story that involved sexual gratification and a military plan that exploited and took advantage of it.
The fate of Texas and a nation turned on her work,” Butler said. “Despite her pivotal role, White history does not want to open that door.” Prairie View A&M Historian Frank Jackson agreed. “The truth on Emily Morgan-West has been played down in history. She deserves credit and tribute for making one of the most significant sacrifices and contributions in American History that has gone unrecognized.

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