The tom moore farm

The great plantations (farms) of Mississippi grew up along the mighty Mississippi River, conversely, Texas plantations got their starts next to the Brazos River. There are at least two commonalities here: cotton production needs a lot of water and the black laborers on these “farms” often wrote and performed blues songs that gave voice to their many complaints. Mississippi may have produced Muddy Waters and John Hurt but Texas countered with Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Of course there are many other blues greats, but the point here is that a unique American style of music was geographic in its inception and was directly related to cotton. Mississippi’s Dockery and Stovall farms are matched by a notorious farm in central Texas called the Tom Moore farm.

The five Moore brothers established a very large cotton farm of 15,000 acres near Navasota that was operated more like a plantation than a modern farm. Walker, one of the brothers, had bought land there as early as 1911. Texas Monthly magazine described Tom, the most powerful of the brothers, thusly: “Tom Moore was a notorious twentieth-century plantation owner along the Brazos River, near Navasota, who ran his land and the mostly African-American sharecroppers on it as if it were the nineteenth century instead.”

Tom (1901-97) and his brother Harry (1903-88) were the one-two punch of plantation mentality power in Grimes, Brazos and Washington Counties in Texas for decades, a sort of white man’s law unto themselves. Tom ruled the farm with an iron hand while Harry was the farm’s chief politician, with his reach extending all the way to the Oval Office, occupied during the late sixties by his good friend Lyndon Johnson. But it was mainly Tom who received the brunt of black hatred aimed at the farm and its chief administrator. A line from one blues song referred to Tom Moore as the devil incarnate. The reference was in a song called “Three Moore Brothers” by a black prisoner named Joseph “Chinaman” Johnson, on a recording released in 1965. Here is how the song began:

“Well, who is that I see come ridin’, boy,

down on the low turn row?

Nobody but Tom Devil,

That’s the man they call Tom Moore.”

A fair criticism or not, Tom Moore became the chief antagonist for several blues songs. “Tom Moore’s Farm,” for instance, was recorded by at least six different performers, with the words being slightly different, but the refrain remaining the same. Mance’s version of the song starts like this:

“Ain’t but the one thing, see what I done wrong

Ain’t but the one thing, see what I done wrong

Moved my family down on Tom Moore’s farm”

John Shelton Reed, an authority on Southern violence, argues in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture that “the concept of justifiable homicide is at the heart of the southern tendency to violence. One carries a gun or knife because one might have to use it, and one uses it because the occasion merits it. Much of the literature and popular culture of the South revolves around violence, which is often viewed in a neutral or even laudatory way. For Southerners, murder in defense of honor, after sufficient provocation, is often tragic rather than simply wrong.”

If what Reed wrote is true, then would it be a stretch to argue that the white man’s racism could be mimicked by his black workers? Especially if their boss, Tom Moore in this case, is telling them to go out and kill whoever you want, but come back to the farm and I will protect you from the law?  

Other writers carry this argument one step further. “One of the most pernicious and dehumanizing effects of white racism has been the gradations of skin color within the black population to take on characteristics of a caste system,” wrote Giles Oakley in his 1997 book entitled The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. “The closer the color was to white, the more attractive they were felt to be even among black people.” Or as Georgia bluesman Blind Willie McTell sang, “A black man give you a dollar, you won’t think it nothin’ strange, Yellow man give you a dollar he’ll want back 95 cents change.”

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