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150 Years Later, a Reminder of the "Texas Troubles" That Began With a Downtown Fire

In the new issue of the Texas Observer, Julia Barton reminds: This year marks the 150th anniversary of the so-called Texas Troubles, which began when much of downtown Dallas caught fire on a brutally hot July afternoon. Many thought the inferno, which began at downtown drugstore, was due to scorching temperatures igniting phosphorous matches; but Charles Pryor, editor of the torched Dallas Herald, insisted, without proof, that the blaze was part of an abolitionist plot "to devastate, with fire and assassination, the whole of Northern Texas." Which led, ultimately, to the hanging of three slaves on the banks of the Trinity River.

Some historians -- among them University of North Texas's Randolph Campbell, author of An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865

-- insist the blaze should have been blamed on those so-called "prairie matches," which could and often would ignite upon the occasion of nothing more than a hot breeze. Barton has found others who would insist, no, the fires were indeed sparked by revolt:

One group does hold fast to the idea that some kind of uprising took place: descendants of the slaves themselves. Donald Payton's ancestors worked under Crill B. Miller, who owned a farm outside Dallas that caught on fire a few days after the town burned. When Payton, an amateur historian, first read that members of his extended family were implicated in the fire, he felt certain there was a plot. "The slaves weren't as naïve as the movies make them. They heard and saw things like everybody else did," Payton said of the turbulent times after the raid on Harpers Ferry. "I just don't think it was an accident."

Payton tells his version of the story every year to a huge reunion of the Miller family that gathers around July 8 on the former slaves' land in Oak Cliff. "I always want people to be conscious that our struggle to be free did not start or did not stop with Martin Luther King," he says. "We took freedom in hand, and that's a good feeling."

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