2003 — student award of excellence
Lori Duff is a photographer based in New Hampshire. Her work has been supported by a student award of excellence from the Alexia Foundation for World Peace, a University of Missouri “Truth with a Camera” scholarship and honored by Pictures of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, Society for News Design and the New England Press Association. Her photo career began at the age of 30 after working for a park in Kentucky, apprenticing as an actress at Actors Theater and serving as a Peace Corps water and sanitation volunteer in the Ivory Coast. She earned her B.A. At Indiana University and her M.A. In Journalism at the University of Missouri. She has worked for the Concord Monitor since 2004.
“History has taken care of itself.” – Rev. Lindsey R. Wilson Sr., Shiloh Baptist Church
Littig - Erma Lee Alexander, 75, sits outside her small home, a patchwork of red and white siding talking to one of her eight children on her cell phone.
“I got to get off this phone. My minutes are almost gone,” she says, watching her feet for biting red ants emerging from the soil.
Miss Kitt, as she prefers to be called, has spent most of her life in this Texas farming town halfway between Manor and Elgin, just inside the Travis County line. She has seen Littig move from woodstoves and wash pots to television and trash removal.
When it was founded in 1883, the town was a promised land for a generation of former slaves who yearned to own and farm their own soil.
Littig resident Bobby Sanford’s great-great grandfather Jackson Morrow was one of the founders. The large tract of land his owner gave him after the Civil War became the town center.
“The family has no recollections of him,” said Sanford, 69, a little woman with hazel eyes and a voice tempered by lung problems. “It’s sort of depressing.”
Through the years, the family prospered and the Morrows later owned a store and a cotton gin. Morrow’s son, Edward, was recognized as the first black postmaster in the state of Texas.
Hundreds of “freedman” towns like Littig were formed in East Texas after emancipation. Many prospered as farming communities into the 20th century until agriculture incomes plummeted and new generations moved away.
“After a while, the needs of the towns became greater and students had to leave the community to attain a college education,” Riles said. “Young people started migrating to the cities. They didn’t want to come back to the country. Their lives had taken on a new direction. There were more opportunities. They didn’t have to work on the farm anymore.”
But unlike other small black towns, Littig’s decline hasn’t meant disappearance. The community’s population has fluctuated through the years from nearly 168 people in 1900 to 37 in the late 1960’s to an estimated 60 today.
Used to be, residents were more self-sufficient. The Southern Pacific Rail Road line brought mail straight to the heart of the community and a general store, three churches, two cotton gins and a school were all nearby. Today, residents must go to Elgin or Manor for groceries, banking and errands.
Sanford and her sister Thena Mae Campbell, 74, were among those later generations who left Littig for college and jobs. They taught school, traveled the United States and came back to their roots.
“There was no place like Littig, so I returned to live life here,” Sanford said. Her mother Viney Campbell, 97, lives down the street.
“Everyone in town wanted to improve, progress,” said Sanford. “They had such a hard time growing up – picking cotton, very little food – all people wanted was to educate their children. Education was the way out.”
The town’s school closed in 1954. It was one of over 400 black schools in Texas helped or created by grants from the Foundation of Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago millionaire. The schools have been granted landmark status by the Texas Historical Commission.
Many from Littig went on to successful professional careers including Dr. Donnie Collins Breedlove, the first female secondary school principal in the city of Dallas, Beatrice Morrow Cannady, a pioneering attorney in Oregon, and Ernest Sterling, a successful Tyler businessman and a former chairman of the Board of Regents at Texas Southern University.
Retired school teacher Jerdie Baker,77, married into the Baker family and moved to Littig in the 1940’s. Annie Baker, her mother-in-law had been the town’s first female postmaster and ran one of the first black rodeos in the state. Jerdie’s late husband, Milton, was known for his love of airplanes and his small runway in the back pasture.
Today a fourth generation of Baker’s have taken charge of the nearly 350-acre homestead. The ranching duties have mostly fallen to Jeffery Baker, 36, who is the only one of the six Baker children who lives in Littig. A soft-spoken man, he watches over the cattle and cuts hay in his time off from his regular job as a mechanic in Austin.
Baker’s older brothers, a veterinarian, a financial planner, and a businessman come out on weekends to help on the ranch. But they admit it’s to keep the land profitable.
“We don’t plan to sell it,” Jerdie Baker said. “They want to keep it going - but I don’t know how long that is going to last.”
While he was growing up, Lloyd Jones, 55, liked to hang out with the Bakers and their horses. A heavyset man with a ready smile, Jones, a farrier by trade, practically lives out of his old tan Chevy truck as he shoes horses across the county. Today he’s going out near Elgin to work on a horse. He and his son Steve Jones, 32, pack up the cooler with Gatorade.
The two carry on a tradition of African-American ironworking in East Texas that dates back to the early 20th century when the blacksmith was one of the most important members of the community.
Growing up Jones viewed horseshoeing simply as a way to be independent.
“I wanted to work for myself and be my own boss,” Jones said.
This sense of self-sufficiency has been a defining element of the Littig community. Willie Martin, 71, who lives up the road from Littig, remembers her parents stressing the values of ownership. In the 1940’s when the government made land grants available through the Farmer’s Home Administration, Martin’s parents Tommy and Viola Fowler bought 103 acres of land for $4,500.
Martin grew up on the farm with her six siblings and then repeated the pattern of the Littig youth, leaving for college and coming back to retire. She takes care of her mother who is now 96.
Her brother Lorenzo Fowler, 63, has lived for years right across the street from the family home. With the help of his sons, it is he who has taken on the responsibility of maintaining the family land.
Like many people who grew up in Littig, Fowler moved to Houston as a young man searching for a new life. He swore he would never return to the farm. But the tug of the country was too strong.
“They always tell me there’s no place like home,” Fowler said.
Fowler and Martin are part of a group of residents who are working to keep up the historic Littig cemetery, which is still used today.
The cemetery is not far from the oldest church in Littig, the Shiloh Baptist Church, which will celebrated its 116th anniversary in November. It was built only a few years after the town was founded.
“In many places, the church was built first and then people thought about their own homes,” Riles said.
During its heyday the Littig community housed three churches. That number had dropped to one a few years ago when Pastor Willie Mae Simmons, 68, heard the call. The result was the founding of the Littig Outreach Mission.
“In 1987 the Lord spoke to my heart to go to Littig, Texas,” said Simmons, who lives in the neighboring town of Elgin. That next year she took an abandoned building, chased the snakes away, and began services. By the end of the year she had roughly 20 parishioners.
“This church is my heart. I could have gone anywhere but this is where I was called to come,” she said.
There’s a funeral in the cemetery and Mae McClendon, 67, has gone out early with her sister Ruby Williams, 69, to wait on the procession.
They call McClendon, “the mayor,” because she’s forcefully taken on the role of the voice of Littig in interactions with the county. She pushed to have the streets worked on and signs made for the roads.
As older generations pass away, their land sells and new housing developments creep closer from the outskirts of Manor and Elgin, the future of Littig becomes increasingly uncertain.
Development of rural areas has recently become such a hot issue that the National Trust of Historic Properties has placed rural landscapes on the endangered list.
Lorenzo Fowler’s son Mike, 41, who lives in Austin and comes out daily to help on the family land, has been ‘volunteered’ to take over the farm some day.
“If you came back in 20 years this may be all houses and you’ll wonder where I went,” said Fowler.