There is no question that Texans are a very proud people. Obnoxiously so (I say this as a proud Texan myself). We have countless songs that extoll the greatness that is Texas. You all know them too. The Yellow Rose of Texas is one such song. What most people either don’t know or tend to forget is that the yellow rose in the song is a black woman.
History tells us that the yellow rose was a mixed race woman by the name of Emily West. And why was she a yellow rose? Because, as most of you know, “yellow”, that is to say light skinned, was one way to describe missed raced Americans. Emily was born free in New York (or maybe Bermuda) and came to Texas to work for a certain James Morgan. He had made his fortune in real estate and hired Emily as an indentured servant for one year. Shortly after Emily arrived at Morgan’s home, Texas’ War of Independence began. What happened next is based more on myth than fact.
Surrender of Mexican troops at San Jacinto via Wikipedia
Legend tells us that after Santa Ana’s troops swept through Texas, Emily was taken as a spoil of war. The Mexican general became infatuated with the mixed race Emily. Even the myth gets a little murky here. In short, he was cuddling her, sleeping with her, or just enjoying her company when the Texas Army arrived at San Jacinto. The Mexican Army was surprised, the Texans won, and Mexico surrendered… all because Santa Ana could not keep it in his pants.
We don’t know if the story is true. All we DO know is that Emily was in San Jacinto—but it was probably because she was trying to get her passport back to freedom in New York. What is fascinating is that a song about a black woman (even a light skinned one) would become one of the official anthems of a decidedly racist state.
The earliest known version of the song is housed at the University of Texas at Austin, the writer is merely identified by the initials H.B.C. In 1858, the first copyrighted edition of the song was published in New York. The song was "Composed and Arranged Expressly for Charles H. Brown by J.K." To this day we do not know who J.K was. The original song went like this:
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.
Statue of Emily, the Yellow Rose of Texas, in Houston via www.houstonchronicle.com
As time went on, the racial overtones of the song were changed. The word “darkie” for example, was changed to soldier. Ironically, it was probably done to be more palatable to white audiences, not to be less racist. But, hey, it’s something. Amazingly, even though it is widely accepted that the yellow rose was black, the only statute in honor of Emily, in Houston, looks strangely like a white woman…
Featured photo via texasmonthly.com