The Other H. P. — Part 2

This is a follow-up post to my previous piece on Harold Preece. I’ve since read more of his books and wanted to add some additional comments on his life and works.

Preece, at least in his early career, mainly wrote for newspapers and magazines. As a southern white man supportive of Negro issues he created a bit of a stir in left wing circles. Sure, a big fish in a small pond, but nevertheless he was gaining a reputation. His most influential work probably appeared in The Chicago Defender, a Negro paper with a big city circulation.

Preece’s newspaper articles attracted the notice of a Texas politician named Martin Dies, who criticized Preece, and referred to him as a “negro writer.” Preece replied back that he was white but not insulted and takes his stand with the Negro.

This stand and growing notice probably got Preece the job to co-write Lighting Up Liberia (1943). This book was co-written with Albert Hayman.  Hayman was an engineer/boss at Firestone’s rubber plantation in Liberia. It is a good indictment of the settler/colonial outpost and mindset.

Hayman writes in his introduction:

I was indeed fortunate to secure Harold Preece as the co-author of this book. Mr. Preece shares with me a conviction that the new world must be built on the foundations of dignity and equality for all peoples.  He is a southern white man by birth and has become widely known as a champion of the race to which we have assigned the lowliest positions – the black men and women whom we can no longer ignore whether they live in Louisiana or Liberia. Mr. Preece has written widely, and is particularly known for his sympathetic studies of the great Negro folk culture.

Hayman gives an overview of Liberian history and bemoans the fact that ex-slaves in turn took on the role of masters. The settler/colonial regime defeated the native Krus and Greboes and consolidated an exploitative rule.

Native tribes today are still required to furnish their quota of unpaid laborers for the roads in the Americo-Liberian districts of the five counties. Otherwise, the psalm-singing, gun-carrying soldiers will impose heavy fines upon the reluctant villages […]. The pawn system, whereby natives are forced to mortgage their own children to pay taxes or fines, still flourishes back in the hinterland.

Hayman interestingly talks about how the Americo-Liberians would often play games of divide and rule, using demagoguery of the whites in the country in an effort to sway native Africans to support their rule.

The book covers Hayman’s interaction with the workers and others at his Firestone Plant. It is always interesting and insightful. Firestone was the first big business to gain a foothold in West Africa. Native populations were uprooted to make way for the large rubber plantation but Hayman praises the Firestone Company for its fair wages and medical services to the workers. Hayman does note the medical services are in the company’s financial interest. Healthy workers are better workers.

But it is significant that [Firestone] has made no attempt to use its influence to better conditions outside of its own properties, although it is, in fact, that country’s master, able, if it chose, to squeeze the little martinet government between the fingers of its corporate hand.

There are a few things Hayman states that might seem wrong-headed or out-dated to the modern liberal. Hayman recognizes that the U.S. also began as a settler/colonial land, but he apologizes for the colonization of the United States by stating what is now considered a more right wing argument. Basically that the Indians were not doing anything productive and that our technological civilization is in the benefit of all. Modern ecological concerns make this notion seem naive at best. But most of Hayman’s views are still relevant today.

Next up for discussion is Harold Preece and Celia Kraft’s Dew on Jordan (1946). The book is co-written with his then wife, Celia Kraft. (They mention a son named Hillel David.)  Preece was a ministerial student at Texas Christian University. Kraft grew up in a Jewish religious tradition and family but apparently was not religious. Parts of this book might appeal to those that honestly like REH’s humorous stories (as opposed to those who just find them interesting since they are written by REH). About half of the book is very humorous. It is basically a collection of anecdotes about true believers: snake handlers, holy rollers, and rapture believing folk. Preece and/or Kraft throw in dialogue that, most likely, no one really ever said about working class inequality and praise of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Preece properly mentions his distaste when the hill folk talk about lynching and dislike of Negroes.

The last third of the book takes a more serious turn. He talks about Seventh Day Adventists and similar offshoots in less of a humorous eye than he did the snake handling types. Preece seems supportive of the vegetarian diet that Adventists follow and treats them as a more serious “back to the roots” church despite “The Great Disappointment” when they predicted the end of the world in the middle 1800s. That most of these small sects are racially integrated, of course, pleases Preece. He also tells of a liberal preacher who tries to join the races in the aftermath of the Detroit riots of 1943.

For whatever reason, most likely, the repression of communists and fellow travelers in the 1950s, Preece seemed to turn to Westerns as an outlet for his writing. He had several articles published in the western magazines and his next three books were all western histories.

Living Pioneers (1952) is a collection of multiple stories told by different narrators. Preece does not mention how much he edited or rewrote the different contributions. But some are better than others. Probably the best, in which Preece lets his notions of racial equality spring forth again, is “Good White Man.”

It tells the story of a young man who self-identified with Indians and wanted to live among them. He goes to join them and gets a rough awakening. They tell him to move on. He finally meets an older Indian who wants to break some horses. The kid is good with horses and was allowed to stay with this group. He earns the name Chemakacho and things go well until horses start disappearing. The Indians suspect Chemakacho and he has to leave and discovers an outlaw, Sam Bratton, is the culprit. The kid confronts Bratton and is almost killed for the trouble. An Indian had followed him and learns he truth.

The author of the story, La Verne Kershner, narrates:

Pokaro cut me short. “I think different when I see Bratton trying to kill you. I am sorry, Chemakacho.”

That was the only apology he ever made for suspecting me, and trying to finish me off before Bratton tried it. But the fact that he had called me by my Comanche name – the Good White Man – was worth a million other things he might have put into words.

I haven’t read Preece’s book Lone Star Man (1960) on Ira Aten, a Texas Ranger. Aten had a chapter in Living Pioneers and I think I got all I need to know about Mr. Aten from that. (Of course, someone will now pipe up and say that is Preece’s best book, and I should read it!)

The Dalton Gang (1963) is a fairly routine biography of the train-robbing brothers. Mostly interesting, but to my mind kind of badly structured. The Dalton boys were many in number and it gets a little sketchy for me keeping them apart. It could be me as a reader but I was a little bored by what should have been an action packed recount of the daring criminal gang. Preece’s only left-leaning comments in this book are a few mentions of the underpaid lawmen that risked their lives protecting other men’s fortunes.

It is hard to track much of Preece’s writing after those books. He continued publishing in magazines and even had REH related articles published in various fanzines during the REH boom. Also Preece must have maintained friends in the black press. He was writing for Sepia (sort of a black version of Life) well into the 1980s.

A Google Search on Harold Preece will bring up several scholarly publications with names like The Price of Whiteness, Struggles in the Promised Land, and The Southern Disapora, all published by University Presses and written by academics. Preece is duly quoted and footnoted in all of them. He was a foot-soldier in the battle for civil rights. Not a major name, but not a total unknown. Preece will never get rediscovered and become a bestseller like REH but in some very significant ways he was an important writer.