The black Cheneys and the white Cheneys were family, said Andrew Sanders, the man who chronicled the lives of his ancestors in a new book, The Garden of Eden, The Story of a Freedman’s Community in Texas.
The black Cheneys were brought to Texas by the white Cheneys to farm and work the land in the 1830s. By that time Mexico had prohibited slavery, but Texas slaveholders counted on Mexican officials to turn a blind eye.
Major Cheney, the Cheney-Sanders family patriarch, was born in 1856, the product of an unidentified black slave woman and a white settler, and was Sanders’ great-great-grandfather. Cheney sired 12 children in his lifetime, and was the great-grandfather of former Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders, who wrote the foreword to the book.
The black and white Cheneys all settled in a small community that became known as the Garden of Eden, named so because the land was fertile. The Garden is nestled between Fort Worth and what is now known as Haltom City but was called Birdville at the time.
The Cheneys treated their slaves well by all accounts, and after slavery was outlawed in the United States the two parts of the family maintained cordial relationships, Sanders writes. The skills learned by Sanders’ ancestors during slavery allowed them to flourish once they were free, and they continued to work the land, raising livestock and crops to feed themselves and others in their community, Sanders said.
The Cheneys were able to amass a sizable amount of property, and some members of the family still live there today, or very near there, keeping the legacy of the family alive, Sanders said.
“My great-great-grandparents had more than any of my relatives have today and they were uneducated,” Sanders said. “But they had wisdom. They went to church every Sunday and believed that if you worked hard, got an education and believed in Christ, good things will come to you. And they proved that to us.”
‘They died out’
But by the turn of the century, there were no longer any white Cheneys living in the Garden of Eden.
“They died out,” said Sanders, 69. “There were only a few of them living there to begin with.”
Many of the white Cheneys lived in Hallettsville, a small community in Lavaca County with a population of about 2,500, according to the town website. About 20 years ago, Sanders traveled to Hallettsville to substantiate the stories that he had heard about his white relatives.
When Sanders finally met the other part of his family, they said they had heard whispers that they had black relatives but knew little about them.
“During my visit, I met a policeman who pulled me over because he thought I was lost,” Sanders writes.
Sanders told the officer that he was looking for his relatives but he replied that the only Cheneys in town were white.
“They would be the ones,” Sanders said. “He kind of smiled and said, ‘You need to come with me.’ ”
Sanders said his journey into the past began when he was seven, prodded along by constant conversations with older relatives who knew the people he sought to know.
Sanders said he spent a lot of effort on documenting everything in the book that he could substantiate, scouring census records and yellowed newspaper pages. The book is augmented with an appendix, notes, a bibliography and an index, as well as several historical photographs.
Sanders writes that two other African-American families, the Loyds and the Boazs, had settled in the area about the same time the Cheneys put down roots in the Garden. Major Cheney married a daughter of the Loyds in 1881, named Malinda, and eventually they had seven children together.
But before their marriage, Major Cheney had one last adventure with his friend, the notorious gangster, Sam Bass, Sanders said. Major Cheney was an experienced horseman, and his residence was a place where Bass could get a fresh horse, something to eat and rest after robbing banks and stagecoaches, Sanders said.
On July 21, 1878, the day Sam Bass died from gunshot wounds after a failed bank robbery in Round Rock, Major Cheney ran to avoid the same fate and was captured by Indians, Sanders said. The Indians sewed him up in a Buffalo hide and left him on the plains to die, Sanders said. But a white family traveling to Birdville saw Cheney struggling, cut him out and dropped him at home.
“He was one of the few to escape,” Sanders said.
The Cheneys had other white friends, Sanders said. Neither Major nor Malinda Cheney could read or write, but they maintained relationships with prominent whites in the area who helped them professionally, said Brenda Sanders-Wise, Andrew Sanders’ sister.
“Major was black but he could pass for white,” Sanders-Wise said. “He would go into the bars and no one would question it. With her long straight hair, Malinda was often mistaken for a Native American, so she would go into the bars too.”
But even though he may have had the opportunity to do so, Major Cheney did not pass for white. He and Malinda Cheney believed in family and in the importance of an education, Sanders said. In 1891, Major and Malinda Cheney donated an acre from their Garden estate to build a school for black children.
“Now I’ve got nieces and nephews who don’t want to walk around the block to go to school and I had relatives who walked from Tennessee to get to Tarrant County,” Sanders said.
If you go
Publisher TCU Press and author Drew Sanders will host a celebration honoring the release of The Garden of Eden: The Story of a Freedmen’s Community in Texas.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday