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“The Yellow Rose of Texas”: The Ironic Origins of a Popular Song

While many Americans are familiar with the song, "The Yellow Rose of Texas," few know the story of Emily West, the African American woman who was the inspiration for its creation.  In the excerpt below from a longer article that first appeared in 1996, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill English Professor Trudier Harris explains that history.  

I would venture to say that most Americans are familiar with the folksong, "The Yellow Rose of Texas:" If they cannot recall all of the lyrics, there is still a resonant quality about the song. I would also venture to say that few of those Americans—Texans notwithstanding—have reflected overly long on the implications of the fact that the song is not just about a woman, but about a black woman, or that a black man probably composed it. Scholars such as Martha Anne Turner have linked the song to its contextual origins—that of the Texas war for independence from Mexico in the 1830s and a specific incident in 1836—and others have argued its irrelevance to that event. It was only in 1989, however, when Anita Richmond Bunkley published Emily, The Yellow Rose, a novel based on the presumed incidents that spawned the fame of the yellow rose, that the fictionalized expansion of the facts encouraged a larger and perhaps different audience to become aware of the historical significance of Emily D. West, the hypothetical "Yellow Rose of Texas:"" This publishing event certainly re-centered the song and the incident in African-American culture, for over many years and numerous versions, the song had been deracialized. Bunkley, herself an African American woman, researched the complex history of another African American woman and imaginatively recreated and reclaimed it.

The presumed historical facts are simple and limited. Emily D. West, a teenage orphaned free Negro woman in the northeastern United States, journeyed by boat to the wilderness of Texas in 1835.  Colonel James Morgan, on whose plantation she worked as an indentured servant, established the little settlement of

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