By Loretta Fulton
Jewish immigrants were more than welcomed in West Texas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries–even if their religion was a mystery to most.
A story in the Ballinger Ledger in 1911 explained, sort of, why a store in town would be closing on a Saturday. The real reason was that the owner was Jewish and that particular Saturday was part of the Jewish High Holy Days. The newspaper got the holy days right but erred in the explanation of what those holy days were about.
“This being the Jewish Christmas,” the article said.
That was one of many stories Suzanne Campbell, head of special collections at Angelo State University, shared Jan. 9 with an overflow audience attending the first meeting of 2018 of the Abilene Interfaith Council. The meeting was held in the south branch of the Abilene Public Library in the Mall of Abilene. Originally, it was scheduled for one room but flowed into two due to the crowd size.
People attending heard a humorous and insightful presentation from Campbell. She has been head of special collections at ASU for 21 years. Prior to that, she earned her master’s degree in history from the university. Her thesis was on Jewish settlers in Runnels County.
Her research into Jewish settlers in Runnels County and West Texas led to some interesting discoveries, like learning that the secretary of the treasury under John F. Kennedy, C. Douglas Dillon, was the grandson of Samuel Lapowski, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who lived in Abilene. Samuel’s son Clarence Dillon, who grew up in Abilene but later moved to New York, was the father of C. Douglas Dillon. Clarence changed the family last name to Dillon, his grandmother’s maiden name.
“Lapowski sounded too Jewish,” Campbell said.
A brother of Samuel, Jacob Lapowski, lived in San Angelo and another brother, Nathan Lapowski, settled in Colorado City before moving to El Paso. Samuel and Jacob married sisters.
Jewish settlers followed the railroad from Galveston, where they arrived in large numbers from the east coast in the late 19th century, Campbell explained. Many of them took the railroad as far as it went in Texas and settled in small communities. They helped build the communities, providing labor and opening their own businesses.
“If it weren’t for immigration, we would be in a sad state of affairs,” Campbell said, “especially in West Texas.”
A Jewish family, or several families, would arrive in a West Texas community and stay. They would open their home to the next Jewish settlers, allowing them to stay long enough to absorb the culture and learn about business. Then that family would move on to the next town on the railroad, set up a home and business, and repeat the hospitality to the new arrivals.
Campbell noted that the “First Annual Report of the Agricultural Bureau of the Department of Agriculture, Insurance, Statistics, and History, 1887-88,” published in Texas, showed that in 1887, the state was home to 5,527 “Hebrews.” Of those, six lived in Taylor County (Abilene), out of a population of 4,331 and 23 lived in Tom Green County (San Angelo), with a population of 4,533. By 1928, the Jewish population in San Angelo had grown to the point that a synagogue was built.
“Today,” Campbell said, “it is one of the oldest synagogues in the state of Texas that is still in use.”
Campbell related a story that illustrated the relationship between the Christians, who dominated West Texas settlements, and the Jewish immigrants. Henry Ragsdale, a Christian businessman living in San Angelo, approached a man referred to as “Rabbi Dave,” and offered to give the Jewish settlers a lot for their house of worship. Suspicious, “Rabbi Dave” wanted to know why the sudden generosity.
Ragsdale’s explanation–Jesus was a Jew who spoke Hebrew and Jesus would be coming back.
“When he does,” Ragsdale explained, “we’re going to need somebody to translate for us.”