Carolyn Meyer’s 1993 novel White Lilacs
is a young adult piece geared towards ages 10-14, but it carries a lot of weight with its heavy themes of racial bias and class tension. However, the novel is often taught in middle schools because of its popularity within the historical fiction genre; it’s a curriculum favorite because it is based on true events. White Lilacs
takes place in 1921 in a black community called Freedomtown, which is right in the center of the entirely white town of Dillon, Texas. Meyer uses the main character Rose Lee Jefferson, a 12-year-old African American girl, to recount the very real story of Quakertown’s upheaval in Denton, Texas.
In 1921, Quakertown was an on-the-rise black community smack in the middle of Denton, Texas. However, this tight-knight community was forced to fight for the rights to their own land when Dillon proposed relocating the community to build a park instead. This struggle is the basis for the major conflict present in White Lilacs
Rose Lee has spent her entire life in Freedom. She was always appreciative of her community and her life, even when the sidewalks were muddy (the community was built on a flood plain, so this was a common occurrence) and her shoes never fit quite right.
Freedom is basically the bullseye in the middle of Dillon. Although they have everything they could ever wish for - a school, two churches, a barber shop, and a general store, to name a few - they are still separated from the white community, who surrounds them on all sides.
Rose Lee’s father runs the local barber shop, but her mother’s side of the family is immersed in the surrounding white community for work. Her grandfather Jim tends to the garden of a wealthy white estate, owned by Thomas and Eunice Bell. Rose Lee typically helps him out in his prized garden, but one night, her cousin Cora falls ill, and she must take her place in the dining room and help serve dishes for Eunice’s dinner party.
While panicking about whether or not she’s doing the job right, Rose Lee overhears something that shakes her to her core: the Dillon City Council, which Thomas Bell is a part of, is planning on taking over Freedom to build a new park. Eunice is ecstatic about the idea and brags to her friends, who mostly respond with enthusiasm. One guest named Emily Firth, however, finds the plan completely unjust. When she speaks up about her opposition, Eunice immediately shuts her down, stating that the black community is “childlike” and would be lucky to have something shiny and new like this park.
Rose Lee shares what she’s overheard with her friends and family. The reactions are varied, but there’s a consistent feeling of confusion and fear across the community as the news spreads. Rose Lee is asked to take Cora’s place permanently (at a rate of one dollar a week) to spy on the Bells, so that Freedom can be one step ahead in their fight to save their town.
Henry, Rose Lee’s older brother, is especially bothered by the news. He served in World War I and feels that losing his community is the ultimately betrayal. He risked his life and fought for this country, and now he’s losing his home within it. To him, there is no greater insult, so he becomes passionate about fighting back.
Henry proposes two options: either fight the City Council to remain in their homes or follow the advice of black nationalist Marcus Garvey and return home to Africa, where they would truly be free. Rose Lee and Henry’s father are entirely against this idea and hate
Marcus Garvey’s ideals, which ultimately causes more turmoil within their family.
As Henry begins to organize a protest, some residents of Freedom remain fearful. Some of the 58 families facing displacement are even willing to move, given the right price. However, when news breaks that the planned relocation for Freedom is The Flats, tensions escalate. Moving Freedom to The Flats is an immense downgrade, as it’s swamp-like land that’s essentially uninhabitable.
As fear and confusion mount, Rose Lee attempts to find comfort in the familiar parts of life. She continues gardening with her grandfather, and one day, Emily Firth asks if she can paint a picture of the two of them. Emily then offers to teach Rose Lee art, a talent that she hasn’t had the resources to properly nourish.
Rose Lee’s only other white friend is Catherine Jane, the daughter of Thomas and Eunice. Catherine Jane disagrees with her parents’ plans and even offers to drive Henry away when he faces threats by local white residents.
Tensions continue to rise during the Juneteenth Celebration, which is held in honor of the freeing of the African Americans in Texas. The local school is burnt to the ground. A group of angry white boys are upset with Henry because of his planned strike. To punish him and elicit more fear in the community, they tar and feather him. On the same night, a KKK march goes through town, and a cross is burnt in front of their church. Rose Lee is especially unnerved because during one of her nights at work, she discovered that Thomas Bell has a KKK outfit hidden in his library. Meyer’s imagery here is graphic, violent, and mature for the audience that she is targeting, but it conveys the dark and unfortunate truth of what happened in Denton in 1921.
The ending is dismal, upsetting, and vague. Emily Firth is run out of town for voicing her support for the African Americans, and Rose Lee loses her connection to art as a result. Freedom is forced to relocate, regardless of their efforts, and the move has affected Rose Lee’s entire family. Her parents are struggling financially and can’t stay afloat, her brother Henry has been put into hiding for his own safety, and her grandfather Jim can’t recreate his beloved lilac bush and ultimately passes away.
Meyer, addressing criticism that the end of the novel left a lot of questions regarding her characters, released a sequel in 1997 called Jubilee Journey,
which follows the life of Rose Lee’s great-granddaughter.