Lewis E. Cook practiced civil litigation, probate and criminal law. He worked as an immigration attorney for a former U.S. Immigration Commissioner, as a banking and finance attorney in Dallas and was a Texas assistant attorney general. Always a writer at heart, he was raised in Arkansas and now lives in Houston.
Tell us a bit about your new book, “Joe’s Alamo: Unsung.”
There are three important points I want readers to know. First, it is likely a woman who first said ‘Remember the Alamo!' Second, there were likely Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, Catholics, and all major religions represented at the Alamo, and that the Yellow Rose of Texas was a black woman. Joe, a slave and the only male survivor of the Alamo said so.
As a premed major you taught biology, chemistry and science to junior high students. How did you get involved with Texas history?
I was hired by Houston Independent School District, HISD, to teach science and biology classes, and, due to scheduling, one Texas history course. My protest, that I knew no Texas history, got no sympathy and no class reassignment from the science department chairman. He simply told me to stay a chapter ahead of the students. That didn’t work. One of those student's dad's taught history at the University of Houston and his son really knew his stuff. His questions were sharp and he took pride in returning with challenging corrections and insights. I was forced to either suffer his humiliation every day, or learn some Texas history. So, I got serious about it, found Texas history very interesting and learned about Joe, Susan Dickinson - an Alamo widow- and her toddler, Angelina, as the only Alamo survivors.
Why did you decide to change direction and go from medicine into law?
I really wasn’t chased away from medicine with a broom but that’s what it felt like. After failing to get admitted to Arkansas Medical School, I saw that most surrounding states had only one or two medical schools. But Texas had seven. I got in my red Ford Fairlane and drove all night to Texas. I found an apartment for my Texas address and promptly started applying to all seven Texas medical schools. I got back one letter that essentially said "‘Dear Stupid,' you are not a Texas resident. One has to live here at least one year before claiming residence status." So I had a year to burn. Since I obviously did not know any law I asked the Dean at Texas Southern University School of Law to allow me to audit a law class. He gave me a funny look and said, “There are thirty students trying to get into that seat. Why should I give it to you?” I had to convince him that I was a worthy student. With a decent transcript he told me I‘d actually have to take at least three courses for credit, that I was conditionally admitted only until successfully taking the LSAT and the usual admission requirements. I assumed I’d probably flunk out in a year but I really didn’t want the law school courses to lower my GPA for medical school. So I actually had to study hard. Late one night after reading some 300 pages of law I was amazed at how courts wrote decisions and began to think that everybody needed to know more law and that I should appreciate my position.
Your book is a work a book of fiction based on historical facts. How did you uncover this new telling of the Alamo story?
I saw an Alamo movie that had a black guy in the final scene. He had no lines and was not wounded, but he led a donkey with a woman and child on its back out of the Alamo. I wondered who he was then. Later, when my student told me that his name was Joe, a real person, I started my research trying to find out more about Joe. The more I learned about him, the more I wanted people to see the Alamo from his complex perspective.
Not too many people know about the minority contributions to the Alamo battle. Why did you choose to recognize all races and religions that fought?
Joe said all races and religions were present there. I didn’t make that part up. But there’s a saying ‘When the legend is accepted as fact, print the legend.' Texas is a place, a state that won its independence as a nation on the blood of Crocket, Bowie, Travis, and theses real, unsung heroes. I had to find a way to tell their combined story. Joe’s Alamo Unsung is a realistic interpretation of those facts.
How do the characters reflect the real personalities of the Alamo defenders?
William Travis actually was a teacher, newspaper publisher, and lawyer. He suffered a divorce and was killed at the Alamo. He was a smart, no nonsense guy that did not suffer fools gladly. Three Legged Willie Williamson first called him Buck Travis, and others did, later. But to dismiss him as a hot head is wrong. David Crocket was a U.S. Senator from Tennessee. He was a charismatic guy that like to tell yarns and entertain men with stories and his fiddle. He really did call his long rifle ‘Betsey’ and was an excellent marksman with it. Jim Bowie was a real leader of men who had earned a reputation as a fierce frontier fighter with an unusually long knife. He had become a wealthy longtime settler in the San Antonio area like Juan Seguin, who really did lead the Invincibles and helped restore law and order in San Antonio after all Mexican soldiers were first ran off. Bowie and his longtime partner Sam, a black man, were not expected to survive an attack by a large number of Native Americans at San Saba. Months later they staggered into town and their legend grew.
Tell me a bit about two relatively unknown characters who are highlighted in your book, Susana Dickson and the slave, Joe.
Details on Joe and Susan Dickinson are scarce. Joe was Travis’ slave but where he came from and when are unknown. He was severely wounded at the Alamo. How Susan survived the battle of the Alamo is also unknown. But after the battle, General Santa Anna did want a white survivor to spread his massacre as a terroristic warning, and Susan was selected for that. Both Joe and Susan were not debriefed very well because the most important information they brought was that General Santa Anna was coming with an army of over 5,000 soldiers to kill Sam Houston and all leaders of Texas who dared to demand independence from his Mexican government. Since Sam Houston had recruited only about 300 soldiers, he needed to put time and distance between him and Santa Anna’s large Mexican army. Joe and Susan had hard lives after Texas won its independence. They were denied a Texas pension as Alamo survivors although a large number of fake Alamo survivors did receive pensions. Susan lived in poverty. She married several times to men of poor character who treated her badly until she finally married and found stability late in her life. Joe actually was ordered to be returned to the Travis farm in Alabama as a slave after Texas won its independence. Ironically instead, he escaped to Mexico.
What would you like people to take away from reading your book?
I want readers to know that Texas, like America, won its independence from the blood and sacrifice of all races and religions of people and that all of us have reason to take significant pride in the history of Texas.
Are you working on another book?
I’m working on a novel called Razor-Black, about kinky black hair and how it has gone from an object of disgrace in the sixties to a point of pride shared by all races that got a worldwide boost in popularity from Bo Derick, a white woman.
‘Remember the Alamo!’ is a slogan known worldwide for courage in battle against overwhelming odds. In that historic stand less than two hundred volunteers fought against five thousand soldiers for thirteen days. According to Joe, the only male survivor, all races and religions fought and died there. Lead by William Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett the Alamo defenders bravely made the ultimate sacrifice while suffering ever darkening days.
Joe was severely wounded during the massacre but allowed to live because he spoke Spanish and could translate the terrifying words of the army general who relentlessly attached the Alamo. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna wanted the Alamo to become symbolic of hopelessness and certain death for anyone that opposed his reign of terror. That did not happen due to efforts of Susana Dickinson and Joe, a slave.
This novel is inclusive of all races and religions just as Joe described. Its characters reflect the real personalities of Alamo defenders.
It includes recently discovered facts about William Travis, Joe, Susana Dickinson, Davy Crockett and John, who was pitifully listed among the dead only as a black boy.