Arlo Weiner ‘24 is a history and Middle East studies major. For his thesis, he is creating a documentary about the 1947 Texas City Disaster in which 576 people were killed and more than 3,000 injured. With the assistance of a 2023 Bailey COE summer fellowship, he spent his summer in Texas City and Galveston, meeting with witnesses of the disaster and conducting historical research.
What led you to choose the Texas City Disaster as the subject for this documentary project?
I picked this project because I was able to get in touch with a man named Carl Trepagnier, who wrote a fictionalized account of his experience of the disaster entitled Rise Up: A Novel about the 1947 Texas City Explosion. He offered to bring me to the town and offered to show me around and introduce me to other people who also lived through the disaster.
Did you get the chance to interview survivors of the disaster?
Interviews are the basis of the documentary I’m creating. I went to the town where the disaster happened and I spent pretty much each day with a different person, hearing their stories. They showed me around the town and introduced me to their families.
Something that came up a lot in the interviews was that this generation of people never talked about the extremely intense experience they had. Not even with their families. It made me think about the way we remember. I’m sure our generation deals with problems we aren’t going to want to talk about or tell our kids. The events we share and what we keep private is interesting to me, especially as a history major. Talking about events, or not talking about them, shapes our history.
For those of us who are unfamiliar, what happened during the Texas City Disaster?
In 1947, there was a container ship full of fertilizer in Texas City, Texas. During World War II and after the area was heavily industrialized. There were agricultural companies like Monsanto in the area. There was chemical production related to the World War II war effort as well, in addition to an oil refinery and the petroleum industry.
On April 16, 1947, the container ship caught fire, exploded, and led to the death of an injury to a large percentage of the townspeople. They rebuilt quickly, and continued to support the companies that were related to the disaster. I came in expecting that they would hate the big businesses that caused this, but that was not the case. This generation of people had good pensions and health care, they were home owners and could send their kids to college, and it was because of employment through these companies.
Does the younger generation in the town share this perspective on the local industry?
The only thing to do in the town is working in oil or in one of the chemical plants. There is not a very critical view of the industries there, because it is basically the only reason the town exists. Monsanto and these other companies fund colleges in the area, set up technical schools that train kids to work in factories or in the petrochemical industry, and they will donate equipment and machinery so that college students can work as Monsanto employees.
Many of the younger people don’t know about the disaster; it’s really just the older generation of people who remember.
Who was impacted most by the disaster?
When the incident happened, the Black areas of town were the ones close to the industrial center where the impact of the disaster was the worst. Almost none of those residents received any compensation. There are very few Black survivors left from the disaster, and their experience wasn’t documented at the time. The oral histories I found about the disaster were from white survivors. It’s hard to even find a photograph of a Black person from the day of the disaster, because a lot of people left the town because their community was super heavily affected.
Do you address inequity and similar themes in the film?
Oh, it’s definitely a huge part of the film, because the people I interviewed have so many life experiences, and they would share lots of information and opinions. At the same time though, these same people were able to make money and buy food for their families because they worked for the companies that were poisoning their own community. People didn’t want to acknowledge that; many see the industry as good.
It is really the idea of the American Dream that people of that generation held for a while: The companies were good to work for, for the white people who lived there, and had strong unions.
Is there any history relevant to your thesis work that you would like to share?
The town became a port at the turn of the century, and that was the start of industrialization. They were exporting cotton that was grown in the South and loading it onto ships and selling it to other places. In a way, it’s always been a company town.
Texas City actually wasn’t hit that hard by the Great Depression. The people were pretty happy with the economic conditions there. If you consider the perspective of the Black sharecroppers who were living in the South, you could make five to six times more working at a company like Monsanto. That is part of why there was a huge Black community in Galveston and in Texas City. It’s a conflict because these companies are so flawed, but still showed some development. It’s very complicated.
What do you hope are the main things viewers will take away from this film?
I hope the film leads people to think about our relationship to industry, and to consider the different impacts a disaster makes on a community. I want it to focus on history and memory in general and how they work together. I hope that it’s entertaining as well. I also want the people who shared their stories with me to feel that it’s like a good representation of their perspective.
I would like to thank my coproducer and second cam operator, Noah Levy. I would like to add a thank you to the historians who work at the Texas City Library and the archivists they have there. I would like to thank Carl Trepannier, who wrote the book that interested me in this topic. The Texans I met were super welcoming and kind. I appreciate all of the people who took the time to work with me, and who were open to talking with me!