Emmons, Martha Lena (1894–1990)

By: Isaiah Tadlock

Type: Biography

Published: May 26, 2021

Updated: June 3, 2021

Folklorist Martha Lena Emmons was born in Mansfield, Texas, on January 21, 1894. She was the youngest of five children born to Elijah Simeon Emmons and Sarah Cornelia (Goodnight) Emmons. She credited her love of folklore to three childhood influences. First, her father’s lyrical manner of speaking, which she attributed to his Irish heritage, gave her a keen interest in an unusual turn of phrase. Second, she was influenced by friends and acquaintances in the local African American community, whose speech inspired her later work in African American dialect. Third, according to an interview she gave in 1985, her mother’s “old frontiersman expressions” from her family in Kentucky made her realize that speech could be uninhibited. Her relationships with her siblings often involved playing pranks on each other, which, coupled with her father’s innate sarcasm, gave her the characteristic sense of humor seen in her writing.

Emmons moved to Waco by 1916 and attended Baylor University. The following year, her mother died, and her father suffered a stroke. Elijah Emmons passed away two years later, and Martha Emmons made less frequent visits to Mansfield. Her outstanding record at Baylor earned her teaching positions there and at the Waco State School, where she primarily taught history, but also English. Around 1925 Emmons was teaching in Taylor, Texas, when a friend introduced her to folklore through a publication titled Legends of Texas (1924) by J. Frank Dobie. Impressed by what she read, Emmons wrote to Dobie about the serial, a subscription that cost two dollars. Dobie replied that for one dollar more, she could join the Texas Folklore Society. She paid the extra dollar and remained a member of the society for most of the next seven decades. Her students at Taylor produced a paper on the history of Williamson County, Texas, that attracted Dobie’s attention, and at his invitation, she presented the paper to the society in April 1925.

In 1933 Emmons resumed teaching history at the State Home in Waco and found herself responsible for planning and organizing the society’s meeting for April of that year. Two years later, Emmons was made president of the Texas Folklore Society upon the sudden death of then-president John Steckler. She held the office from 1935 to 1936 and again from 1969 to 1970. Her abilities as a writer led Dobie to honor her in his column titled, “The Flavor of the Soil and the Folklore Society,” which appeared in the Dallas Morning News on December 3, 1939. Emmons eventually presented a total of sixteen papers to the society from 1925 to 1986. In 1968 she published her first work, titled Deep Like the Rivers, as part of Paisano Series No. 4. She independently published a second book which she called I Come Runnin’ in 1976. This second work contained strong elements of her childhood, including “humorous anecdotes, superstitions, folk sayings, and cures collected from her early days and friends, black and white.”

In 1979 Emmons was given the Grasshopper Library Award, and in 1984 and 1988 had Texas Folklore Society events dedicated to her. For her skill and longstanding tenure, Emmons became known informally among the membership as “the great dame of the society.” In 1985 she gave three candid interviews to historian Rebecca Sharpless at Baylor University and told about her life and work. The interviews, which are described as “oral memoirs,” are still accessible there in print and in audio form. Martha Lena Emmons passed away on February 22, 1990, and was buried in the Mansfield city cemetery near her parents, who had inspired her love of language. In 2002 she was honored posthumously by the Texas Folklore Society as its first female fellow.

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Martha Emmons, Oral history transcript and interview by Rebecca Sharpless Jimenez, August 29, 1985, Baylor University Institute for Oral History (https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/oral-memoirs-of-martha-lena-emmons-series-2-transcript/1588611), accessed April 28, 2021. “Martha Lena Emmons,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/41949665/martha-lena-emmons), accessed April 29, 2021. Kenneth L. Untiedt, ed., Celebrating 100 years of the Texas Folklore Society, 1909–2009 (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2009).

  • Education
  • Educators
  • General Education
  • Women
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Folklorists
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
  • Central Texas
  • Waco

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Isaiah Tadlock, “Emmons, Martha Lena,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 18, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/emmons-martha-lena.

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May 26, 2021
June 3, 2021

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