What do Yellow Roses really mean?

Florists with high-up placement on Google will assure you that Yellow Roses are all about Platonic, passion-free, unromantic love —the perfect Valentine for your sister.  But wait a minute…

If the florists are right, what exactly was General Santa Anna doing with a certain lady of color known as “The Yellow Rose of Texas” when Sam Houston’s troops surprised him at The Battle of San  Jacinto?

Legend says the Generalissimo fled his tent wearing only a linen shirt and silk undershorts.

Maybe Santa Anna and The Yellow Rose were playing a Platonic game of Parcheesi?

And just who was The Yellow Rose of Texas?

For history sticklers like me, she’s a “High Yellow” beauty of mixed race, immortalized in an 1853 folksong that celebrates her beauty and sweetness. The original lyric published back then includes what would become a hugely important line:

“She’s the sweetest rose of color…”

In other words, The Yellow Rose of Texas was a woman “of color,” with signs, however slight, of having a sub-Saharan-African ancestor.*

The song itself makes no mention of her name or her place in American history. However, oral tradition links this same Yellow Rose to an actual historical person. Her name was Emily West and she was a free light-skinned woman, born in Boston, Massachusetts. She was working in a Texas hotel when she was captured by Mexican cavalry under General Santa Anna. The tales say Emily wound up in Santa Anna’s camp, and perhaps eventually in his tent, when Sam Houston attacked the unprepared Mexicans in the 18-minute Battle of San Jacinto.

A History Channel mini-series portrays the historical Yellow Rose as irresistibly beautiful, smart and dangerous.

NOTE: I make no claim that any of the above is historical fact, and refer you to the Wikipedia article about Emily West for further information.  For example, there’s a large hotel in downtown San Antonio named for the lady. But, in any case, I would submit…

We’ve come a pretty far piece from 💛 Platonic 💛 love, yes?

Ironically, however, generations of modern Americans knew The Yellow Rose as someone else entirely. For them, she was the heroine of a monster hit by Mitch Miller — a Gold Record that knocked Rock Around the Clock off the #1 slot in 1955, and threatened to whitewash the title character for all time.

I commend your attention to a 1955 kinescope of Snooky Lanson performing Miller’s arrangement on the Golden Age of TV classic, Your Hit Parade. Dear Reader, you MUST click the above link and watch this clip to believe it.

Defying history, the song is set not in the 1836 Texas Revolution, but the 1860 Confederacy. Wearing a Confederate uniform, Snooky marches through the number against a backdrop of the Stars and Bars, flanked by  six white drummer-girls. In the final verse, his “Yellow Rose” finally appears -—a lily white Southern Belle in hoop skirt and frilled pantaloons!

Alas, poor Emily! And for that matter, poor Sam Houston! Forgotten is the entire Texas Revolution. Miller, who later became famous for his own hit TV show, Sing Along with Mitch, even included the song on an album entitled Songs of the Confederacy. 

Mitch Miller’s bleached-out version was covered countless times by everyone from Gene Autry to Elvis Presley.

Happily, however, traditionalists such as Roy Rogers, Willie Nelson and others restored the key lyric— “she’s the sweetest rose of color” —and the Wikipedia sets the record straight.

In sum, what strikes me from my admittedly hasty and shallow attempts to research the symbology of Yellow Roses and the Yellow Rose is…

  1. It’s a phenomenally popular icon of ROMANTIC love. Lately the Yellow Rose has even started to replace the White Rose as the dominant flower in bridal bouquets.
  2. From the time of its first documented appearance in pre-Civil War minstrel shows, The Yellow Rose of Texas song has proven astonishingly popular, recorded by everyone from Mitch-of-the-baton-and-goatee to Stan Freberg and even— albeit only as they were noodling through a tuneup—The Grateful Dead.
  3. Despite their undeniably passionate place in American legend and lore, Yellow Roses have suffered repeated attempts at whitewash…
  4. But underneath it all, our Yellow Rose remains among the sexiest, raciest and love-liest of all flowers.

*The absurd “one drop rule,” enacted as law by two states in the 20th century, would ultimately define all human beings as “Negro,” since current genetic research traces all living human beings to tribes who migrated from the Rift Valleys of sub-Saharan Africa. 

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