Jim Crow in Texas

This week Austin hosted the Civil Rights Summit celebrating President Lyndon Johnson’s amazing efforts to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, legislation that changed the course of American history. The Felix Longoria Affair reveals only one painful account of life in the Jim Crow South before LBJ stood up to the practices that stained this country’s heritage.

In 1948 the remains of Private Felix Longoria were recovered from the Philippines where he had been killed while serving on a volunteer mission

Private Felix Longoria

Private Felix Longoria

near the end of World War II. His body was shipped to his home in Three Rivers, where a barbed wire fence cordoned off the Mexican section of the cemetery. When Longoria’s widow tried to arrange for his wake in the local funeral home, the director refused to allow the family to use the chapel. He claimed that at previous Mexican-American services there had been disturbances and also that “the whites would not like it.” The funeral director offered to hold the wake in the family’s home on the Mexican side of town, which was the custom in Three Rivers.

Private Longoria’s widow and her sister turned to Dr. Hector Garcia who had recently founded the American G.I. Forum, a group of Texans that worked to secure equal rights for Hispanic veterans. After Dr. Garcia received the same negative response from the funeral director that Mrs. Longoria had received, he sent telegrams to Texas congressmen asking for their support. Immediately Senator Lyndon Johnson responded, offering to arrange for the burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Word spread of the discrimination with an article in the New York Times, and Walter Winchell commented on his radio program, “The big state of Texas looks mighty small tonight.”

On February 16, 1949, the funeral service took place with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in the presence of Private Felix Longoria’s family, Senator Johnson, and a representative of President Harry Truman.

The Texas House of Representatives authorized a five-member committee to investigate the Felix Longoria affair. After open hearings at the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce, the committee decided that although the funeral director acted in anger, he had apologized, and he had not discriminated against the Longoria family. The report was never filed as committee members began to back peddle with comments such as the director’s words “appear to be discriminatory” and the director’s actions were on “the fine line of discrimination.”

The Civil Rights legislation that LBJ pushed through Congress in the 1960s began the long road toward reversal of discrimination in this country. The Civil Rights Summit of 2014 highlights and encourages the continuation of that march toward equality for all our citizens.

Son Muy Hombres (?)

“Are They Real Men?” Alice Dickerson Montemayor, a Mexican American feminist of the 1930s, actually asked that question in an article in the LULAC News in March 1938. Montemayor was challenging what she viewed as gender discrimination and machismo in LULAC

Alice Dickerson Montemayor

Alice Dickerson Montemayor

(League of United Latin American Citizens), the oldest Hispanic civil rights group in the United States.

Alice Montemayor, who preferred being called Alicia, was born in 1902 in Laredo, long before Mexican-origin women embraced a feminist movement. After she married and had two sons, Montemayor began in 1934 as a social worker with the task of investigating welfare claims by Mexican Americans in Webb County. At first, she was denied a key to the office and was forced to work under a tree.  Some of the Anglo clients refused to see her, and at one point tensions grew so high that she was provided a bodyguard. Although she remained in that job until 1949, perhaps it was her treatment in the beginning of her employ that prompted her to become a charter member of Ladies LULAC Laredo, one of several women’s chapters that worked separately from the men’s groups.

When LULAC organized in 1929 in Corpus Christi, it did not include women, and for a while women operated auxiliaries. In 1933 the annual convention of LULAC “permitted Latin American women to organize on the same basis as men.” When Ladies LULAC began opening chapters, Montemayor became a charter member of the Laredo chapter, and began experiencing the sexism of Mexican American men who had organized LULAC to fight for Hispanic civil rights.  The men believed women should remain at home, work in the church, and stay out of politics. Montemayor began establishing herself in LULAC by writing articles for LULAC News. Her first article titled, “Women’s Opportunity in LULAC,” said a woman’s place in LULAC was “in that position where she can do the most for the furthering of her fellow women.”  In 1937 Montemayor became the first woman elected to the position of second national vice present general, which did not sit well with some of the male leadership and led to two events that prompted Montemayor’s article questioning the manhood of some of the male LULAC members.  The first incident occurred after her election when an official wrote a letter in which he said he hoped the president would soon get well because “there are those of us who hate to be under a woman.” The next grievance came when the El Paso Ladies’ LULAC wrote three letters that were ignored by LULAC’s president. In Montemayor’s “Real Men” article she said the sexism of LULAC’s male leaders reflected insecurity, not male superiority; their Latin way of thinking caused them to believe that men are superior to women in civic affairs and administrative fields. She wrote that Real Men were not threatened by sharing power with women.

When plans developed for forming a Junior LULAC she wrote a series of essays supporting the movement and organized a coed group with the belief that youth programs would help boys and girls “abandon the egotism and petty jealousies so common today among our ladies’ and men’s councils.”  To further good citizenship and become prepared for future leadership in LULAC, the young people learned debate and acting techniques, took part in public service, and improved their educational skills.

It’s not clear why Montemayor withdrew from LULAC about 1940. For a while, she operated a dress shop, and from 1956 until her retirement in 1972, she worked as a registrar for the Laredo Independent School District. After retirement she became a folk artist, using bright primary colors to paint Mexican family scenes, women, portraits and landscapes.  Signing her work “Mom” and later “Admonty,” she had solo exhibits at many venues in Mexico, Chicago, Texas, and California. A year before her death in 1989, she was honored by a presentation at the fifty-ninth Annual LULAC Convention.

From Indian Captive to Texas Leader

Rebecca Jane Gilleland was seven when Comanches swooped down on her family, killed both parents, and took as captives Rebecca and her six-year-old brother William. Born in Philadelphia in 1831, Rebecca settled with her family near present Refugio about 1837. When Rebecca recounted her experiences to the Galveston Daily News in 1913, she said it was late afternoon when the Comanches surprised the family as they walked near their home. Rebecca remembered that as the Indians bore down on them, her mother grabbed the children’s arms and was praying loudly that her children would be saved when they “were baptized in her blood.” Rebecca’s father was struck down as he ran to the house for his gun.

The chief’s wife scooped Rebecca onto her horse and at first threatened to cut off their hands and feet if she and William didn’t stop crying. However, Rebecca believed the woman kept the other Indians from harming her and soon began to stroke Rebecca’s blonde hair.

Apparently it was the following morning, when they stopped to rest, that a company of Texas Rangers led by Albert Sidney Johnston surprised the Indians. In the melee, hand to hand combat, William’s body was pierced with a lance and Rebecca took a sharp blow to her temple. The Rangers chased after the Indians, leaving the terrified children behind.  Rebecca said William roused from unconsciousness as she carried him to hide in nearby brush. It was only after the Rangers returned, and Rebecca heard them calling her name that she and William emerged from their hiding place.

They stayed with William C. Blair, a Presbyterian minister in Victoria, until an aunt in Galveston came to get them. Rebecca attended school in Galveston and then was sent to Rutersville, a Methodist school between La Grange and Round Top where she met Orceneth Fisher, a minister almost thirty years her senior, who was working at the time as an editor of the Texas Wesleyan Banner.

After their marriage in 1848, Rebecca and Fisher served several churches in East Texas before taking a rugged stagecoach trip to California where they found a reign of lawlessness.  When the crusading San Francisco newspaper editor, James King, was murdered, Fisher was asked to preach the funeral sermon. While in the middle of his sermon, word arrived that a gang had hanged the men accused of King’s murderer.

The Fishers moved, under the protection of army troops, to Oregon where he organized the Methodist Episcopal Church South. On the eve of the Civil War, a mob of 300 stormed a camp meeting and threatened to hang Fisher, apparently for his perceived southern sympathies. Rebecca said of the experience that she grabbed the leader “by the collar and held him fast.  He looked into my eyes and turned away without speaking. I will never forget the vicious expression of his countenance.” She also claimed that her husband quieted the mob with his calm demeanor and assurances that he came with a message of peace and love. During those tumultuous years, while the Fishers raised their six children and expanded the work of Methodism, Rebecca became know as the “woman who quelled the mob.”

After returning to Texas in 1870 and settling in Austin, Orceneth Fisher served two terms as chaplain for the Texas legislature before his death in 1880. Rebecca’s brother William was a highly regarded poet whose work appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers before his death in 1894.

Rebecca Fisher was the only woman elected to the Texas Veterans Association, and after its members who had served from the time of the Texas Revolution to annexation, all passed away, the work of the organization was taken over by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) of which Rebecca Fisher was a charter member. She worked with Clara Driscoll and others to save the Alamo from destruction, and for several years she offered the opening prayer for the Texas legislature. Her portrait was the first of a woman to be hung in the Senate chamber at the Texas capitol. At her death in 1926 at the age of ninety-four, the body of the woman known by many as “the Mother of Texas” lay in state in the Senate chamber, the locale of her funeral service.

Portrait by Texas artist Royston Nave, which was the first of a woman to hang in the Texas Senate Chamber.

Portrait by Texas artist Royston Nave, which was the first of a woman to hang in the Texas Senate Chamber.

Elizabeth McAnulty Owens, Pioneer Reminiscences

Thanks to the stories that Elizabeth Owens told her daughters, we know about life in Victoria, headquarters for the De León Colony, $T2eC16ZHJHYE9nzpecDNBQVfNGLq1w~~60_12during some of its most turbulent times.

Elizabeth McAnulty was two years old when her mother and stepfather, Margaret and James Quinn, moved the family from New Jersey to Texas in 1829 as part of McMullen-McGloin Irish Colony. While the group of fifty-three families camped on Copano Bay near present Rockport, Elizabeth’s baby sister became the colonists’ first death, perhaps from cholera that spread through the settlers and followed them as they moved inland to the old Spanish Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio.

Drawing of Nuestra Señora Del Refugio Mission by Howell, 2005

Drawing of Nuestra Señora Del Refugio Mission by Howell, 2005

After a year, most of the families moved to the colony land at San Patricio on the Nueces River, but Elizabeth’s family remained and began farming near Refugio.  It was the custom for Elizabeth and her brother Thomas to take lunch to her stepfather who was working in the field.  Elizabeth recounted the story of a drunk Indian who caught Thomas and must have terrified the children by saying the sweetest morsel ever known was a white man’s heart.  Elizabeth ran for help, and her stepfather used an ax to strike the Indian more than once before he released the boy.

When Elizabeth was eight, James Quinn acquired a league of land (4,428 acres) in the De León Colony just outside Victoria. The following year, in February 1836 Elizabeth witnessed a Tancahua Indian Scalp Dance on Market Square in Victoria.  The peaceful Tancahuas had been approached by the warlike Carancahuas (generally called Karankawas) asking for help with an attack on the aristocratic and refined Mexican family of Don Martín De León the empresario who had founded the colony.  For some reason the Carancahuas especially hated the empresario’s wife.  The Tancahuas met the Carancahuas and instead of joining the attack, they cut the Carancahua’s bow strings, killed thirteen members of the tribe, and took the scalps stuck atop their spears, to Mrs. De León as a gesture of their friendship. Mrs. De León expressed her gratitude with a huge feast for the Tancahua and that is when Elizabeth, a nine year old, witnessed the Scalp Dance.

As war clouds for Texas independence built up, James Quinn joined a company that made the twenty-five-mile trip to La Bahía, to help defend the presidio from Mexican attack. Elizabeth went with her mother to a nearby home where the women molded bullets for their husbands.  As the large Mexican Army approached Goliad, the settlement around Presidio La Bahía, James Quinn and other men returned to Victoria to move their families to safety. James Quinn discovered his oxen had roamed away in his absence, leaving only the Quinns and two other families who supported independence.

Elizabeth said that during the battle between James Fannin’s troops down on Coleto Creek (fifteen miles away) and General Urrea’s Army, they could hear the sound of the cannons.  A man arrived on horseback with a message for Colonel Fannin.  When he heard the cannon fire, he stayed with the Quinns.  While he told the family his story, Elizabeth sat on the hearth holding a candle in the chimney so the light could not be seen.  When a shot rang out, the messenger apparently thought they were under attack because he rushed out to his horse and rode quickly away in the darkness.  He did not get far before he was discovered and shot.

General Urrea’s army, having just accepted Fannin’s surrender, reached Victoria with great fanfare, parading through the streets to the sound of their bugles and drums. A Mexican officer took possession of the Quinn’s front room. Although their home was constructed of adobe and had only three rooms with dirt floors, it was one of the more comfortable houses for that time. The officer’s presence afforded protection for the family when a group of Mexican soldiers banged on the door with their muskets because when the Mexican officer’s wife opened the door, the startled Mexicans quickly withdrew.

Elizabeth tells another story about Señora Alvarez, the woman known as “The Angle of Goliad,” who had saved several of the Texans before the massacre.  It seems she was the wife of a Mexican colonel, and despite stories of his abandoning her when he heard that she had rescued some of the young Texans at Goliad, she arrived with her husband in Victoria. Seven men who had escaped the massacre rushed into Victoria, apparently unaware that it was occupied by Mexican troops.  They attempted to enter the Quinn home, and when Elizabeth’s mother exclaimed that they would all be killed if the Texans were found there, the men ran back into the yard where Mexican soldiers killed three of them.  The other four were imprisoned in one of the homes. Elizabeth’s mother bribed the guards to let her son Thomas take food each day to the prisoners.  On a day when the boy encountered the new guard he was choked severely for delivering the food.

Elizabeth said that when the four Texan prisoners were brought to the Market Square to the executed, Señora Alvarez threw herself in front of the Texans, spreading her huge skirts out before them and protesting that she would also be shot if they were killed.  After Santa Anna surrendered, the four men were released.

Despite Santa Anna’s surrender, a rumor spread that the Mexican Army had reorganized and was heading to Victoria.  All residents were ordered to flee. The family loaded a small cart and began their journey northward with a Mr. Blanco and his son.  They crossed a creek and the Lavaca River before they reached a ferry on the mile-wide, swift-running Navidad.  When their turn came to board the ferry, it was too heavily loaded and tipped the family and all their possessions into the water. Elizabeth grabbed a partially submerge tree and clung for her life. Mr. Blanco’s son disappeared under the water, but Mr. Blanco spotted the white sunbonnet that Elizabeth was wearing and managed to pull her to safety.  All the party was saved except for Mr. Blanco’s son.

There were several more scares of Indian attacks or Mexican invasion as Mexico refused to accept that Texas has won its independence. Many times the women and children were moved to a block house that offered better protection; other times they crossed the Navidad River, even spending the entire winter of 1836-37 away from Victoria. Upon returning in 1837 to Victoria, the Quinns found their home reduced to ashes. Texan soldiers had spotted a herd of deer on a hillside, and thinking they were the Mexican Army, the Texans ordered all the houses burned except those that surrounded the town square. The houses on the square were saved for the soldiers’ use. The Quinns spent the winter in the church with other families who hung partitions for privacy.

In 1840 Comanches who felt betrayed by whites in an incident at San Antonio’s Council House that resulted in the death of most of the Comanche leaders, swept down across Texas is what became known as the Great Comanche Raid.  When they reached Victoria they killed several and terrorized the town before moving on down to the port of Linnville, which they completely destroyed.

When Elizabeth was seventeen, she married Richard Owens, a New York native who arrived in time to serve in the Army of the Republic of Texas.  Among other lucrative endeavors, he became a very successful building contractor, freighter, merchant, and mayor of Victoria. Elizabeth worked as a community leader while raising their twelve children.  During the Civil War, Elizabeth and her daughters sewed the regimental flag for Col. Robert Garland’s Sixth Texas Infantry.  Using material from Richard Owens’ mercantile store, their flag had a background of red Merino wool bordered in a white silk fringe, featuring a large blue shield with twelve white stars circling a larger star representing the Lone Star State.  The regiments name showed in white silk letters.

From Home Page of Co "K", 6th TX Infantry reenactment group

From Home Page of Co “K”, 6th TX Infantry reenactment group

Elizabeth McAnulty Owens died in 1905, but she had shared the stories of her life adventures with her daughters, and they used their notes to write Elizabeth-McAnulty-Owens, The Story of her Life, which was published in 1936.

Dedication Built a Medical Complex

When the twenty-seven-year-old Dr. Arthur Edward Spohn arrived in Corpus Christi in 1872, he had already served as assistant professor4715182038_d32f95dd82_b of surgical anatomy at Long Island Hospital, New York, as the surgeon in charge of military quarantine at Galveston, and he had invented an elastic rubber-ring tourniquet for bloodless operations used by many armies around the world.  This brilliant young man who generously treated patients regardless of their ability to pay, proved a good match for Sarah Josephine Kenedy, daughter of Petra and Mifflin Kenedy scions of the great ranching empire that partnered with Richard King of the famed King Ranch.  After the couples’ marriage in 1876, Spohn continued his studies at University of New York and Bellevue Hospital before touring hospitals and clinics in Europe.  He returned to the United States with Louis Pasteur’s method for treating rabies.  In 1891 Spohn was the first doctor in the United States to successfully use Italian obstetrician Eduardo Porro’s method of intricate Caesarian delivery, which resulted in saving both the mother and the baby.

When Spohn and his wife returned to Corpus Christi in 1895, he continued his practice of treating patients in their homes and operating in a makeshift room at the Incarnate Word Convent.  Disturbed by the lack of medical facilities for the area’s population of 7,000, Spohn instituted a fund-raising campaign backed by his wife’s Kenedy family and by Alice King Kleberg (of the King Ranch family) whose efforts raised $6,000 plus her husband’s  donation of land for the hospital.

Before the two-story frame hospital was completed Spohn asked the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio to manage and maintain the new hospital, which from the beginning bore Dr. Spohn’s name.  The sisters contributed an additional $5,000 to furnish the Spohn Sanitarium, which opened July 26, 1905, on North Beach just 100 yards from Corpus Christi Bay. From the beginning, the facility was too small to accommodate the growing needs, and despite the addition of two annexes, there was never an empty bed for the hundreds of patients, half of whom could not pay their bills.

Before his death in Corpus Christi in 1913, Dr. Spohn was active in American and Texas medical associations.  He also served for fifteen years as head of the United States Marine Hospital in Corpus Christi and as the chief surgeon of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway.

A raging hurricane on September 14, 1919, sent a tidal wave across the city merging the waters of Corpus Christi and Nueces bays and shattering the hospital. Among the more than 400 dead in the city were one sister, a nurse, and two patients who were swept away from the hospital.

Spohn’s brother-in-law John G. Kenedy, Sr. opened his home for an emergency hospital, and for the next four years Alice King Kleberg led the campaign that began with a donation by her mother Henrietta M. King (widow of rancher Richard King) of a five-acre site on a bluff high above the bay.

In 1923 the three-story brick, fifty-bed Spohn Sanitarium opened at its present location.  Over the years Dr. Arthur Edward Spohn’s dream of a medical facility for area patients has grown into the Christus Spohn Health System with a ten-story, 560-bed medical facility and a total of six hospitals in Corpus Christi, Kingsville, Beeville, Kleberg, and Alice.  A dream has come true.

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Margaret Hallett, Legendary Pioneer Texan

The story that places Margaret Leatherbury Hallett in early Texas merits being called a “legend” because not every part of her saga meets the truth test.  Born on Christmas Day 1787, she was the youngest daughter of a prominent Virginia family and probably the feistiest.

At eighteen she fell in love with John Hallett, a merchant seaman—not exactly the pedigree her parents planned for their daughter.  One account says that John was the youngest son of a gentleman from Worcester, England.  At an early age, he joined the Royal Navy, but when an officer threatened him, he jumped overboard, and swam to a nearby American ship. Allowed to stay on board, he was brought to the United States and adopted by a merchant seaman.  Either Margaret’s family did not know his history or they did not care, because it is said that when they insisted that she could do better than a seaman, she said “I would rather marry John Hallett and be the beginning of a new family than remain single and be the tail-end of an old one.” Whereupon she left for the Chesapeake Bay area, and a chaplain married the couple onboard ship.

Margaret and John lived in Baltimore for several years, and after John fought in the War of 1812 against his former countrymen, one of the accounts says that he and Margaret joined a wagon train of homesteaders heading west.  The West to which this story refers was still part of Spain’s colonial empire and the Mexicans were involved in a war for independence from Spain (1810 to 1821), which makes it unlikely that homesteaders were heading to that region.  It is far more likely that John took his wife aboard a ship that sailed through the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Rio Grande.  Again, the legend needs checking because it says the couple settled in Matamoros, a Mexican port across the Rio Grande from present Brownsville.  The village where they settled was a commercial center used by area cattlemen that did not get named Matamoros for another ten years.  It’s still an amazing account since they opened a mercantile business in the Spanish Colonial village while the Mexicans in that area were fighting for their independence.  During that time, their first two sons were born in 1813 and 1815.

The family moved up to the community surrounding the Presidio La Bahía that was named Goliad in 1829 and opened a trading post.  A third son, Benjamin, and a daughter, Mary Jane, were born, but something happened to Benjamin when he was ten; some accounts say Indians carried him off, but no record of the incident survives.  In 1833 John acquired a league (4,428 acres) of land from the Stephen F. Austin Colony on the east bank of the Lavaca River in present Lavaca County.  The family continued operating the trading post at Goliad while John took workers with him to build a log cabin on their new property, dig a water well and protect the property with a moat around the cabin that was five feet wide and three feet deep. (The moat is never mentioned again in any of the accounts.) The family remained in Goliad and John continued to travel to their new land until his death, probably in early 1836.

After the fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836, Margaret and her daughter Mary Jane fled in the Runaway Scrap with all the other families to escape Santa Anna’s advancing army.  Upon their return, they found their property destroyed and set about rebuilding and replanting.  The two oldest sons fought at San Jacinto on April 21 in the battle that won Texas independence from Mexico.  The oldest son, John, Jr., returned home after the war and was killed by Indians.  That same year, his brother William went to Matamoros to buy land, was accused of being a spy, and sent to prison where he died.

Margaret, a forty-nine-year-old widow and her daughter Mary Jane were the only survivors, and when a young man, Colatinus Ballard, rode into Goliad to let Margaret and Mary Jane know that settlers were moving onto the property they owned up on the Lavaca River, the two left immediately for their cabin.  Upon arriving they met two friendly Tonkawa Indians and their new neighbors who told stories of constant Comanche attacks.  Margaret called a meeting of the settlers and the two Tonkawas who agreed that they must go to San Antonio to seek help from Texas Rangers to rid the land of the raiding Comanches.  Margaret prepared food for the trip and issued instructions for the best route.  Within two weeks the Rangers had cleared the Comanches from the area.

As more settlers arrived, Margaret stocked her cabin with supplies and began operating a trading post, bartering coffee, sugar, and other merchandise with the Tonkawas and her new neighbors in exchange for hides and pelts.  She hauled the hides and pelts to nearby Gonzales to trade for corn, which she planted as a crop.  She also raised cattle and horses that carried her own brand.

As Margaret learned their language, the Tonkawas became good friends, warning her of impending Comanche attacks.  One legend says that some Tonkawas came into her trading post asking for free merchandise (same say whiskey).  When she refused, one of the Indians began to help himself, and Margaret hit the Indian on the head with a hatchet raising quit a knot.  When Chief Lolo came to investigate the incident, he was so impressed with Margaret’s independence that he named her “Brave Squaw” and made her an honorary member of the tribe.

Despite being a widow, Margaret never wore black, instead preferring brightly colored clothing.  She also wore a chatelaine bag, a purse like affair that hung by a chain from her waist.  Gossips claimed that she carried powder in that bag, and it was not the kind that required a puff.  Apparently no one had the nerve to ask what was in the bag.

Margaret donated land in 1838 near her trading post for a town, which was named Hallettsville in her honor.  She built a new house in the town and when the legislature of the Republic of Texas authorized a new county named La Baca (it later became Lavaca) Margaret opened her home for county and district court sessions.  When time came to select the county seat, the older town of Petersburg claimed the honor.  Some stories say that after two elections failed to secure Hallettsville as the county seat, Margaret Hallett sent an oxcart to Petersburg to retrieve the county records, and that seems to have settled the matter.

Although Mary Jane attended a private convent, Margaret gave the land in 1852 to establish the town’s first public school and helped organize the Alma Male and Female Institute.

Mary Jane married Colatinus Ballard, the young man who had ridden all the way to Goliad to warn Margaret that settlers were moving onto her league of land.  One of the stories claims that Ballard, a native Virginian, was the first cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Margaret Leatherbury Hallett died in 1863 at the age of seventy-six and was buried on her league.  Her remains were later moved to Hallettsville City Memorial Park and a grave marker placed on the site that names her the city founder.

Margaret Leatherbury Hallett gave marker in City Memorial Park

Margaret Leatherbury Hallett grave marker in City Memorial Park

Black History Month–Part IV

Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I began searching for more.  I found Rachel’s story in Women in Early Texas, an account written by 41NhJL7XncL._SX270_her granddaughter, Lela Jackson.  In 1852 Jim and Rachel Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri.  Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again.  Then, Rachel, age thirty-eight, and the children were put together on the auction block.  They were purchased by a man named Washington McLaughlin, and they began a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and others times in an oxcart.  They finally settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.

The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting.  Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and, at time, whipped the slaves.”  At other times he gave them passes, which were required to leave his land.  If they went out without a pass, they could be whipped for being out without permission.

Just before the Civil War soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and then headed south.  One of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom,” but he waited for several days until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people.  You are free as I am.  You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you.  I can do without you.”

They stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant.  Finally the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family.  After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.

They slipped along the river, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise.  Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek.  They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts, and got permission to milk a stray cow in exchange for raising its calf for its owner.  The milk, butter, and cream stayed fresh in a bucket they lowered into a well. They moved about as the seasons changed, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners.  They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums.

They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons that they heated on a fire log in the yard.  Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached and used to line her quilts.

The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services.  People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They also enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances.  When someone died, Rachel and her daughter, Demmie, prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.  Rachel, who lived to ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.

JacketBlack Women in Texas History chronicles the lives of amazing black females from the days when they first arrived in Texas as both free and slave—during the Spanish Colonial Period—up to their present influence on Texas’ politics and education.  One of those women was Lulu Belle Madison White who graduated in 1928 from Prairie View College (present Prairie View A&M University) with a degree in English.  Before beginning a ten-year teaching career in Houston, White joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where her husband had been active for several years.  She resigned from teaching after nine years and devoted the rest of her life to bring justice to the black community.  She was an amazing fund-raiser and organized new chapters of the NAACP throughout Texas.  Even before the Supreme Court in 1944 found that the white primary was unconstitutional, White had started organizing a “pay your poll tax and go out to vote” campaign.  She was the strongest advocate in Texas for using the black vote to force social change.  She argued: “we cannot sit idly by and expect things to come to us.  We must go out and get them.”LuluBelle

She sought to educate the black community by leading voter registration seminars, and she urged black churches to speak up about public issues without endorsing specific candidates.  She pressed white businesses to hire blacks, using boycotts, protest demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns to influence the change.

In 1946 when the NAACP began its push for integrating the University of Texas, there was only one state-supported black college in Texas—Prairie View A&M—and it did not offer training for professional degrees. White not only persuaded Herman Marion Sweatt, a black mail carrier, to act as the plaintiff against the university, she raised money to pay his legal expenses.  Years later Sweatt claimed that it was White’s encouragement that helped him maintain his resolve.  When the state offered to open a separate black university with its own law school in Houston instead of integrating the University of Texas, White supported Sweatt’s rejection of the proposal on the basis that separate was not equal and only continued the status of Jim Crow.

The victory of Sweatt v. Painter before the Supreme Court in June 1951 opened the door for Brown v. Board of Education and the march toward dissolving the color line in education. A week before Lulu White’s unexpected death in 1957, the national NAACP established the Lulu White Freedom Fund in her honor.