Happy Black History Month, Texas!
Let’s get right to it: I strongly believe in equality and value the interconnectedness we have with all members of the human race. As a proud Texan, I think it’s interesting (not to mention important) to look at how far we’ve come in terms of equality. I think you, too, might enjoy a brief look back at some of the monumental events and individuals in Texas Black History. I’ll start at the very beginning…
Estevanico was the first known person born in Africa to travel to what is present-day United States, specifically Texas. Followed by other pioneering Africans, he accompanied the Spanish on expeditions, assisting in communicating with the Native Americans and exploring unchartered lands.
From the 1820’s thru mid-1865, the first Anglo-Americans came to Texas from the southern United States. These travelers were accustomed to using enslaved Africans as an important source of labor. Initially, slavery grew slowly in Texas but by 1860, approximately 30% of the population of Texas was comprised of slaves.
The end of the Civil War brought freedom for slaves across the United States. However, the news of emancipation did not actually reach Texas until June 19, 1865; two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Even then, many African Americans had to fight for their freedom for months simply because their “owners” refused to accept their emancipation. June 19th, or Juneteenth, has been celebrated throughout Texas ever since.
The time period between 1865 and 1900 is known as the Reconstruction Era. In response to African Americans gaining their freedom, many Texas cities designed the Black Codes to restrict the rights of newly freed African Americans. During this turbulent time, more than 370 African Americans were killed at the hands of whites. To protect the rights and lives of African Americans, the federal government imposed military rule and enforced strong measures such as the Civil Rights Act of 1868 and the proposal of the 14th Amendment.
By 1900, 41 African Americans served in the Texas Legislature. Also during this time, many blacks moved from rural areas of Texas to cities such as Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, helping to transition the state from a dependence on agriculture to industrialization. Many blacks participated in the post-war cattle boom while others, inspired to act on their new citizenship, joined the military and were known as Buffalo Soldiers.
Just after the turn of the century, black Texans found themselves in familiar (and unfriendly) political territory. Angered by the progress being made by African Americans, some whites began to reverse many of the Reconstruction reforms. They did this by imposing a poll tax, a white primary, and establishing racial segregation in all facets of public and private life for black Texans. Race riots, lynchings, political disenfranchisement, and legal segregation led several thousand African Americans to leave the state during this time. However, a large percentage that stayed worked hard to build viable and progressive communities even in the face of enormous adversity.
The 1936 Texas Centennial was incredibly important as it enabled Texas’ African American community to highlight the contributions they’d made to the state’s and nation’s development and at the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. The Exposition proved an excellent opportunity for African American Texans (and sympathizers) to meet and plan a strategy to end the segregation and discrimination. In 1944, with the win of Smith v. Allwright, white primaries were deemed unconstitutional. In 1950, the foundation for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was laid, declaring desegregated schools unconstitutional.
By 1950, African Americans had succeeded in attaining all citizenship rights except one: serving in elected office. That changed in 1958 when Hattie Mae White was elected to Houston’s school board, the first time a black Texan was elected to any public office since Reconstruction. Fourteen years, and several other state and city-level election wins later, Barbara Jordan of Houston became the first African American in Texas history to represent the state in the U.S. Congress.
African American Texans’ achievements continue every day. The music, art, literature, science, engineering, educational, and sports arenas in our great state wouldn’t be the same without their tremendous contributions. I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect and be grateful for these inspirational Texans.