by Minnie M. Miles
For three decades, African Americans participated in a political arena that had earlier been an exclusively white establishment, and they entered a setting that was basically foreign to them. Their astuteness, perseverance, and adaptability was phenomenal. Some of them shine brighter in the historical eye than others: Matthew Gaines, George T. Ruby, Richard Allen, Walter M. Burton, and William Holland are a few of the more outstanding men focused upon in this exhibit, but all deserve further research and recognition.
Most of the early African-American legislators were literate. Some had received a more extensive education than others. Many of them had been brought to Texas as slaves before Emancipation. One, George T. Ruby, migrated from the North. Some had been born slaves in Texas. Regardless of their geographical origin, they were all Texans at the time of their political service, and they made a lasting impact on Texas history.
For the most part they were youthful, in their thirties. In general, they were farmers, ministers, mechanics, blacksmiths, or barbers. A few held civic posts. Most of the counties that they represented were rural.
In the Legislature, they fought for the most basic needs of their specific communities as well as for what would benefit all Texans, regardless of race. They were unified in legislative issues concerning protection from violence, voting rights, education, frontier defense, the rights of laborers, economics, and railroad matters. Voting records reflect that they were quite active and involved in performing their legislative duties. Historian Barry A. Crouch noted, "Blacks performed little differently than their white Republican counterparts when it came to deciding on major issues of the day."
African-American politicians introduced numerous bills that did not pass but that echoed through time to materialize at a later date. One major accomplishment that stands as visible, tangible evidence of their efforts is state supported public education in Texas. Through their determination, Texas has Texas A&M University and Prairie View A&M University. They "are today the only two tangible achievements of the biracial democracy which was briefly brought to power in Texas by black political activism in the late 1860s and 1870s," according to historian Dale Baum.
The Republican Party was not a perfect world, but as one writer stated, "Republicans allowed blacks to become Americans." There is no question that the support of the Republican Party by the large bloc of freedmen helped the Republicans gain control of state government. During the tumultuous Reconstruction period of transition and adjustment in American history, the Republicans and freedmen united to pursue a common cause. One segment benefited the other.
Many factors played a role in the decline of the Republican Party and the African Americans' eventual relegation, by law, to the status of second-class citizens. By 1872, Democrats had begun to regain state political power and control. Their primary goal was to subdue and oppress the African-American population. Much political maneuvering and external terrorizing was used to accomplish this goal. Not until the 1940s would African Americans have political visibility again.
This tragic outcome not only existed in Texas but in the entire South.
There are victories and defeats recorded throughout the history of humanity. Many of the victories are not really victorious, and many of the defeats did not happen through a just or fair procedure. But none who sustained, persevered, and fought for the good of humanity must ever be forgotten. The individuals and events of the Reconstruction period ultimately affected both the strengths and weaknesses of our state and our nation. The names and deeds of Texas's African-American politicians should be bold in the annals of Texas history.
In summation of this ongoing legacy, Dr. J. Mason Brewer's wisdom prevails in the addenda to the 1970 reprint of his 1935 publication Negro Legislators of Texas. He wrote: "It is to be hoped that the contents of this book will not only widen your horizons in the area of Texas History, but help you to understand better the peculiar forces that were, and are still operating in the life of a special minority group striving to liberate itself from second-rate citizenship under adverse and trying circumstances."