Fear, Force, and Leather - The Texas Prison System's First Hundred Years, 1848-1948

African-American Convicts

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Group of African American prisoners

For the first fifteen years of its existence, only white and Hispanic lawbreakers were incarcerated at the Texas State Prison. African-Americans were enslaved and seldom became involved with the justice system. If a black person committed a serious crime, such as murder, arson, or insurrection, he was hanged. For more minor offenses, it was his or her owner who was expected to settle up with the victim and punish the slave.

The first African-Americans to be incarcerated at Huntsville in late 1863 had not been convicted of any crime. Instead, they were laborers brought to the prison to help operate the clothing mill. These men came from several walks of life. Some were slaves who had been leased by the state from their owners. Others were runaway slaves who had been recaptured, and the rest were captured Union prisoners of war.

Samuel Peacock to Thaddeus McRea, December 1867

The slaves of Texas were freed in June 1865, and almost immediately the prison system saw the arrival of its first black convicts. Thirty-three African-Americans were admitted to the system by the end of 1865. In 1866, 197 of the 261 arriving prisoners were black (46 were white and 18 were Hispanic).

Few of these former slaves had been convicted of serious offenses. Texas was swept by frightening lawlessness during the Reconstruction years, but the steady stream of African-Americans sent to prison were usually convicted on charges such as burglary and petty theft. In fact, in 1867 Federal military authorities removed Governor James W. Throckmorton from office largely because of his refusal to pardon 227 African-American convicts serving time for trivial offenses while killers went free.

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Page last modified: July 23, 2019