Texas Joins the Battle
African-American Women, 1890s

Back to exhibit


Woman spinning

These photos in the collection of the Texas State Library and Archives reflect the lives of African-American women in turn-of-the-century Texas. The first photo shows a city woman circa 1890; according to the caption, she is a "famous old mulatto nurse employed by the A.H. Cook, Jr. family in early-day Austin." The Cooks were one of the most prominent families in town. The name of this woman, who would have been employed to take care of the family's children, was recorded on the back of the photo but is now unreadable. The second photo shows a country woman, identified as Mariah Carr of Marshall, spinning cotton in 1929.

African Americans in Texas faced fierce discrimination, both in politics and in daily life. Since the days of Abraham Lincoln, blacks had tried to make a political home in the Republican Party, and the Democrats had stood firmly for white supremacy. African-American men had the right to vote, but actually exercising their right was difficult. In many areas of Texas, blacks who tried to vote faced intimidation, harassment, or even lynching.

Black men and women alike fought against "Jim Crow" laws that were designed to take away their rights. In 1888, Lola Houck of Victoria, Texas, brought a lawsuit against the Southern Pacific Railway. The light-skinned Houck had bought a first-class ticket to Galveston but was denied entry to the first-class car when the conductor realized she was black. The train's brakeman taunted and made fun of Houck, threw her flowers off the train, and shoved her so that she fell and tore her dress. Houck was afraid to enter the "Jim Crow" car, which was full of drunken rowdies of both races. She rode out the trip on the open-air platform, where she was soaked in a rainstorm. She became ill from the experience and suffered a miscarriage. The jury found in Houck's favor, awarding her $5000 (reduced on appeal to $2500).

Houck's case was a rare victory. By the 1890s, Democratic control over the state was almost total. Even the Republicans, whose influence had become almost non-existent, had gone "lily-white." Shut out and hurting from the farm depression, blacks turned to the Colored Farmer's Alliance and to the Populist Party, which made an effort to include them both in the rank-and-file and in the party leadership.

When the Populist Party collapsed after 1896, blacks were left with no avenue for political participation. Gerrymandering cut the last few black legislators out of their districts. Violence against black voters continued. A poll tax and restrictions on voter registration were designed to keep African Americans from voting. The Democratic Party adopted a "white primary" rule, meaning simply that they claimed to be a private organization and that they allowed whites only to vote in their primaries. Since nomination by the Democrats was now tantamount to election, blacks were shut out of the electorate. By 1906, almost no blacks in Texas were able to vote.

Black women remained keenly interested in civic life and worked through churches and women's clubs to improve their communities, building schools, orphanages, and homes for the elderly. But the rhetoric of the women's suffrage movement, with its emphasis on reform and personal development, had little meaning to these women. Black women were fighting a daily battle for physical and economic survival. Their energies were focused on reuniting families torn apart by slavery and its aftermath, in keeping those families together, and in finding a way to provide for everyone in face of overwhelming hostility from whites.

Nurse, circa 1890. Prints and Photographs Collection, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. #1951/3-57.

Woman spinning, Prints and Photographs Collection, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. #1963/283-53.

Back to exhibit

Page last modified: August 24, 2011