On this day in 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Smith v. Allwright ruled the so-called "white primary" unconstitutional. The case originated in 1940, when Houston dentist Lonnie E. Smith attempted to vote in the Democratic primary in his Harris County precinct. As an African American, he was denied a ballot under the white primary rules of the time. Smith, with the assistance of attorneys supplied by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (including the future United States Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall), filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas in 1942. Smith petitioned for redress for the denial of his rights under the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth amendments by the precinct election judge, S. E. Allwright. Following an unfavorable ruling in the district court, Smith's attorneys lodged appeals that ultimately reached the Supreme Court. That court reversed the prior decisions against Smith by a margin of eight to one. The Smith decision did not end all attempts to limit black political participation but did virtually end the white primary in Texas. The number of African Americans registered to vote in Texas increased from 30,000 in 1940 to 100,000 in 1947.
On this day in 1888, historian and author Walter Prescott Webb was born on a farm in Panola County, Texas. His father was a schoolteacher and part-time farmer. The Webb family had moved from Mississippi to Rusk County, Texas, then to Panola and westward past the 100th meridian. The arid West Texas environment profoundly influenced the young Webb, as reflected in his later writing about the Great Plains. During his tenure as director of the Texas State Historical Association (1939-46), he expanded the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, founded the Junior Historians of Texas, and launched a project to compile an encyclopedia of Texas, published in 1952 as the original Handbook of Texas. He was also a charter member and fellow of the Texas Institute of Letters and a member of the Philosophical Society of Texas. Webb died in an automobile accident in 1963; the Walter Prescott Webb Historical Society was later founded and named in his honor. The TSHA Webb Site also bears his name.
On this day in 1817, Bigfoot Wallace was born in Lexington, Virginia. He arrived in Texas during the Texas Revolution, fought Gen. Adrián Woll's invading Mexican army near San Antonio in 1842, and then volunteered for the Somervell and Mier expeditions. Some of his most graphic memories were of his experiences in Perote Prison. As soon as he was released, he joined the Texas Rangers under Jack Hays and fought with the rangers in the Mexican War. In the 1850s Captain Wallace commanded a ranger company of his own, fighting border bandits as well as Indians. He spent his later years in Frio County, near a hamlet named Bigfoot. There he was known as a mellow and convivial soul who liked to sit in a roomy rawhide-bottomed chair in the shade of his shanty and tell over the stories of his career.