People of African descent are some of the oldest residents of Texas. Beginning with the arrival of Estevanico in 1528, African Texans have had a long heritage in the state and have worked alongside Americans of Mexican, European, and indigenous descent to make the state what it is today. The African American experience and history in Texas has also been paradoxical. On the one hand, people of African descent have worked with others to build the state's unique cultural heritage, making extraordinary contributions to its music, literature, and artistic traditions. But on the other hand, African Americans have been subjected to slavery, racial prejudice, segregation, and exclusion from the mainstream of the state's institutions. Despite these obstacles and restrictions, their contributions to the state's development and growth have been truly remarkable.
From the beginning of European settlement in Texas, people of African descent were present. In 1528 Estevanico, a Moor, accompanied Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca across the territory known today as Texas. Estevanico was an important member of Cabeza de Vaca's expedition because he could interpret the languages of many of the Native Americans that it encountered. Along with other members of the expedition he was captured by Indians and enslaved for five years. After escaping, Estevanico and the surviving members of the expedition made their way to Mexico. In 1539 he accompanied a second expedition into the Southwest, seeking Cibolo or the “Seven Cities of Gold.” This time he was killed by the Zuñi Indians and the expedition failed. Other pioneer Africans accompanied the Spanish into the Southwest, and some settled in the region known today as Texas. By 1792 Spanish Texas numbered thirty-four Blacks and 414 mulattoes. Some of them were free men and women.
Unlike Estevanico and some of the Africans who inhabited Texas prior to settlement by Anglo-Americans, most African Americans entered the area as slaves. The first Anglo-Americans who settled in Texas came from the southern United States and were accustomed to using enslaved Africans as an important source of labor. During the first fifteen years of Anglo-American settlement in Texas, from 1821 to the Texas Revolution of 1836, slavery grew very slowly. On the eve of the Revolution about 5,000 African Americans were enslaved in Texas (13 percent of the population). With independence from Mexico, however, Anglo-Americans made slavery an integral part of the Republic's and later the state's economic development, and the enslavement of African Americans grew rapidly. By 1840, 13,000 African Americans were enslaved in Texas. By 1850, 48,000 were enslaved, and by 1860, 169,000—30 percent of the Texas population. In this "empire for slavery," according to historian Randolph Campbell, the experience of enslaved African Americans was similar to that in other parts of the American South. The records gathered by Campbell as well as the testimony of African Americans enslaved in Texas attest to the fact that enslaved African Americans in Texas had as harsh and as easy a lot as those who were enslaved in other parts of the South. Two cases illustrate this fact. In 1861 a Canadian newspaper published the story of Lavinia Bell, a Black woman who had been kidnapped at an early age and sold into slavery in Texas. She escaped from bondage and told of being forced to work naked in the cottonfields near Galveston. She also told about how after her first escape attempt, she was physically mutilated and beaten severely by her owner. Other African Americans who were enslaved in Texas told similar stories of violence and cruelty by their owners. Hundreds sought to escape, especially to Mexico. But there were also cases such as that of Joshua Houston, who was owned by Texas patriot Sam Houston. Joshua, owned initially by Houston's second wife, became an important member of Houston's family. He was treated well, taught to read and write, and prepared well for his eventual emancipation by the Houston family. After the Civil War Joshua became a politician in Huntsville, and, as if to underscore his loyalty to his former owners, on one occasion he offered to lend money to Sam Houston's widow when she faced financial difficulties.
While the treatment of African Americans enslaved in Texas may have varied on the basis of the disposition of individual slaveowners, it was clear that White Texans in general accepted and defended slavery. Moreover, slavery in Texas had all of the characteristics that had made it successful in other parts of the South. For instance, slaveholders dominated the state's economic and political life. The government of the Republic of Texas and, after 1845, the state legislature passed a series of slave codes to regulate the behavior of African Americans who were enslaved and to restrict the rights of those who were free. The census counted about 400 free African Americans in 1860, although there may have been close to 1,000. Texas laws blocked the migration of free African Americans into the state. White Texans also restricted the civil liberties of White opponents of slavery in order to suppress dissent about the institution. When rumors of a slave insurrection circulated in the state in 1860, Texans virtually suspended civil liberties and due process. Suspected abolitionists were expelled from the state, and one was even hanged. A vigilante group in Dallas lynched three enslaved African Americans—Sam, Cato, and Patrick—who were suspected of starting a fire that burnt most of the downtown area. Other slaves in the county were whipped.
The Texas vote for secession in February 1861 hastened the end of slavery and set in motion the eventual liberation of the state's African-American population. Despite the objections of Sam Houston to joining a nation (the Confederate States of America) based on the enslavement of African Americans, White Texans voted three to one for secession. For African Americans in Texas, the Civil War brought freedom but it did not come until Juneteenth, June 19, 1865. In contrast to other parts of the South, where the approach of the Union Army encouraged thousands of enslaved African Americans to free themselves and run away, Texas African Americans remained enslaved until the end of the Civil War. Few were able to run away and enlist in the Union Army, as African- American men did in other parts of the South. Nor were they recruited to serve as soldiers in the all-White regiments that Texas sent to support the war effort of the Confederacy. Moreover, even after Union Army General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3 in Galveston on “Juneteenth,” announcing the end of slavery in Texas, many African Americans still had to fight for their freedom from slavery for months because their “so-called owners” refused to accept their emancipation.
The Reconstruction era presented African American Texans another challenge. Many had to rebuild their lives, locate lost family members, and begin to live their lives as self-sufficient, free men and women. The establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau in the state aided this transition from slavery to freedom. But given the continuing racial animosity that separated Blacks and Whites after the war, this was not an easy task. The state legislature and several Texas cities passed Black Codes to restrict the rights of African Americans, to prevent them from having free access to public facilities, and to force them back to the rural areas as agricultural laborers. The use of the political and legal system to regulate African-American behavior and life was accompanied by a literal reign of terror in the state. According to the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, from 1865 to 1868 White Texans committed over 1,500 acts of violence against African Americans; Whites murdered over 370 African Americans. These acts of violence by Whites represented their attempts to reestablish White supremacy and to force African Americans back into their "place." In 1867 the United States Congress eliminated the Black Codes and sought to provide a modicum of personal safety for African Americans in Texas by imposing military rule and by enforcing strong federal measures such as the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and proposing the Fourteenth Amendment. These Congressional actions to protect African American rights ushered in the second phase of Reconstruction in the state. In this period African Americans made a substantial contribution to the transition of Texas from a slave-labor state to one based on free labor. Ten African American delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1868–69 helped to write a new state constitution that protected civil rights, established the state's first public education system, and extended the franchise to all men. Between 1868 and 1900, forty-one African Americans served in the state legislature, and they helped to move the state toward democracy. African American Reconstruction leaders such as George T. Ruby and Norris Wright Cuney became important members of the Republican party and, along with other African Americans, dominated state Republican politics through the end of the nineteenth century. During the course of the Reconstruction period, many African Americans moved from the state's rural areas to cities such as Dallas, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. On the outskirts of these cities they established "freedmantowns," which became the distinct African American communities that still exist today. African American labor also contributed substantially to the economic development of these cities and helped the state to begin the transition from its near-total dependence on agriculture to industrialization. In 1879 a few thousand African American Texans moved to Kansas seeking greater opportunities. Other African American Texans participated in the postwar cattle boom (see BLACK COWBOYS), while the presence on the frontier of African American soldiers, called Buffalo Soldiers by their Indian foes, exemplified the desire of many African Americans to act on their citizenship responsibilities by joining the military.
As in other parts of the South, Reconstruction lasted only a short time in Texas. White Democrats regained control of the state in 1873 and proceeded to reverse many of the democratic reforms instituted by Black and White Republicans. Between 1874 and 1900 the gains that African Americans had made in the political arena were virtually lost. In the 1890s, for example, more than 100,000 African Americans voted in Texas elections. But after the imposition of a poll tax in 1902 and the beginning of white primaries in 1903, fewer than 5,000 African Americans voted in 1906. In addition, racial segregation was established in all facets of public and private life in Texas for African Americans. In Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, public transportation and accommodations, schools, and, eventually, neighborhoods were segregated by law. African Americans in Houston and San Antonio challenged segregation on public transportation by forming their own bus and jitney companies. Dallas African Americans won a case in 1916 that overturned a residential segregation ordinance. But nothing succeeded in stemming the tide of segregation and violence that restricted the rights of African-American Texans by the early twentieth century. One form of violence used to enforce racial exclusion was lynchings, and the victims of lynchings, which did not end until the 1940s, were predominantly African American. Brutal and vicious acts of violence against African Americans, such as the "burning at the stake" of Jesse Washington in Waco in 1916 (called the "Waco Horror" by the NAACP; see JESSE WASHINGTON LYNCHING), happened too frequently for African Americans to live without some fear for their lives. Race riots , such as those in Houston in 1917 and Beaumont in 1943, destroyed African American neighborhoods. These race riots and lynchings combined with political disfranchisement and legal segregation to make African Americans less than second class citizens. As a result, several thousand African American Texans moved out of the state to the North and West in the early twentieth century. Although the percentage of Blacks in Texas fell to 20 percent of the population by 1900 and declined further in the twentieth century, their numbers grew to more than 600,000 in 1900 and 900,000 in 1940.
Despite their second-class status, African Americans built viable and progressive communities throughout the state. Almost immediately after Civil War, they established churches, schools, and other social organizations to serve their own needs. They established newspapers (the Dallas Express, Houston Informer, and San Antonio Register), grocery stores, funeral homes, and other business establishments that served a predominant African-American clientele. In the late nineteenth century African American farmers formed a cooperative to encourage African-American land ownership and to raise crop prices. From 1900 to 1940 a majority of African American Texans remained in farming, with about 20 percent owning their land while most rented farms as tenants. The Great Depression of the 1930s hastened the trend toward urbanization. In the same period African Americans in Dallas organized a cotton-processing mill, but it failed in less than five years. These self-help and economic development efforts by African American Texans indicate that they did not allow the oppression of White racism to deter them from striving to build successful communities. After the Civil War, African Americans also developed their first educational institutions. Black colleges such as Bishop, Paul Quinn, and Wiley were founded by several religious denominations, primarily Baptist and Methodist organizations. African-American churches such as Boll Street African Methodist Episcopal in Dallas also started the first schools in that city for Black children. The city of Houston provided schools for its African American citizens beginning in 1871. By 1888 the city government in Dallas followed suit.
African Americans also contributed to the state's social and cultural heritage in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter, Eddie Durham, Scott Joplin, and many others became innovators in blues, jazz,and ragtime. Singers such as Julius L. C. Bledsoe and Osceola Mays sang songs from the African-American folk tradition as well as their own contemporary compositions. Such writers as Maude Cuney-Hare, J. Mason Brewer, and Sutton Griggs wrote biographies and novels and recorded the folklore of African American Texans. Artist John Biggers of Houston became one of the nation's most important mural painters and an internationally recognized artist. In sports, such African American Texans as Charlie Taylor, Ernie Banks, Jack Johnson, and George Foreman earned national fame in football, baseball, and boxing,respectively. After the integration of the state's universities, African American athletes such as Earl Campbell of the University of Texas at Austin, Elvin Hayes of the University of Houston, and Jerry LeVias of Southern Methodist University had outstanding college athletic careers.
One of the most significant achievements of African Americans in the state was their participation in the Texas Centennial of 1936. This event was important because African Americans highlighted the contributions they had made to the state's and the nation's development. Through the efforts of A. Maceo Smith of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce and Samuel W. Houston of Huntsville, the Hall of Negro Life was built at Fair Park in Dallas to bring to the state the works of Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas and Atlanta University artist Hale Woodruff, as well as to exhibit the paintings of Texas artists James Thibodeaux of Dallas, Samuel A. Countee of Houston, and Frank Sheinall of Galveston. More importantly, the Negro Day event held in Dallas on October 19, 1936, as the African American celebration of the Texas Centennial proved to be an important opportunity for African American Texans to meet and plan strategy to end the segregation and discrimination that they faced. Three organizations emerged from the Negro Day celebration of 1936: the Texas State Conference of Branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Texas State Negro Chamber of Commerce, and the Texas Negro Peace Officers Association (now the Texas Peace Officers Association). All three organizations had as their objective to improve the lot of African Americans in Texas.
The Texas Centennial was indeed a watershed event for African Americans. After it they launched a campaign to win the citizenship rights that the state's segregation laws and racist tradition denied them. Texas African Americans won two of the nation's most significant civil rights cases. Through the selfless efforts and leadership of El Paso physician Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and Houston activist R. R. Grovey, African Amercians challenged the state's white primary system three times from 1927 to 1935. Eventually, they won a Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Allwright (1944), which declared the white primary unconstitutional. This landmark case won by African American Texans opened primaries for Blacks throughout the South. In 1950, African American Texans also won one of the major legal cases that eliminated segregation in the South's graduate and professional schools. The Sweatt v. Painter case, filed by Thurgood Marshall, legal counsel of the NAACP, and local NAACP attorney William J. Durham of Dallas, forced the University of Texas Law School to admit Black students. Although the Sweatt case was one of several cases that the NAACP filed to gain entry for African American students into graduate and professional schools, it also became one of the cases that laid the groundwork for the NAACP's challenge to segregation in public schools in the famous Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas case.
Despite the notion among some historians that Texas did not need a civil rights movement to end its legacy of racial discrimination, African Americans had to use both the courts and direct action in the 1950s and 1960s to win access to public services and accomodations throughout the state. Using a variety of methods, including negotiation and political activism, African American citizens won the right to sit on juries, equal pay for equal work for African American teachers, the elimination of residential segregation in the state's major cities, jobs on the police forces of Dallas and Fort Worth, open seating on public transportation throughout the state, and access to jobs in the public and private sectors. They also used sit-ins in Houston and Marshall to end segregation in public accommodations. By the mid-1960s, only one area of citizenship rights continued to elude African American Texans—serving in elective office. To overcome their exclusion from elective office, as well as to fight the white primary, poll taxes, and their legal disfranchisement, African American Texans formed organizations such as the Third Ward Civic Club and the Harris County Negro Democratic Club in Houston in the 1920s and 1930s, the Progressive Voters League in Dallas in 1936, and Charles Bellinger’s Negro Citizens Executive Committee in San Antonio in 1926 to mobilize the African American electorate and to influence White politicians to address their communities’ needs.
In the 1950s and 1960s, African American Texans challenged this paternalistic arrangement and overcame their exclusion from elective office. In 1958 Houstonian Hattie Mae White became the first African American to win an elective office in the state since Reconstruction by winning a seat on the school board. But many citizens thought that she was White and voted for her in error. She served nine turbulent years on the Houston school board, fighting constantly to force other members of the board to implement court-ordered desegregation of the school system. After White’s election, African American Texans did not win another elective office until 1966, when several African American candidates throughout the state won political races. Among the pioneers were Joseph Lockridge of Dallas and Curtis Graves of Houston, who won seats in the state House of Representatives, and Barbara Jordan of Houston, who won a seat in the Texas Senate. In 1967 Emmett Conrad became the first African American elected to a local office in Dallas (school board) and in 1971 Judson Robinson, Jr. became Houston’s first African American city councilman since Reconstruction. A year later, Houstonians elected Barbara Jordan to the United States House of Representatives. Thus, she was the first African American in Texas history to represent the state in Congress.
Barbara Jordan’s election symbolized the progress that Blacks had made in the state after over 100 years of racial segregation and exclusion. Despite the lingering effects of the old racist and segregationist legacy, African Americans continued to achieve in both the private and public spheres in the state. They won elective office on the city, county, and statewide levels. In 1992, for example, Morris Overstreet of Amarillo became the first African American to win a statewide office when he was elected a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In 1995 Ron Kirk became the first African American mayor in Dallas and in 1998 Lee P. Brown became the first African American to serve as mayor in Houston. In 1985 John Wiley Price became Dallas County’s first African-American county commissioner and El Franco Lee became the first African American to win a seat on the Harris County Commissioner’s Court. In 2007 Attorney Craig Watkins became the state’s first African American district attorney when he won the office in Dallas County. Four African American Texans—Mickey Leland (Houston, 1979–1989), Craig Washington (Houston, 1989–1995), Shelia Jackson Lee (Houston, 1995–present), and Eddie Bernice Johnson (Dallas, 1993–present) have represented the state in the U. S. House of Representatives since 1979.
Employment opportunities have also increased significantly for African American Texans, especially in the larger urban areas such as Dallas and Houston. Since 1983, for instance, Dallas and Houston have ranked consistently in Black Enterprise magazine’s "ten best cities for Blacks" because of the social, political, and economic opportunities available for African Americans. In addition, African Americans have continued to participate in the state's social and cultural life and to add their creative talents to the state's as well as the nation's artistic development. Two of many examples are the works added to American literature by Houston playwright and author Ntozake Shange and short story writer J. California Cooper of East Texas. Shange's work "for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf" played on Broadway and toured the country for several years. Her novels Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo (1982) and Betsey Brown (1985) were national best-sellers. Cooper's short stories in A Piece of Mine (1984) and Family (1991) also earned her national acclaim. In addition, musical icons such as Beyonce Knowles of Houston and Erykah Badu of Dallas have won Grammy and other national awards for their music in the jazz, rhythm and blues, and pop genres.
These achievements were the result of African American Texans' ongoing struggle for equal opportunity and human dignity. African Americans have lived in the area known as Texas as long as any other ethnic group except Native Americans. Throughout their history in the state, they have contributed their blood, sweat, and hard labor to make Texas what it has become in the twenty-first century. In 2011 over 3,000,000 African Americans lived in Texas, but they formed only 12 percent of the state's population. Two-thirds of African American Texans lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston metropolitan areas. Nearly one million African Americans were spread across the state from Texarkana to El Paso and Amarillo to Corpus Christi. They made up significant parts of the populations in Beaumont, Port Arthur, Austin, and San Antonio. Their contributions to the history and culture of these smaller cities were just as significant as in those in the major metropolitan areas of the state. Overall, no matter where they lived in the state, African American citizens had to work and struggle to overcome and reverse the negative aspects of the previous 450 years. In 2013 they have made major progress toward overcoming the historic paradox that made them some of the state’s most productive and creative citizens, but also some of its most oppressed.