Paul Burdett Ragsdale, known as “Rags,” was an African-American Texas legislator from 1973 to 1987, civil rights activist, redistricting expert, and one of the first Black legislators elected to the Texas House of Representatives since Reconstruction. He represented not only his Dallas constituents, but minorities and women throughout Texas for seven terms. He championed equal representation and employment opportunities and worked to improve public education.
Ragsdale’s experiences growing up African American in Texas shaped his personal and legislative agenda. He was born on January 14, 1945, in Mount Haven, Texas, a close-knit community founded as a refuge for freed slaves in Cherokee County. He was the son of Simeon Virgil Ragsdale (1920–1957), a barber, and Emmittee (Arnwine) Ragsdale (1922–2002), a beautician. Both parents were descendants of slaves, and both were college-educated. Ragsdale and his brother Godfrey attended Mount Haven schools and Fred Douglass High School in Jacksonville.
During a summer of racial tensions, Ragsdale was hospitalized in Jacksonville after an assault by white boys using racial slurs. His family moved him to live with relatives in Austin, and he attended his senior year at Stephen F. Austin High School where he was an award-winning bassoon and alto sax player in the band and orchestra. He graduated in 1962. He was turned away from some concession stands after football games and advised not to try out for the University of Texas at Austin marching band because it was not “policy” to have Blacks in the band. Instead, Ragsdale joined the UT symphony orchestra and helped picket in protest of segregated campus housing. Though UT sports were officially integrated, he was not allowed to try out for the basketball team. The level of student harassment on campus was so bad that Ragsdale eventually changed his prelaw major to sociology to get away from UT “as fast” as he could. Ragsdale joined The Escorts and was the only Black in the rock-and-roll cover band where members earned living expenses and won UT’s 1965 Battle of the Bands. Ragsdale used the federal Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, passed while he was in college, as legal tools for decades to help minorities and women improve job opportunities, political representation, and voting rights.
After earning a B.A. in sociology in 1966, Ragsdale worked for the Austin research firm Tracor evaluating anti-poverty programs. He moved in 1968 to work as a program analyst for Dallas’s Urban Rehabilitation Department where he wrote reports criticizing hiring practices and programs at the South Dallas Crossroads Community Center. Circulating one report got him first suspended, then rehired, and later promoted to director of planning and development. Ragsdale filed some of Dallas’s first public accommodations complaints under the Civil Rights Act after being turned away at apartments and refused service at restaurants and bars. Ragsdale said the only place that would serve him a cold beer was a bar called the Plantation.
After courts redrew legislative boundaries in Dallas and Bexar counties in 1971, Ragsdale, representing Oak Cliff, won election as a Democrat to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972. Eight newly-elected Black lawmakers founded the Texas Legislative Black Caucus in 1973 to help level the playing field for minorities in state employment, political representation, state business, and educational opportunities and generally be a resource for African Americans with civil rights problems. Ragsdale and the caucus began compiling and submitting lists of qualified minorities to the governor’s office to consider for state appointments. They also worked to improve chances for minority and small businesses to win state contracts by opening the bidding process, shortening time for state payment to vendors, and eventually replacing the Board of Control with the State Purchasing and General Services Commission.
During his first term, Ragsdale promoted legislation mandating single member school districts in Dallas that could elect minority board members. In 1983 he sponsored legislation allowing all Texas school boards or voters to draw single member districts. He also pushed through an amendment creating an equal employment opportunity division in the governor’s office. Ragsdale began challenging state agencies on their employment practices and filing complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and the Department of Justice about employment discrimination against minorities and women. The comptroller of public accounts, with more than a thousand employees but only eight Blacks, was one of his first targets and his first success. Because of Ragsdale, Bob Bullock, elected comptroller in 1975, created the state’s first agency equal employment opportunity office and increased hiring of minorities and women. The two remained lifelong friends.
Ragsdale filed complaints, agency by agency and challenged the hiring practices of more than thirty state agencies in a class action lawsuit. In 1983 the state created a Texas Commission on Human Rights to oversee state fair employment practices. Ragsdale was credited with a “one-man crusade” toward the gradual elimination of employment discrimination in Texas state government.
He applied for food stamps in 1973 to publicly demonstrate the need for better legislative pay and, once qualified, donated the $11 in food to a Dallas church. In 1975 Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment raising legislative salaries from $4,800 annually to $7,200.
In 1973 when no Blacks held local offices in Texas, Ragsdale began his East Texas project to force counties and local governments to draw single member political districts that could elect minority officeholders. He and attorney Dave Richards, funded by the AFL-CIO, began a series of legal challenges against forty-eight counties with significant Black populations, but no Blacks elected to local offices. Their first victories resulted in election of the first local Black office holders since Reconstruction in Jacksonville, Nacogdoches, Palestine, and Tyler.
His accomplishments in education reform included legislation to create pre-kindergarten classes for educationally-disadvantaged children and reducing class sizes from thirty to twenty-two in kindergarten through fourth grade. He persuaded the State Board of Education to adopt a long-range goal of closing the achievement gap between educationally-disadvantaged kids and other students and succeeded in doubling African-American and Hispanic representation on the State Board of Education. He also passed legislation allowing school districts to sell surplus property to finance construction and equipment bonds.
Another of Ragsdale’s lasting legacies is the portrait display of African Americans who served in the legislature after Reconstruction now hanging in the south foyer of the Capitol. He called it a “significant part of Black history that has been forgotten, lost, ignored, or destroyed.”
He served as vice chair and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus; served several terms as vice chair of Regions, Compacts and Districts; and chaired the State, Federal and International Relations Committee. He also served on the Public Education Committee and the Legislative Education Board that oversaw implementation of House Bill 72, passed in 1984 enacting sweeping reforms of the state’s public schools. Ragsdale received the Trailblazer Award from the Texas Legislative Black Caucus in 2011 and has been honored by numerous civic organizations across the state.
Ragsdale’s only marriage was to Deborah Marie Oden on March 12, 1997. They had no children.
He died in on August 14, 2011, at East Texas Medical Center in Tyler following a stroke. Funeral services were held at First United Methodist Church in Jacksonville. He was buried in the Texas State Cemetery. Ragsdale was survived by his wife, Debbie of Jacksonville; his sisters, Lois Gregory and Laurene Ragsdale, both of Dallas; and five aunts, Mrs. Elmar A. Tilley, Dallas; Mrs. Ruth A. Whitaker, Longview; Mrs. Effie A. Clark, Killeen; Mrs. Freddye A. Cairo, Austin; and Mrs. Opal Ragsdale-Lee, Jacksonville.