Sessums, John, Jr. (ca. 1848–1928)

By: Ron Bass and Laurie E. Jasinski

Type: Biography

Published: August 27, 2020

Updated: August 27, 2020


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John Sessums, Jr., renowned militia drummer, was born in Texas and most likely into slavery. He was the son of John Sessums, Sr., who was possibly an enslaved person of Houston merchant Alexander Sessums, but this information has not been positively confirmed. For much of his adult life, Sessums Jr. took part in militia drill activity in Houston.

After the Civil War, local Black and White militias provided manpower for military reserves and for local peacekeeping during civil disturbances, functions later assumed by the National Guard. During Reconstruction, Black militia units protected Republicans, largely Blacks, from rampant White Democratic violence. Most of the Black militia units were disbanded after the Texas Democrats regained political power in the mid-1870s. However, after the Sixteenth Texas Legislature revised militia statutes in 1879, the law contained no specific provisions that restricted militia service to African Americans, and several new companies formed. John Sessums, Jr., an exceptionally gifted drummer and drill instructor, helped take both Black and White Houston militias to dominant prize-winning performances in drill competitions.

Little is known about Sessums’s early adulthood and family life. He may be the John Sessums listed in a Harris County marriage record as marrying Maria Bingham on February 28, 1874. He worked various jobs typically available to African American men of the time, including as a janitor and a porter. The 1880 census listed a John Sessums living in Houston with wife Maria and three children. The same dwelling included another family, headed by John Sessums (presumably his father), who was a minister. Sessums Jr. apparently later became estranged from his wife and family—as multiple newspaper reports in March 1888 gave accounts of an incident in which he had accused his wife of infidelity and was arrested for allegedly trying to poison his (then) five children. No mention of family appeared in his obituaries.

Despite any domestic problems, Sessums was highly regarded for his drumming prowess and for the ensuing recognition he brought to the city as a member of several Black militias and, more remarkably, as a member of the Houston Light Guard. The Houston Light Guard, an all-White militia organized in 1873, successfully participated in drill contests across the state and won first prize in Austin in 1876. Although some sources claim that Sessums joined the Houston Light Guard from its inception, he most likely was recruited as the militia’s drummer in the mid-to-late 1870s and was their only Black member. Thus began an association that lasted more than fifty years. Apparently, according to his obituary, sometime after his joining, while working as a janitor at a local bank, he was fired by his employer when he accompanied the Houston Light Guard to a major national drill competition in New Orleans. He subsequently also worked as a porter for more than thirty years, some of his employment may have been with the Prince Theatre.

During the 1880s the Light Guard, especially under Capt. Thomas Scurry, became the best drill company in the country. From 1884 until 1888 the company won nearly every contest it entered. After their dominant performance yet again in the drill competition in Austin in 1888, the unit was banned from further competition to give others a chance to win.

A well-played drum could provide the timing required for precision drills. As their only drummer ever, Sessums was recognized by members for his contribution to the Houston Light Guard’s success in drill competitions. At their first meeting in their new armory (present-day Buffalo Soldiers National Museum at Caroline and Alabama streets, where Sessums’s drum is displayed in the lobby) on January 22, 1892, the Houston Light Guard recognized his contribution in a toast “to John Sessums, the mascot and drummer.”

Throughout his drumming career, Sessums was very active in various Black militias as well as youth cadet groups. Possibly as early as 1880, he became captain of the Davis Rifles of the Texas Volunteer Guard. The volunteer Black militia in Houston consisted of sixteen men. His recruitment may have come about due to his father’s association with Richard Allen, an influential black Houstonian, a former state legislator, and the regimental quartermaster. John Sessums, Sr., a local minister, served on the board of directors of the Emancipation Association, where Richard Allen was chairman.

Under Sessums Jr.’s leadership, the Davis Rifles won many drill competitions during the 1880s, and their success inspired pride in all Houston citizens. In the summer of 1887 a group of White Houston citizens seeking national recognition for the Davis Rifles sponsored them at a national competition in Washington, D. C. That same year Sessums served as mascot for the Houston Heralds baseball team. Sessums led several other African American drill companies. In 1890 he formed the Scurry Rifles (named for Houston Light Guard captain Thomas Scurry). Throughout the 1890s Sessums organized a number of cadet militia groups for African American boys from ages of ten to fourteen who performed precision drills while dressed in “Zouave” uniforms derived from French Army infantry regiments recruited from Algeria. These companies included the Packard Zouaves and Lawlor Zouaves. His dedication to these Black youth groups included fundraising for uniforms and transportation. Participation in these drill companies included travel to competitions—a rare treat for youths in that era. In 1895 the Lawlor Zouaves (named for patron Capt. James Lawlor, who had paid for their uniforms), for example, traveled to the cotton exposition in Atlanta to take part in a juvenile drill competition.

On August 10, 1896, Governor Charles Allen Culberson commissioned Sessums a first lieutenant of the Sheridan Guards, an all-Black militia, and Sessums subsequently assumed command of the Cocke Rifles, Section B of the Sheridan Guards.

When the state of Texas formed four regiments for duty in the Spanish-American War, no Black militia units were accepted. After the war, in 1903 the U. S. Congress passed legislation that reorganized the state militias to form the National Guard, and the Black militias in Texas were permanently disbanded, continuing the process of post-Reconstruction Black exclusion.

In the early 1900s Sessums joined the new Houston Light Guard Veterans Association and remained active for the rest of his life. The president of the Houston Light Guard Veterans Association later said that “John was a lifesaver at times when everything on the trip would not go its merriest. Besides furnishing drum music to wake up, march by and retire by, he was a constant source of entertainment.” In 1910 Sessums was honored with the title of “Perpetual Drummer” by the Houston Light Guard Veterans Association, and in 1918 members voted to pay for his living expenses. 

John Sessums, Jr., died at Hermann Hospital (at that time an all-White medical facility) in Houston on July 7, 1928. William States Jacobs, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Houston presided over his funeral. About 2,000 Black and White citizens of Houston attended his burial, an enormous show of respect for a Black man in that era. The Houston Light Guard Veterans Association purchased a tombstone for his grave in College Park Memorial Cemetery. The stone has an engraved emblem of a drum on top and has the epitaph “Only Drummer of Houston Light Guard. ‘Faithful unto death.’” A Texas Historical Marker honoring Sessums was erected in 2009.

Louis F. Aulbach, Buffalo Bayou: An Echo of Houston's Wilderness Beginnings (Houston: CreateSpace, 2011). Galveston Daily News, April 20, 1886; July 29, 1892; August 7, 1892; August 17, 1895; May 17, 1925. Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. Houston Post, August 27, 1908. McPherson (Kansas) Daily Freeman, March 28, 1888. Victoria Advocate, July 27, 1928.

Categories:

  • Military
  • Music
  • Peoples
  • African Americans

Time Periods:

  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s

Places:

  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ron Bass and Laurie E. Jasinski, “Sessums, John, Jr.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 17, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/sessums-john-jr.

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August 27, 2020
August 27, 2020

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