Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 5)

So far, Texas civil rights historiography has focused too narrowly on political and legal resistance to Jim Crow and to a large extent ignored African American culture as a form of resistance. Outside of Texas, Sterling Stuckey produced some of the most exciting research on African American history with his books "Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America" (1987) and "Going Through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History" (1994.) Building on earlier work by the anthropologist Meville Herkovits, Stuckey documents how African cultural traditions survived within the slave community and strongly influenced the black identity in the United States and the political approach of the civil rights movement. Stuckey suggests that African folktales such as the B’rer Rabbit story cycle and West African religious practices such as the “ring shout,” in which African Americans gathered in circles for religious purposes and in democratic fashion participated in a call and response form of worship, forged a community out of slaves kidnapped from diverse West African cultures. Black stories, rhymes and songs, with themes of intelligence winning over brute force, of loyalty prevailing against greed, of mutual responsibility and the value of community, provided mental defenses against white racism for the African Americans. These cultural practices, Stuckey argues, constituted political resistance to white oppression.

Unfortunately, Texas historians have yet to make full use of Stuckey’s insights. Slave narratives collected by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, material uncovered by The Texas Folklore Society and folktales collected by John Mason Brewer serve as a rich record of African Americans’ “reactions to the incidents and pressures in [their] environment.” Cary D. Wintz, Howard Beeth, and James M. SoRelle discovered that lower-income African American in Texas in particular remained connected emotionally to the slave culture thorough such turn-of-the-19th century fall festivals like the De-Ro-Loc (“colored” spelled backwards) festivities in Houston. Furthermore, Black Nationalists in the late 1960s sought to find a “useable past” and attempted to recreate their lost African culture in a Texas setting. Yet little work has been done to analyze the uniquely Texas themes of the folklorist Brewer’s story collections or to tie African-origin folklore to later expression of black nationalism in the Texas civil rights movement.

Most monographs on the African American Civil Rights movement begin in or primarily focus on the 20th century. A closer analysis of resistance in Afro-Texan culture would push back the origins of the black civil rights movement in this state deep into the 19th century. Afro-Texans, the evidence suggests, constructed an identity linked to the global African diaspora. The Afro-Texan viewpoint interpreted the struggle of blacks against American segregation as part of a global struggle against white racism, a complex task that perhaps inspired the black Texan emphasis on multi-lateral coalition building.

If 19th century black nationalism in Texas has been under-explored, the contributions of Afro-Texans to the 20th century civil rights movement have been largely unexplored. William Henry Kellar, in his book "Make Haste Slowly: Moderates, Conservatives, and School Desegregation in Houston" (1999), observes that Houston was the largest school district desegregated by the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision but no works focused on the movement there until publication of Kellar’s book 45 years later. Taylor Branch does not mention Dallas once in his 1,064-page study of the Civil Rights Movement, "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63." The civil rights campaign in San Antonio has received even less attention. The reason for this oversight, according to Kellar is “the general perception that Texas is primarily a Western state, a land of cattle, cowboys, oil wells, and wide open spaces. Lost amid the western lore is the state’s Southern heritage . . . A second factor is that few historians have viewed Texas as a hotbed of civil rights activity.”

If post-modernism values the particular over the universal, then the Texas civil rights story needs to be more fully told. Authors like Dallas reporter Jim Schutze and historian Robert Weisbrot portrayed Afro-Texans as more accommodationist than their peers in the Deep South and have suggested that that Texas blacks were largely quiescent during the rights revolution in the mid-twentieth century. The lack of galvanizing incidents like the “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi in 1964 or “Bloody Sunday” march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama March 7, 1965 does not mean that equally compelling and enlightening episodes did not occur in Texas. Kellar’s work, however, suggests that Houston provides an intriguing case study for civil rights historians and he argues that black activists were far more assertive and on the cutting edge than earlier writers suggested.

Houston’s African American community faced a unique environment in tri-racial Houston, which included a growing Mexican American population and an ethnically diverse white population for most of the twentieth century. The city was more industrial and more economically diverse than most of the South, with the presence of the oil industry supplanting cotton as a chief export. Houston’s lack of zoning laws and haphazard development dispersed the black population and slowed the development of African American neighborhoods. The uniqueness and complexity of this environment led Houston’s black community to favor courtroom assaults on Jim Crow over direct action, although both approaches were part of the Houston civil rights movement’s arsenal. While the scholarly neglect of Houston suggests that little of note regarding desegregation happened there, to the contrary the civil rights movement arose early in there. A chapter of the NAACP formed in Houston in 1918, just nine years after the founding of the national organization, with women such as Lulu B. White and Christa V. Adair serving as leaders through state-government sponsored repression of the organization in the 1920s and the 1950s. Even as Houston’s schools and its downtown businesses remained segregated an African American woman, Hattie White, won a seat on the Houston school board in 1958, becoming only the second black elected official in Texas since Reconstruction. Students staged sit-in strikes at Houston’s segregated lunch counters, restaurants and department stores in March 1960, a little more than a month after the first sit-in nationwide was staged in North Carolina. The incident that came closest to a riot during the Civil Rights era happened in Houston during a 1967 gun battle between overly aggressive police and Texas Southern University students. Such an active civil rights campaign clearly deserves more historical attention.

Kellar convincingly argues that at the state’s biggest integration battleground, blacks combined quiet methods with radical aims. Kellar, and Amilcarr Shabazz, in the previously mentioned "Advancing Democracy." suggest that Texas’ highly organized NAACP chapters won repeated victories through lawsuits rather than more visible street battles. Shabazz notes that by the end of the 1950s, half of the state supported universities and colleges in Texas were “moderately desegregated” as opposed to South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama where higher education remained completed segregated.

What’s not clear is whether this difference is due to Texas’ ambiguous geographical position on the margins of the South and the West, the troubled sometimes alliance African Americans enjoyed with Mexican Americans, the high number of whites who immigrated to Texas from Northern states after World War II, or the more industrialized economy of Texas and the increased demands for skilled labor following the Great Depression or a combination of the above. Hopefully in the coming years more local studies like Kellar’s and Robyn Duff Ladino’s "Desegregating Texas Schools: Eisenhower, Shivers, and the Crisis at Mansfield High" (1996) will bring greater focus on Lone Star black politics in the mid-20th Century. Researchers will undoubtedly find that black resistance has deeper historical roots than previously assumed.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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