Friday, March 25, 2011

Oil, Urbanization, The Klan, and the Birth of Modern Texas

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe the ugly, anti-black political atmosphere that arises as the state become more urban and less dependent on cotton.

To understand the subtle but significant transformation that the Texas speakership underwent between the 1920s and the late 1940s requires a detailed look at the social changes the state experienced in the period. This period marked a transition from the age of “King Cotton” to the age of oil with the January 10, 1901 discovery of the Spindletop oilfield, found atop a salt dome formation near Beaumont.

Investors poured billions of dollars into Texas in search of more oil and natural gas, producing cheap fuel that forever changed American transportation and the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange and other communities on the state’s Gulf Coast became major centers for oil refining and storage while corporate giants destined to economically dominate the twentieth century, such as Texaco, Gulf Oil, the Sun Oil Company, the Magnolia Petroleum Company, and Exxon (Now Exxon-Mobil) trace their origins to the Spindletop boom. Spindletop accelerated the state’s transformation from a Southern, agricultural province to a more powerful, more urban, more technological, and more Western financial powerhouse.

Texas remained mostly rural at the start of the 1920s, but population growth in cities increased 10 times faster than in the countryside. By 1919, about 33 percent of Texas’ population lived in urban centers, with 15 percent living in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio alone. Of necessity, the speakership changed as the state underwent metamorphosis. The oil economy was volatile, pressuring the state government to enact more regulations to prevent wild fluctuations in energy costs from undermining economic growth.

Elites, meanwhile, feared that increased industrialization would fuel the rebirth of political radicalism, represented by the Populists and other movements that battled dominant Democrats from the 1870s to the 1890s. Governors used the Texas Rangers to crush strikes. Red baiting joined racial demagoguery as favored tactics by conservatives who re-asserted power in the state House following World War I. State newspapers portrayed unions as violent and dictatorial while business groups formed “open shop associations” that boycotted union workers.

Already bad race relations in Texas took giant steps backward as living conditions for Afro-Texans deteriorated. In 1891, the Legislature passed a law requiring railway segregation and streetcar segregation in 1907. Although blacks comprised 20 percent of the state’s population by 1900, they represented 50 percent of the state’s prisoners. Many suffered virtual slavery, with African American men often sentenced on trumped-up charges of vagrancy and then leased as labor to wealthy landowners. Death rates from tuberculosis, typhoid, malaria, and other diseases among leased prisoners at times reached a stupefying 50 percent.

Race riots erupted across the state. In 1908 in Beaumont, whites burned two black amusement parks following the arrest of a black man for raping a white woman. Similar events broke out in Sherman, Port Arthur, Houston and other cities. Texas compiled a shameful record of lynching. From 1882 until 1930 lynch mobs murdered 492 Texans including 143 whites and 349 blacks, the third most lynchings in the nation. In May 1916, a mob of 15,000 burned to death a black youth, Jesse Washington, while children stood in attendance. For the most part, the state’s daily newspapers only sporadically condemned mob violence on their editorial pages.

Few should have been surprised by this turn of events following World War I since the Progressives rose to power on black disenfranchisement. Progressives helped set the stage for the 1920s Ku Klux Klan. Their xenophobia, dry politics, and self-righteous moralism overlapped with the re-born Klan’s political agenda. Anxiety over Eastern and Southern European and Mexican immigration from 1880 to 1920 inspired the birth of the revitalized Klan, which preached an anti-black, anti-federal government, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant gospel. By the mid-1920s, the organization could boast of approximately 3 million members nationwide.

Progressive elites in Texas often enjoyed Klan support. Former Speaker Neff, who served as governor from 1921-1925, won a “favorable” rating from the state Klan, due in part to his conspicuous silence on the organization and his apparent efforts to quash the Texas Rangers’ investigation of Klan violence. Another former Progressive speaker, Thomas Love, supported Klan candidate Felix D. Robertson when he ran unsuccessfully against Miriam “Ma” Ferguson in the 1924 gubernatorial race. Love rationalized his support on the grounds that the Klan supported Prohibition and that Ma Ferguson’s husband Jim, expected to be the power behind the throne, had led a scandal-plagued administration before his 1917 impeachment, rendering the Fergusons morally unfit to govern.

The Klan used its influence to sweep into office state representatives and senators, mayors, county judges, sheriffs, and countless other officials. By 1923, the Klan politically controlled Dallas, Fort Worth, and Wichita Falls, with Dallas boasting the nation's largest Klan chapter. A large percentage of the state’s House delegation to Washington either belonged to or supported the Klan and a majority of the Thirty-Eighth Texas Legislature held Klan memberships. This meant prospective speakers had little to gain by tangling with the Klan.

The gathering conservative backlash of the 1920s also gained force from the right wing of the Democratic Party. Reactionary Democrats felt fury over what they saw as the President Woodrow Wilson and other Progressives’ betrayal of the party’s traditional Jeffersonian ideology of limited government. Joseph Weldon Bailey, U.S. Senator from 1901 to 1911, angrily resigned his Senate seat over the dominance of Progressives in the national Democratic Party and campaigned hard retake control of the state party. In 1920 Bailey entered the race for governor, facing off against Progressive former speaker, Pat Neff.

Anti-Progressives like Bailey and Jim Ferguson opposed Prohibition, women’s suffrage, taxes, and United States participation in the League of Nations. Other than rolling back Progressive legislation, however, Democratic conservatives had no real platform. Instead, Bailey spewed crude racism everywhere he campaigned. Rather than support increased teacher pay, for instance, Bailey opposed a bill that would raise pay for federal workers because “under it . . . the negro men who clean out the cuspidors and the negro women who scrub the floors of our Federal buildings in Texas would be paid more than the white school teachers of Texas.”

It never occurred to Bailey, apparently, that teachers’ salaries could be raised. At another campaign stop, Bailey proclaimed he had “no prejudice against the negro, mind you. I like the negro in his place. It’s all right if Massachusetts wants to permit negroes to intermarry. It’s a matter of taste. No, not altogether a matter of taste either. It’s partly a matter of smell.”

Former Texas House speaker Robert Ewing Thomason represented the most genuine Progressive in the 1920 gubernatorial race. The forty-one year old Tennessee native and University of Texas law school graduate first won election to the state Legislature from El Paso in 1916. A Prohibitionist, Thomason served on the House committee investigating charges against Governor Jim Ferguson in 1917 and wrote the report condemning the governor’s actions. In his legislative service, Thomason also successfully advocated creation of the state’s first worker’s compensation law and a bill creating the state highway commission. He became a strong supporter for women’s voting rights and rose to the speakership at the urging of colleagues during his second term in 1919.

“I have accepted a heavy responsibility,” Thomason said upon winning the leadership post. “[L]iquor is bad; women should vote; only citizens should vote; capital and labor should be friends; we need mass education and a University of the first class.’” Speakers traditionally did not engage in legislative debates or propose bills while presiding over the House. Thomason, nevertheless, said one of his proudest moments as speaker came when he stepped down temporarily from the dais to oppose a bill authorizing the use of the Texas National Guard to suppress strikes.

Such pro-labor sentiment from the speakership would virtually disappear after Thomason’s term. Most relevant for the 1920 gubernatorial race, however, he also advocated repeal of the poll tax, arguing that blacks and Mexican Americans were already excluded from voting in primaries by Democratic Party rules. This opened him to racist attacks by his chief gubernatorial rival Pat Neff. Thomason saw his lead in the gubernatorial race peak in early July but disappear by the time of the primary later that month. The primary left Bailey in the lead, facing Neff in a runoff. In the August 28 second round, Bailey received only 40 percent of the vote and Democratic nominee and former speaker Neff stood assured of victory in the November governor’s race.

Neff, however, entered the governor’s office with a slim agenda. In the end, Progressivism touched few people where they lived. So much attention was devoted to alcohol as a root of all social evils that once Prohibition became the law of the land, Progressives felt they had little left to do. On matters of social justice, as historian Lewis Gould points out, the Progressive record in Texas proved particularly scanty. “While a few educators, journalists and politicians called for effective child labor, minimum wage and public health laws between 1911 and 1921, the majority of citizens remained cool to effective governmental intervention in these areas,” Gould writes.

Minimum wage laws for women and children remained on the books for only two years and the suggestions of child and family advocates went largely ignored while Progressives expressed little concern about the state’s poisonous race relations. However, the Progressive cupboard was not entirely bare. Rising prosperity and an expanding population brought some improvement to the lives of many Texans, especially if they lived in cities with more public services and job opportunities. Women, who gained the right to vote in the 1920s, now exerted more political influence and made some headway in the workplace. Nevertheless, although the foundations for change were laid, Texas remained tied to its Southern traditions, both cultural and political, until the Great Depression.


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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