Texas Democrats wrote a state constitution in 1866 that denied basic political rights to vote, to serve on juries, to testify in court, or to attend schools, to freedmen. Meanwhile, white Texans subjected just emancipated African Americans to a reign of terror, fire bombing homes, bullwhipping blacks regardless of age or gender, and targeting supposedly "uppity" Afro-Texan battling for political freedoms for assassination.
These actions pushed the Republican majority in the United States Congress over the edge. There, so-called Radical Republicans realized that their party was likely to lose control of the Congress if blacks could not act as a political opposition to the old Southern planters in the former Confederacy. Congress refused to seat the Texas delegation elected under the 1866 Constitution and passed its First Reconstruction Act in March 1867. The law placed Texas under army command, and declared that officials elected in the aftermath of the Civil War were subject to removal.
Responding to these events, three groups formed the state’s Republican Party in the spring of 1867. Pre-Civil War Unionists (often smeared by their opponents as “scalawags”) who had established deep ties in Texas before secession provided the bedrock of the party, along with just-enfranchised African American men for whom the Democrats represented the party of slavery. A smaller group of more recent immigrants from free states (labeled “carpetbaggers”), consisting primarily of Union Army veterans, formed the third Republican support base. Attempting to appeal to poor white voters, Republicans held their first state convention in Houston on July 4, 1867, adopting a platform endorsing free public schools for all children in Texas, regardless of race, and a homestead policy that would provide publicly held land for any settler, black or white.
Republican efforts to gain a foothold in post-bellum Texas inspired terrorism by still rebellious Democrats. Whites between 1865-68 murdered about 1 percent of black males between the ages of 15-49, a higher murder rate than in modern Dallas or Houston. The Republican-controlled Congress, outraged by the violence against freedmen and Unionists, then required the state to hold another constitutional convention before it could rejoin the Union, with the delegates elected by all male citizens age 21 and over, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. An election boycott by ex-Confederates combined with black suffrage to create a disproportionately Unionist voting public that approved another state Constitution in 1869. The 1869 Constitution explicitly outlawed slavery for the first time, and provided for black citizenship and the legal equality of all persons regardless of color.
This Constitution greatly increased the power of the governor and the Legislature. Tasked with reconstructing the state government, the economy and deeply embedded attitudes about race, Republicans sought to give the new regime breathing room by lengthening terms for elected officials. The governor’s term expanded from two to four years and state senators’ from four to six. The Constitution required annual legislative sessions. The governor now appointed the state attorney general and secretary of state, both previously elective posts, as well as all judicial offices.
Republicans controlled the state government only from 1870-1874 and the party’s two House speakers, Ira Hobart Evans and William Henry Sinclair, had little time to make noticeable changes in the office itself. Republicans did prove, however, what an energetic state government unshackled from the limitations imposed by a reactionary ruling clique could do. Although funding mechanisms for public education had existed since the 1838-1841 presidency of Mirabeau B. Lamar in the days of the Texas Republic, education in the state had remained in the hands of private schools through the 1860s. Until the 1870s, students faced tuition payments at small local academies, a burden that made even elementary education unaffordable for many Texas families.
Reconstruction-era Republicans created the first free public school system, open to both black and white children, and passed the state’s compulsory education law requiring attendance for children ages six to 18. The Republican administration also passed legislation creating Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College (later Texas A&M University), the first higher education institution to open in the state. During Reconstruction, outside investment flowed into Texas and railroads underwent extensive construction.
Unlike the planter-friendly Bourbon Democrats, who before the Civil War placed a long seccession of interchangeable, predictably conservative, pro-slavery men in the speakership, Republicans proved too divided over policy to effectively use the office and the party’s short tenure was marked by instability and conflict. The Republicans split deeply between the so-called Radicals, who controlled 50 of the 90 seats in the Legislature, and Moderates. The Radicals earned their name through their insistence on full African American citizenship rights and their eagerness to ally with blacks in creating a strong, biracial Republican Party in Texas. Radicals also insisted on greater caution in government spending to stimulate the economy. Moderates supported greater government involvement in the economy, and more accommodation of the pre-Civil War Texas leadership, and resisted attempts to make blacks equal partners in the new Texas Republican organization.
An ugly spat over the timing of state elections led to the overthrow of the first Republican House Speaker, moderate Ira Hobart Evans. The Republican caucus replaced him with the Radical’s favorite, William Henry Sinclair. Democrats swept elections held from November 5 to 8, 1872, and regained control of the state House and Senate. A Republican, Edmund Davis, still held power as governor. and his party still controlled the judiciary. Democrats in the state House immediately rolled back Republican reforms, placing severe limits on the ability of local school boards to raise taxes. Democrats aimed at a complete takeover and passed a bill calling for a one-day general election on December 2, 1873. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Coke overwhelmed Davis, carrying 66.7 percent of the vote in an election where the black turnout was heavily suppressed through white intimidation and violence.
Speaker Guy Morrison Bryan represented one of the so-called “Redeemer” Democrats now in command of the state government. A native of Herculaneum, Missouri, Bryan came from a family that settled at a plantation south of Brazoria in 1831. As a teenager, Bryan briefly served in the Texas Revolutionary Army in 1836 before enrolling in Kenyon College in Ohio where he struck up a friendship with future president Rutherford B. Hayes. He served another brief stint in the military in the Mexican-American War in 1846 before he left his post to accompany an ailing brother back home. Bryan first served in the Texas House from 1847 to 1854 and in the state Senate from 1854 to 1857, before filling a term in the United States Congress from 1857 to 1859. At the insistence of his wife, Bryan returned with his family to Texas, where he became a rancher near Galveston.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bryan joined the Confederate Army as an assistant to several generals and as a military liaison to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Bryan won election to the 14th Legislature in 1874. Like other 19th-century Texas House Speakers, Bryan spoke for the planter class and served as its temporary mouthpiece. “You refer to my entrance into public life, and election to the speakership,” Bryan wrote his friend, Rutherford B. Hayes, on February 1, 1874. “The first [my political career] was forced upon me, and the latter [my speakership] came without the slightest electioneering on my part with unanimity on the part of the members.”
The planters Bryan represented saw no place for African Americans in Texas politics. “There is no desire on the part of the South to put back the negro into slavery or its equivalent [emphasis in the original],” wrote Bryan to Hayes, who would become president after a particularly controversial and convoluted election in 1877. “What is desirable for both sections is, that both intelligence and property have their proper weight in government . . . All concur that the negroes are citizens, that they are entitled to protection, and that they must have it. But we want good government, for their sakes as well as our own. They do not know how to govern . . . it would be far better for the negroe [sic.], that the intelligent tax paying citizen should govern . . .”
Bryan himself indirectly acknowledged the tiny part the Texas House speaker played in the larger machinery of Texas politics. An autobiographical sketch he authored supplies a long summary of his Civil War experiences. Bryan, on the other hand, summarizes his speakership in 24 brisk words: “I discharged my duties as Speaker during that long session and an extra session. The following year I declined re-election to the succeeding Legislature.”
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.