Reuben Senterfitt never considered himself a New Dealer.
Speaker of the Texas House from 1951 to 1955, Senterfitt recalls when, during the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, agents from President Franklin Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration went to his father’s San Saba County ranch in Central Texas. Worried about collapsing prices for farm products, the AAA decided to raise prices by reducing supplies. In 1933, the AAA bought and slaughtered 8.5 million pigs with much of the meat destroyed in order to force prices upward. The AAA also destroyed cattle. The program proved one of the most controversial pursued by the administration. As Senterfitt recalled in a 2004 interview:
"You know, when I was in high school, they came to my dad’s place, and they had people out there shooting cattle, killing them. And it looked like to me there was a better way to get our economy back in order. . . It just struck me wrong . . . [T]hey felt [it] would help the economy get back in order because . . . we were oversupplied with livestock . . . And they thought it would . . . send the prices back up and maybe help the farmers and ranchers . . . "
Senterfitt described himself as “very conservative-minded.” He believed social welfare programs promote dependency. “. . . [B]eing conservative reminds me of my ranch out here,” Senterfitt said. “You can go out there and you can start feeding your cows. . . . [I]f you don’t feed them good enough they are going to sit there and starve to death because they are going to wait on you to bring them some more feed. And I think people are a whole lot like that.”
Nevertheless, he still acknowledges the important difference some New Deal programs made in the lives of his San Saba County neighbors. The region grew prosperous from New Deal-era flood control. Federal aid to local improvement projects, especially those that fostered commerce, found favor among many local and state officials. These projects heralded a level of investment in the public sector unheard of until the Depression generation. After World War II, the forces of change coupled with growing prosperity would create a profound social and political metamorphosis in Texas and the rest of the South.
As historian Sarah T. Phillips notes, for “much of its history the Hill Country [in Central Texas] remained isolated, an unforgiving landscape of poor land and even poorer farmers.” After cattle overgrazed, exposing the region’s thin topsoil to the wind, Phillips writes:
" . . . heat and drought scorched the bare earth, and streams dried to a trickle. Flash floods carved gullies into the hillsides and washed away the land’s illusive fertility . . . Hill Country residents lapsed into a marginal existence . . . "
Four major floods originating in the central Edwards Plateau swallowed the region’s “steep slopes, canyons, and shallow, nonporous soils” in the first two-and-a-half decades of the twentieth century. In 1931, the Emery-Peck and Rockwood Development Company began developing a dam in Llano County, but the company’s bankruptcy the following year stalled the project.
Area Congressman James Paul Buchanan won federal funds to restart construction on the dam in 1934. To match the much-needed dollars from Washington and to manage the project, the Texas Legislature in 1935 authorized the creation of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). Crews completed the project, now called Buchanan Dam, in October 1937. Construction of public parks commenced along the Colorado River and the Highland Lakes above Austin. Fish and game were supplied in the new parks and surrounding public lands, making the area a profitable recreational attraction. After Buchanan died and was succeeded in Congress by Lyndon Johnson, the enthusiastic New Dealer won a continuing stream of federal funds for economic development in Central Texas.
Sophisticated construction projects didn’t completely eradicate the ravages of nature as Reuben Senterfitt and his family witnessed in 1938. That year saw the worst flooding in Central Texas in more than a century as ten days of relentless storms swelled the Colorado River about 42 feet above normal. Water covered parts of Austin for three days while downstream homes, livestock, and the year’s crops were swept away. Twelve people died in the storm and more than 4,000 people were left homeless. The flash flood overwhelmed the Buchanan and Inks dams, the only two operating in the area, partly because operators failed to correctly manage reservoir levels and did not lower lake levels in preparation for the onslaught. Senterfitt was in his early twenties at the time of the 1938 flood.
". . . [O]ur house was on the bank of the river. My dad and I took my younger brother and my mother out to our sister’s place . . . [a]nd we stayed in the house until the water got up in the floor of the house, and we were stacking furniture on top of the dining tables and it was really a mess . . . It finally got into the ceiling. We know exactly the time it hit the clock on the mantel, because that’s when it stopped . . . Then . . . we took a row boat, and paddled over to a railroad . . . The whole house was submerged. We had to even put some of my mother’s chickens on the back porch and, of course, they drowned . . . "
Senterfitt admitted that San Saba County benefited richly from federal dam and lake building programs. “It boosted the tourist trade and business,” Senterfitt said. “I had a partner and he and I put in two subdivisions on Lake LBJ, and sold lots off them.”
The New Deal influenced conservatives like Senterfitt in subtle ways. Texas prospered due to Roosevelt’s social spending in the 1930s, the simulative effects of federal defense spending in the 1940s, and from the boost the state economy received when veterans programs placed money and access to homes and colleges in the hands of former soldiers in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This expansion of federal responsibility in people’s daily lives greatly altered the public’s expectations of government.
Senterfitt edited the Texas Law Review as a student at the University of Texas law school. He first won election to the Texas House of Representatives in 1941, and from the start Senterfitt was not a Coke Stevenson-style conservative.
In his freshmen term, he authored the bill that created the M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston, which became Texas’ premiere cancer research center. Cancer research, Senterfitt determined, “needed to be state-supported.” He later sponsored the Veterans’ Land Bill for returning World War II soldiers and helped lead the fight for the Gilmer–Aikin education reforms, which will be explored in greater detail later. All of these programs involved higher taxes and a bigger government, but also delivered significant services to Texas taxpayers. From a political standpoint, these programs proved to be popular with the public and boosted Senterfitt’s standing as a pragmatic elected official.
Like earlier Progressives, many conservative leaders in Texas during the mid-twentieth century such as Senterfitt recognized that the state and federal governments had a positive role to play in creating a vibrant business environment. Unlike Stevenson and O’Daniel, conservatives such as Senterfitt acknowledged that social services enlarge the class of active consumers whose spending drives the American economy. In any case, by the late 1940s and early 1950s, state government had reached a crisis point. The part-time, amateur ethic that pervaded both elected and appointed offices since the beginning of statehood no longer proved adequate to the task of managing a booming, complex economy. State government expanded, and as it grew speakers gained more control of the political process. Speakers began running for re-election and extending their influence past their legislative careers through mentoring legislators handpicked as their successors.
By the late 1940s it was obvious to many that the Legislature had not kept up with Texas’ dramatic economic changes. If oil production became a major engine of the Texas economy in the first half of the twentieth century, manufacturing would eclipse it after World War II. The 1941-1945 war brought the birth of the petrochemical industry along the Texas Gulf Coast, the development of steel mills in Houston and Daingerfield, tin-smelting in Texas City, and wood-pulping in East Texas.
Meanwhile, Port Arthur, Beaumont, Galveston, and Corpus Christi shipyards cranked out vessels for the naval fleet and plants in Garland, Grand Prairie and Fort Worth manufactured aircraft. Banking and financial services expanded in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and the other major metropolitan areas. Between 1945 and 1974, the number of farms dropped by more than half. The 1950 census showed that for the first time in its 114-year history, most Texans (60 percent) lived in towns or cities populated by 2,500 or more residents. Houston’s population had more than doubled since 1940 and Texas now had three cities (Houston, Dallas and San Antonio) nearing the half-million mark. By 1947 the state had 7,128 manufacturing plants that added almost $2 billion in value to the materials they converted into finished products.
Texas became a magnet for immigration, drawing workers from across the United States and from Mexico. By 1947, Mexican Americans for the first time became the second largest population group, ahead of African Americans and behind Anglos. More than a million new Texans were from outside the South. Texas’ demographic and industrial growth strained the state’s primitive infrastructure, including its transportation networks, its schools, its universities, and its health care systems. Soon after the war, however, the Legislature found itself unprepared for the new Texas realities. “The Depression and the war caused kind of a lull in the development of your state government history,” Senterfitt said. “. . . When I [first] went to the Legislature [in 1941], it was . . . just trying to scrape by and .. . . . save as much as you can.”
The benefits of economic growth spread unequally across the state’s population. The gap between rich and poor expanded in the 1950s and the 1960s. By 1970, the Texas Office of Economic Opportunity reported that 2 million Texans had less than $3 a day to meet physical needs, giving the state a poverty rate of 18 percent, the 12th highest rate in the nation.
Thirty-nine percent of African Americans lived in poverty, as well as 36 percent of Mexican Americans, and 10 percent of Anglos. An astounding 47 percent of residents in heavily Hispanic South Texas lived in poverty. In spite of the traditional pattern of limited public services, a consensus developed in the Texas House beginning in the late 1940s that the state government would have to grow along with the economy. Much of the pressure came from constituents. As the authors of Texas: The Lone Star State put it:
Farmers protested that they were not sharing fairly in the general abundance and called for greater freedom in their farming practices or for more controls, as their interest and points of view varied . . . There were pleas, fervent and often repeated for better care of children; the advocates for the needy aged were not satisfied with the level of aid accorded them, and those with disabilities had their champions.
The need for fundamental reform reached a crisis point, almost overwhelming the Legislature in 1949, a year that saw the longest session in state history (lasting from January 11 to July 6). In almost seven months of debate and negotiation, the Legislature modernized prisons, improved oversight of mental health care facilities through creation of the Board for Texas State Hospitals and Special Schools, and provided more care for disabled children.
Most importantly, the Legislature revamped a state public education system that had changed little since the turn of the century. By the late 1940s, Texas schools still moved to agricultural rhythms. The state only required a high school education for its teachers, who toiled in often-dilapidated schools that shut down when it was time to plants crops or gather the harvest. “We had the worst educational system . . . . that you could possibly have,” said Senterfitt.
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.