Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Music of Cracking Necks: Dallas Civilization and Its Discontents, Part I

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." To mark the fifth anniversary of this work, I am serializing "White Metropolis." Here, I describe the violent racial, regional and class conflicts that tore apart Dallas, a city famed for its supposed consensus, during the antebellum years.

Towards the end of her life, Lizzie Atkins looked back on the days since Texas Emancipation and, despite the abolition of slavery, believed that the African American community had degenerated. The Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s sent a host of interviewers across the South to collect anecdotes from former slaves. Interviewed at her home in Madisonville, Texas, 144 miles southeast of Dallas, Atkins insisted that something bad had happened to black Texans since the end of the Civil War.

Blacks grew lazy, becoming liars and thieves, Atkins said, because " . . . they are mixing with the white people too much, so many half-breeds, and this shows they are going backwards instead of forwards."

Atkins, who grew up as a slave in Washington County, about 204 miles southeast of Dallas, believed that before the Civil War a solid color line existed between black and white. On one side, blackness equaled dignity, honesty and thrift. On the other, whiteness meant degeneracy. Atkins could not hide her contempt for white people or their culture. In spite of the inequality it generated, Texas' color line allowed a separate black society to develop where African Americans judged the world and their peers on their own terms. Seven decades after slavery, Atkins saw this separation as natural and miscegenation violated this fundamental order.

Atkins' comments reflect one basic truth. Much of East and North Central Texas before the Civil War had a simpler black/white racial structure. As this chapter will argue, soon after Anglo Texas' separation from Mexico in the 1835-1836 revolution, white elites created a society rooted in the absolute legal separation of the white and black worlds.

In order to prevent the development of a mulatto population that might inherit the political and economic wealth of the racial ruling class, white leaders promulgated harsh legal penalties in the 1840s and 1850s attached to blackness. Blacks faced slavery, the death penalty for many crimes punished less severely for whites, and laws defining the offspring of mixed race parents as enslaved bastards ineligible for inheritance. Whiteness was defined simply as the absence of blackness, Indian blood or other racial "pollution." (This is in spite of the fact that many who were socially accepted as white had been polluted in this manner). Elites hoped that the social superiority all whites ostensibly enjoyed over blacks ameliorated disparities of power and wealth within the white community.

To the dismay of elites, however, frequently severe weather and a cash-strapped economy made life insecure for the non-slaveholding majority. In Dallas, divisions developed along economic and regional lines, leading to outbursts of violence that disturbed elite confidence and security. When a fire destroyed downtown Dallas in 1860, elite suspicions settled on white abolitionists born outside the South.

The violence of 1860 created the terrain on which postwar racial ideology developed. Elites labeled those opposed to their notions of race and class hierarchy as uncivilized, and therefore not fully white. After Reconstruction, the city leadership embraced a more fluid concept of race in which white status could be gained or lost based on acceptance of elite social norms. This more flexible definition of whiteness, which held dissent in check, shaped Dallas politics for more than 130 years afterward.

The legal division of Texas into completely separate white and black boxes purportedly meant that all white people were created equal. The poorest white Texans were at least not black slaves and could claim higher social status than their servile neighbors. It was just that some white Texans were more equal than others. Dallas' wealthiest pioneer Anglo families saw no contradiction in creating a community in which a few families rapidly accumulated great wealth while simultaneously praising the principles of democracy. Men such as Frank M. Cockrell, son of the city's first business magnates, Alexander and Sarah, divorced the concept of aristocracy from anything so crass as monetary wealth. Dallas, Frank Cockrell insisted, developed as a racial aristocracy, with a white ruling class atop a permanent black underclass.

From the perspective of the 1930s, Cockrell admired the culture of 1850s Dallas where "[t]here were among the women the refined, cultured and accomplished. Socially all on an equality. Merit the only distinction." Cockrell, however, emphasized another distinction: "the adaptability and self-government of the Anglo-Saxon race, characteristic of the Southern people" which made the average pioneer in early Dallas "a very superior immigrant."

Cockrell's words carried a particular sting in the 1930s after many non-Anglo-Saxons from Europe made America their home and faced mixed assessments of their whiteness by their contemporaries. Early on, elites like Cockrell portrayed Anglo-Saxons as the sole creators of civilization, a vital first element of the city's Origin Myth. The Anglo-Saxon majority participated, at least theoretically, in what sociologist Howard Winant calls a herrenvolk democracy, a nominally free society in which political participation depends on skin color or ethnicity.

William H. Wharton, pleading with Americans to support the 1836 Texas Revolution, declared that God would prevent Texas from becoming "a howling wilderness, trod only by savages, or that it should be permanently benighted by the ignorance and superstition, the anarchy and rapine of Mexican misrule . . . the wilderness of Texas has been redeemed by Anglo-American blood and enterprise." The founders of Anglo Texas envisioned a race-based society in which Indians were to be driven out, blacks exploited as slaves and Mexicans reduced to the role of surplus labor. The state's white leadership shuddered at the thought of miscegenation. "[A]malgamation of the white with the black race, inevitably leads to disease, decline and death," Galveston State Representative and future Dallas mayor John Henry Brown warned in 1857.

The Constitution of the Texas Republic adopted in 1836 specifically denied citizenship to "Africans, the descendents of Africans, and Indians . . ." Interracial sex, particularly if it involved slaves, threatened this racial order. In 1837, the Texas Congress criminalized marriage between persons of African ancestry, even free blacks, and persons of European ancestry. The law denied black consorts' claims to white lovers' estates and reduced mulatto children to illegitimacy.

Hoping to discourage miscegenation, the Texas legislature in August 1856 defined the children of mixed-race unions as persons "of color." By law, anyone with at least "one eighth African blood" would be excluded from whiteness and defined as a slave. Such mixed-race persons immediately suffered the same social and political disabilities as African Americans. Both slave and free African Americans could suffer the death penalty, according to a December 1837 state law, not just for murder but also for insurrection or inciting insurrection, assaulting a free white person, attempting to rape a white woman, burglary and arson.

By drawing a sharp legal line between the races, elites hoped that they secured a greater degree of white unity. This simple white/black hierarchy, however, failed to maintain social order. Conflict boiled to the surface, stoked by a short money supply and inadequate law enforcement. Frontier violence between debtors and debt holders soon threatened the power structure in fledgling towns like Dallas.

In 1841, Dallas was born when a Kentucky investment group headed by W.S. Peters won an empresario grant from the Republic of Texas. His Texas Land and Emigration Company received more than 10 million acres from the Republic, a tract including all of future Dallas County except for a ten-mile strip on the eastern border. In return for the vast acreage, the company would encourage Anglo settlement by surveying the land, assisting in housing construction and promoting immigration. Peters could scarcely have picked a worse time economically to start the colony. "Times were bad [in 1841]," wrote Seymour V. Connor, an historian of the Peters Colony. "The public treasury [of the Republic of Texas] was empty and private pocketbooks were nearly so.”

Though the settlement grew from the 1840s through 1860, unpredictable weather aggravated chronic economic insecurity, keeping Dallas area farmers on the edge of disaster. Dallas averages about 30 inches of precipitation a year, much of which falls in late April through May and in early autumn. But residents frequently experience long dry seasons, such as a drought from 1857 to 1859. Baptist minister and historian B.F. Riley describes the thirsty year 1857 in Texas as hope-sapping, with "water ceasing from the streams, then from the springs, and finally from the wells. Animals . . . died in great numbers . . . The earth was so dry and scorched that crops were a total failure . . . "

In addition to harsh weather, the lack of a rail connection particularly hurt the wheat-growing farmers who emigrated from free states and formed the backbone of Dallas' early economy. "[W]heat growers of Dallas county have but a poor market for their staple, on account of their inland location," a traveler noted in a letter printed in the Dallas Herald. Available real estate also became scarce with "no vacant lands, and no places to rent or sell at prices which emigrants are disposed to give."

Even as some Dallas farmers feared they would be unable to provide for the basic necessities of life, wealth and power in the state concentrated in the hands of a small slaveholding elite during the 1850s. Those holding real estate worth less than $250 represented about 45 percent of the 1850 population, yet they held only 1.1 percent of the available real estate. Ten years later, the same class declined to only 37 percent of the population, but their share of the state's total real estate holdings fell more dramatically to 0.2 percent.

The rich grew richer. In 1850, the wealthiest Texans, the 3.2 percent holding $10,000 or more in real property, owned 43 percent of the real property. A decade later, that class had grown to 6.3 percent of the population. Their share of the state's real property swelled to 60 percent. Accounting for all forms of wealth — real estate, personal property and slaves — by 1860, the richest 2 percent of the state population held almost a third of the state's riches.

Non-slaveholding white farmers, the largest population group in the North Central Texas region that included Dallas, possessed total wealth a third less than the professional class and less than half what neighbors engaged in commerce owned.
Approximately 60 percent of white Dallas County residents in 1860 were farmers, mostly with humble holdings and no slaves. Another 23 percent were small producers, merchants, craftsman, and professionals, such as saddle makers, grocers, blacksmiths, millers, lawyers, physicians and teachers. The remaining 17 percent of the working population were wage laborers, such as farm workers, handymen, well diggers, stage drivers, teamsters and hostlers.

Breaking down the county's population into nine "wealth categories," one finds that almost 47 percent of the county's working population belong to the poorest brackets. Only about 8 percent belonged to the top three wealth categories. Differences in wealth often broke along regional lines. Birth in foreign nations or in free states corresponded more strongly with lower economic status than birth in upper southern states (Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee.) Nearly half of white residents born overseas or in free states occupied the lowest three income categories. Only 4.5 percent of foreign-born Dallas County white residents and 3.5 percent born in non-slave states belonged in the upper three wealth brackets while almost 11.5 percent of Dallas residents born in the upper South belonged to the highest economic classes.

Tennessee native G.M. Record was typical of Dallas County's economic elite, holding $16,850 in real estate and $23,650 in personal assets. George Wheeler of New York represented the typical free state white immigrant. The thirty-year-old miller possessed only $885 in personal assets. About 21.5 percent of residents from free states worked in such low-prestige wage-earning occupations as farm laborer. Those of Upper South origin were the least likely to be salary dependent workers (with about 13.6 percent of the subgroup belonging to that class.)

Leading citizens of the county, such as Sarah H. Cockrell and William B. Miller, came almost exclusively from Upper South border states like Kentucky and Virginia. With the exception of John W. Swindells, a New York native who published the Dallas Herald, most free state immigrants were shut out of powerful positions in Dallas society . White immigrants to Dallas from the Lower South states such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi were the poorest, with slightly more than half of that subgroup belonging to the three lowest income categories.

In antebellum Dallas County, economic conflict would often be expressed as inter-regional warfare. Nearly all Dallas residents were directly involved in the means of production or belonged to the managerial or professional class. Fewer than one-fifth were wage-dependent workers.

Nevertheless, the 1860 census reveals that the county aristocracy largely derived from the Upper South, while the foreign-born, free state and Lower South immigrants served as the mudsill of the county's white society. After the Civil War, immigrants to Dallas from the Lower South, generally poorer than Upper South peers, would be identified by elites as violence-prone "white trash" whose racial status declined as the twentieth century approached. From the ashes of the 1850s and 1860s, a post-war racial order arose in which some whites — poorer and seen as more dissent-prone — became "off-white" and would occupy an uneasy racial middle ground.

Economic insecurity led the earliest Dallasites to embrace violence as a means of survival, belying the city's modern image as an orderly business empire conquering the savage frontier. The so-called Hedgcoxe War broke out in 1852 over conflicting land claims made by white residents and the Texas Emigration and Land Company (TELC), W.S. Peters' investment group. Inhabitants with uncertain title to land feared they would be uprooted and organized resistance against Peters Colony agent, Henry Oliver Hedgcoxe. In July, a mob of Dallas County citizens ransacked Hedgcoxe's office and home in McKinney, 32 miles north of Dallas, as Hedgcoxe hid in a cornfield with all the company records he could grab. Back in Dallas a spontaneous carnival broke out to celebrate the returning ragtag army. The crowd carried William Myres, an alleged Peters Company spy, on a sharpened rail.

Many Dallas residents found themselves sinking into debt in the 1850s. With the example of mob violence in the Hedgcoxe War before them, the debt-ridden found firearms to be handy tools in renegotiating loans given by wealthier neighbors. The culture of violence that Dallas leaders created claimed the life of Alexander Cockrell, considered Dallas' "first capitalist," who built his riches on the failures of the town's founder, John Neely Bryan. In 1841, Bryan staked a claim on a bluff adjoining the Trinity River, a strategic crossing that today would be the foot of Main Street at the Triple Underpass, thus beginning permanent Anglo settlement in the area that became Dallas.

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, Bryan launched numerous unsuccessful moneymaking schemes, acting as the town's first lawyer, selling powder, lead, whiskey and tobacco out of his cabin, and serving as unofficial postmaster. By the late 1840s, Bryan sank into depression and alcohol abuse and unloaded his remaining Dallas property as well as his right to operate a ferry across the Trinity.

These properties ended up in the hands of Alexander Cockrell. An illiterate Kentuckian, Cockrell first came to Texas in 1845 as a slavecatcher before he made a small fortune hauling freight between Texas and Louisiana. For $7,000, Cockrell bought most of what remained of Bryan's holdings in Dallas, including his ferry concession. Selling Bryan's old lots, Cockrell and his wife Sarah, who served as her uneducated husband's bookkeeper, opened a brick business, a sawmill, a lumberyard and planned to build a bridge spanning the Trinity that would replace the slow ferry service. Most Dallas residents did not experience such breathtaking financial success.

Some, like carpenter Andrew Moore, owed Cockrell money. In 1855, Moore apparently purchased between $100-$200 of lumber from Cockrell's mill but never paid back the debt. Cockrell successfully sued Moore for the amount in late 1857. Moore won election as Dallas Marshal April 1, 1858. Two days later, Moore arrested Cockrell, possibly for disturbing the peace. Cockrell was released and the two men encountered each other again that evening, both armed with revolvers and double-barrel shotguns. Moore, while arresting Cockrell, fatally shot the town's most successful businessman eight times in the lower abdomen.

Cockrell died after lingering for an hour and a half, with Moore quickly arrested for murder. The bloody death of Dallas' chief wheeler-dealer provoked little sorrow. Moore faced trial for murder. Rather than outrage, the subsequent "not guilty" verdict provoked "an irrepressible outburst of applause in the court-room, which was caught up in the streets and made the welkin [sky] ring with demonstrations of satisfaction," according to a contemporary Dallas Herald account.

The celebration after the verdict suggests a deep social rift in early Dallas, with Moore's supporters representing an army of the discontent. Indebted whites perhaps saw the inequalities in their society and refused to accept them as natural, celebrating when men of wealth and power such as Cockrell fell.

No starker symbol of antebellum inequality existed than slavery. Texas slavery dramatically expanded from the time of Dallas' founding to the start of the Civil War, the slave population growing proportionately faster than the white population. One estimate suggests that slaves made up 13 percent of the Texas population at the Republic's birth in 1836. By 1861, the year the Civil War began, white Texans owned 169,166 slaves, 30.2 percent of the state's 1860 population. In 1848, only 106 slaves lived in Peters Colony, which included parts of present-day Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Ellis counties. By 1860, Dallas County alone held 1,074 slaves, as opposed to 7,591 whites.

As fast as slavery expanded in Texas, some wanted it to grow more quickly. John Henry Brown served as chairman of the House
Committee on Slaves and Slavery. In December 1857, Brown proposed a joint resolution calling for resumption of the African slave trade that had been prohibited by the United States Constitution since 1808. Brown, who later became Dallas County's first historian, argued that the Negro was "indisputably adapted by nature, to the condition of servitude" and, rescued from the savagery and disease of Africa by the white man, enjoyed "a degree of health unequalled" by slaves anywhere else in the world. As long as Texas had black slaves, Brown argued, even the "laboring masses" would not be the mudsill of Texas society. Brown's proposal proved too extreme for his legislative colleagues. The Committee on Slaves and Slavery rejected his resolution.

However desperately elite Texans may have thought they needed slaves, they also feared them. In 1856, perhaps as many as four hundred slaves in Colorado County in South Central Texas plotted to kill whites and battle their way to Mexico. According to some sources, authorities hanged and whipped to death five slaves.

White Dallas recoiled in horror in 1852 when a slave woman, Jane Elkins, murdered her master. A widower "by the name of Wisdom" in nearby Farmers Branch hired a "negro woman by the name of Jane . . . to keep house for him and take care of his children." Whether suffering a sudden burst of psychosis, finding herself unable to bear the indignities of slavery any longer, or becoming enraged at an act of physical or sexual abuse, Jane killed the sleeping Wisdom "by splitting his head open with an ax." Jane left the children unharmed. Convicted of murder, she became the first person hanged for homicide in Dallas County.

Four years later, a slave named Issac killed his master, Hastings Dial, ten miles northeast of Dallas, when Dial tried to punish him for being "annoying." Unwilling to endure a beating, Issac gave Dial "two angry violent blows on the head" with a stick and then stabbed his master in the heart. A posse pursued the axe-carrying Issac, who was determined not to surrender. Dr. William H. Dial, the deceased's brother, ended the standoff by fatally shooting the slave.

Such acts of resistance resulted in an increasingly repressive slave code. Fearing that free blacks incited slaves, lawmakers passed legislation in February 1840 making it illegal for free blacks to immigrate to Texas. Now some wanted to deport resident free blacks. "[A] free negro population is a curse to any people," John Henry Brown warned in a state House committee hearing in 1857. Free blacks and mixed blood persons had been allowed to remain in Texas, Brown said, due to white "humanity and generosity," but recent suspected rebellions had proven this policy a mistake. The 1860 census reveals that Dallas County successfully excluded free blacks from living there. "Free negroes were frowned upon; they created trouble among the slaves," Frank M. Cockrell later recalled.

Elites held onto slavery as the only path to wealth, yet in embracing human bondage they also exposed themselves to revolt at the hands of wrathful slaves and their free black allies. Meanwhile, in the critical decade of the 1850s, pro-slavery elites could not even guarantee the loyalty of the entire white population should Civil War erupt between North and South. By 1860, 23.5 percent of the adult white population in Dallas had migrated from free states.

Many Southerners, particularly in the upper South, and in mountainous regions with few slaveholders such as eastern Tennessee or western Virginia, rejected the extremism of radical elites, so-called fireeaters who demanded immediate secession from the Union if the supposedly abolitionist Republican Party captured the White House or Congress. In the 1860 census, 28.5 percent of Dallas residents came from Southern states of shaky pro-Confederacy sentiment like Tennessee or slave states like Kentucky and Missouri that stayed in the Union during the Civil War. Another six percent came from foreign nations that had already abolished slavery. Only 42 percent of Dallas’ population came from the Deep Southern states such as Mississippi or Alabama most passionately committed to slavery.

At a time of volatile conflict over land titles and debt, the expansion of slavery in the 1850s underscored the iron link between wealth, slaveholding and political power. Slaveholders constituted the most grossly over-represented constituency in Texas politics from the city to the statewide level. In 1850, only about 30 percent of Texans owned slaves, yet these slaveowners represented 58 percent of officeholders. The year before the Civil War, the percentage of slaveowners dropped to 27 percent of the population, but they held 68 percent of the state's political posts. Yet, instances of white rebellion such the Alexander Cockrell murder and examples of black defiance such as the Elkins case added to anxieties already stoked by national debates over slavery and secession. The slaveholding class in Dallas grew insecure as the 1850s closed despite their increasing political dominance.

Leaders became more frantic to convince lower-income Texans that, in spite of all outward appearances, the only divisions that mattered were the struggles for power between blacks and whites on one side and the regional conflict between the North and the South on the other. The attempt to force consensus on slavery, and then on secession, only opened deeper economic and cultural fissures in the white community and hastened the collapse of the old social order.

Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations," edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011. He is currently coauthor of a new edition of "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story."

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