Thursday, June 23, 2011

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

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." To celebrate this anniversary, I am serializing this work. Here, I describe the murderous panic that swept Dallas and the rest of Texas when a fire destroyed most of the frontier town's downtown in the summer of 1860.

As the fateful year of 1860 opened Charles R. Pryor, a part-time doctor who became editor of the Dallas Herald (the city's only weekly newspaper) in 1859, worried that the town of 581 whites and 97 blacks could not long remain at peace. Throughout January 1860, the part-time physician and his associate, publisher John W. Swindells, printed lurid dispatches on the evil work of abolitionist fanatics who might incite Texas slaves to butcher whites.

Pryor accused Republicans opposed to slavery as having racial miscegenation and slave rebellion as their hidden agenda, a belief increasingly held by the newspaper's readership. One letter, signed "Caucasian" and printed in the Herald on January 18, 1860, warned that the triumph of the Republicans would cause the world to take "a step backwards for 500 years . . . Mongrelism, as seen in Mexico and Central America, will become . . . characteristic . . . This destructive, abhorrent, damnable, intermixture of the races, is ever slowly going on at the North — white women marrying black negro men and vice versa."

Fires and rumors of fires raged across the state in July and August. Pryor blamed the fires on local abolitionists, thereby aggravating an already volatile atmosphere encouraging harassment, intimidation, and violations of civil liberties against political dissidents. Pryor’s readers might think that if there was not an abolitionist hiding under every bed, there was at least one dangerous anti-slavery agent in each county. With Pryor's help, the 1860 fires stoked the Texas slaveholding class' already deep fears and rushed the state into the Confederate camp at the beginning of the Civil War.

Pryor's anxiety boiled since late 1859 when, during public meetings held August 12 and 13, Solomon McKinney and Parson Blount, two Dallas County residents described as Iowa natives, faced accusations that they advocated "free soil sentiments and abolition doctrines." A mob gave McKinney, a minister, his "walking papers" and told him to leave Texas for daring to "tell Southern men how to manage their servants . . ."

Authorities confined McKinney in the county jail to await expulsion. Parson Blount made the mistake of defending McKinney during the public meetings. Blount requested a place in the jail for himself, fearing he would be in danger. The Herald darkly threatened Blount. "[U]ntil he came, all was peace and quiet, harmony and good will," the newspaper said. " . . . He has offended a generous community, who will not soon forgive him; hence, he had better consult his own safety and leave." When Blount and McKinney mysteriously disappeared from jail, the Herald suggested that this happened through the aid of the "Prince of Darkness" or perhaps "the assistance of outside pressure."

In a county with a more than 94 percent literacy rate among whites age 15 and older, Pryor's inflammatory warnings about abolitionist conspiracies reached a widespread audience. All year long, Pryor had anticipated a racial conflagration prompted by Northern outsiders. Pryor's predicted holocaust finally arrived on July 8, 1860 when a fire consumed almost all of downtown Dallas.

The fire began on Sunday between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. in a rubbish heap outside the W.W. Peak and Brothers drug store. The blaze quickly spread as temperatures reached 105 degrees. A high southwest wind fed the blaze, which in just five minutes engulfed the entire store. The flames, fueled partly by the chemicals stored at the drug store, spread as "[t]he fire caught most of us in our siesta . . ." Charles Pryor wrote in a letter to the Houston Telegraph. "We barely escaped with our lives — some like myself, without clothes, boots, shoes, or anything else."

The fire reduced dry good stores, groceries, law offices, inns, the three-story St. Nicholas Hotel, and the offices of the Dallas Herald to rubble. Officials calculated the loss at $400,000, with a mere $10,000 of that insured. Some of the richest and most powerful people in Dallas, such as General John Good, attorney Warren Stone, publisher John Swindells and Alexander Cockrell's widow Sarah lost a fortune in the fire. Volunteer firefighters diverted the inferno from the courthouse, although "the heat was so great that the curtains on the inside of the windows caught fire through the glass . . ." When the fire burned itself out, Dallas smoldered, a smoking ruin.

On the day after the downtown fire, a home burned down a mile and a half from town, inspiring gossip about a conspiracy. Men "with inflamed minds, swearing vengeance," gathered at the courthouse, insisting Dallas had been targeted by arsonists. District Judge Nat M. Burford left court proceedings in Waxahachie to preside over an inquisition held on the fire. A fifty-two man Committee of Vigilance formed and their suspicion quickly settled on slaves and their reputed abolitionist accomplices.

If the committee kept any records, including the suspects' alleged confessions, these documents have apparently disappeared. The chief source of information on the investigation comes from a series of letters Charles Pryor wrote to newspapers across Texas, such as the politically allied State Gazette in Austin. Pryor ‘s letters instigated a statewide panic about a slave revolt inspired by abolitionist outsiders.

These letters told the same story: black rebels plotted to burn down the state, murder white leaders and poison wells. At a time when prolonged drought made water a much-protected commodity, the rumor that slaves planned to poison water supplies must have inspired particular terror. The slave rebels, Pryor told readers, intended to commit horrors on "certain ladies . . . selected as the victims of these misguided monsters." On July 28, the Austin State Gazette carried Pryor's letter proclaiming the Dallas fire the opening gambit in a statewide revolution. Abolition preachers "expelled from the country last year" had hatched a scheme to "devastate with fire and assassination" the "whole of Northern Texas . . ." Slave rebels hoped to destroy military targets such as stores of gunpowder, lead and grain to "[reduce] this . . . country to a state of utter helplessness." The revolution in each county was:

"[U]nder the supervision of a white man, who controls the action of the negroes in that district . . . Many of our most prominent citizens were to be assassinated . . . Arms have been discovered in the possession of the negroes, and the whole plot revealed, for a general insurrection and civil war at the August election."

Blount and McKinney, expelled from Dallas the previous summer, now emerged as masterminds of the revolt. "Bl[o]unt and McKinney, the abolition preachers, were expected here at the head of the large force at that time," Pryor wrote to the State Gazette. "We are expecting the worst, and do not know what an hour may bring forth."

The Committee of Vigilance secretly interrogated nearly 100 slaves, using torture to extract confessions, the inquisition dragging on for fifteen days as eight suspects languished in jail. The brutalized witnesses implicated all but three of the county's 1,074 slaves. By Texas law, all 1,071 suspects faced the death penalty for insurrection and arson, representing not only a massacre unprecedented in Texas, but also a potential financial loss of about $820,000 to slaveowners.

Whipped slaves told the committee what they already believed, that a slave revolution had begun. "One of the negroes whipped became very sick afterward and thinking that he was going to die, he made a confession to his old mistress, telling her all about the plot," a community leader told the Dallas Morning News in 1892.

The committee already had settled upon three suspects — Patrick Jennings, Sam Smith and another slave called Cato — as the plot's ringleaders. Jennings, brought to Texas by his owner Dr. Roy B. Scott from their native Virginia, belonged at the time of the fire to George W. Guess, a prominent 31-year-old Dallas attorney. "Old Pat continued to be an agitator in Texas as he had been in Virginia," Dr. Scott's son, Samuel, recalled in 1922. Rachel Overton, the widow of Aaron Overton, a successful farmer in the county, owned "Old Cato," a slave highly regarded by the family. The Overtons owned the first mill in the county, which they entrusted Cato to run. Cato "made all decisions regarding priority" at the mill "and many a fee of 25 or 50 cents bestowed on Cato would greatly facilitate your turn," recalled J.O. Cructhfield. Pryor describes the third suspect, Sam Smith, as a slave preacher "who had imbibed most of his villainous principles from two abolitionist preachers" Blount and McKinney. Smith possibly belonged to rich and powerful W.B. Miller. A fourth slave, also owned by Miller, would be identified as a suspected ringleader as well.

The three slaves found themselves targeted because they in some way offended racial etiquette: Jennings perhaps because of an abrasive personality; Cato because he commanded a position of authority at the Overton mill; and Smith because of his highly visible and threatening role as a slave preacher. Slave preachers figured prominently in previous suspected and realized revolts, led by Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822) and Nat Turner (1831). Texas slaveholders often prohibited their servants from holding services, fearing that religious gatherings merely masked meetings where charismatic preachers hatched rebellion. The Committee, in any case, carefully selected its victims to teach slaves the value of subservience.

The panic, however, opened a rift between large and small slaveholders. As soon as Burford entered the courthouse, a man cornered him and declared, "Now, we must vote to hang them three negroes, but it won't do to hang too many. We can't afford it. After we get the three let's call up some rich man's negro and make a fight to save him. If we save the rich man's negro the meeting will not then turn around and vote to hang the poor man's negro." Judge Burford apparently became so disturbed by the proceedings that he abruptly left the meeting after only 45 minutes. Shortly after his departure, the committee voted to execute Jennings, Smith and Cato. As already agreed upon, a fourth slave belonging to W.B. Miller stood accused of being a ringleader as well. "Sure enough a fight was made to save him and succeeded, but Miller said the negro shouldn't stay in the county, and he afterward sent him away," Burford said.

The committee further decided to whip every slave in the county. With all sides satisfied, the committee announced its decision on July 23 to the agitated mob outside. Jennings, Smith and Cato faced hanging the next day. Shortly thereafter, "[W]e whipped every negro in the county one by one," a source later told the Dallas Morning News. One witness, David Carey Nance, recalled slaves being rounded by "like cattle" and whipped "without mercy." Some slaves were almost beaten to death. The sight of the mass floggings, Nance later said, "made his blood run cold."

All whites of free state origin now became targets of suspicion. "At that time there was considerable wagon immigration to this country from the north, and the idea somehow gained currency that those Northern people were coming down here and supplying the negroes with firearms and ammunitions," a member of the vigilance committee later said. "People actually held up the wagons and searched them as they entered the town, but nothing was ever found to confirm these suspicions."

On July 24, officials led the three purported ringleaders from the jail to the bank of the Trinity River near the site where the Commerce Street Bridge later spanned the waterway. A gallows, in close view of an "immense concourse of citizens and negroes," awaited the accused rebels. Jennings remained calm and "betrayed no remorse or feeling whatever in view of his approaching doom." Jennings, displaying "unparalleled nonchalance," made no final words and died with a "chew of tobacco in his mouth." If the committee meant to terrify the assembled slaves in the audience, they accomplished their mission. The executioner apparently made a mistake tying the noose around Jennings' neck. The slave's neck did not break as intended. Jennings slowly strangled, "dying very hard," as he swung from the scaffolding.

The hangings heralded a season of violence in Texas. Fires causing an estimated $1 million in damages were reported in fourteen north and central Texas counties, including Collin, Denton, Ellis, Travis and Tarrant. The accompanying hysteria lasted eight weeks. Paranoia gained momentum as the August statewide elections approached when the "Bailey Letter," was supposedly found near Fort Worth. Reportedly written by William H. Bailey to the Reverend Anthony Bewley, the only Texas elder of the anti-slavery Methodist Episcopal Church, the letter purportedly outlined in great detail an unfolding abolitionist scheme to set fires across the state and murder slaveowners.

The "hellish document," reportedly uncovered by a "most reliable and undoubted source," was sent to the Belton Democrat, edited by John Henry Brown (the now-retired fire-eater state legislator who would later become mayor of Dallas). Brown advised slaveowners to "whip no abolitionist, drive off no abolitionist — hang them, or let them alone." In response to the circulation of the Bailey Letter, local assemblies called for opening mail to check for subversive literature, compiling "black lists" of Republicans and abolitionists to be hanged, and monitoring suspected traitors for anti-slavery activities.

Texas became a killing field, with historian Alwyn Barr estimating that mobs executed eighty slaves and thirty-seven suspected white abolitionists as a result of what the New Orleans Daily Picayune labeled the "Texas Troubles." As historian Wendell G. Addington suggested, pro-slavery Texans believed it was better to "hang ninety-nine innocent men than to let one guilty one pass." One Mississippi newspaper editor sardonically described Texas slaves as "dancing to the music of the cracking of the necks of the Abolitionists." This music, the Austin State Gazette predicted, would last until the final abolitionist was "elevated on his platform."


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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