Saturday, June 25, 2011

"True to Dixie and Moses: Yankees, White Trash, Jews and the Lost Cause, Part I

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, "White Metropolis:: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." To celebrate the fifth anniversary of that work, I am serializing "White Metropolis." Here, I describe how terrorism by ex-Confederates during Reconstruction in Dallas thwarted attempts to create a more genuinely democratic city.

The 1861 Texas secession convention adopted a resolution explaining its reasons for joining the Confederacy. The convention proclaimed that the state's government had been established "exclusively for the white race . . . " Blacks, the convention said, "were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race . . . " and could be tolerated in Texas only if they remained slaves. All whites, meanwhile, were "entitled to equal civil and political rights." After four years of Civil War, some state leaders no longer held so certainly to that proposition. Some elites preferred a small number of politically reliable, educated blacks over "inferior" whites.

Before the Civil War, John H. Reagan won election as United States congressman from Eastern Texas. At best an ambivalent Confederate, Reagan seemed to come down firmly on both sides of the secession issue. In 1859, Reagan backed a pro-secession gubernatorial candidate against Unionist Sam Houston while simultaneously campaigning for re-election to Congress as a pro-Union moderate. Reagan served as the Confederate postmaster during the war. After the Confederacy's defeat, he urged other Texans to accept limited reforms demanded by the federal government if that was necessary to keep the pre-war power structure mostly intact.

In August 1865, while in a Union military prison at Fort Warren near Boston Harbor, Reagan predicted that Congress would not allow former Confederate state governments to be re-established unless some former slaves were granted suffrage. In an open letter to the people of Texas, Reagan called for "fixing an intellectual and moral, and, if thought advisable, a property test, for the admission of all persons to the exercise of the elective franchise, without reference to race or color . . ." He insisted that requirements such as a literacy test would block most freedmen from voting. The tiny number of blacks earning the franchise, he argued, would pose no threat to white supremacy. He assured his audience that no whites would be disenfranchised.

Failure to grant freedmen minimum voting rights would result not only in continued military occupation but even a "war between the races . . ." Granting the freedmen "their reasonable and necessary rights," however, would "prevent them from becoming an element of political agitation, and strife, and danger." Returning to Palestine, 106 miles southeast of Dallas, after a 22-month prison stay, Reagan found himself disowned by the state's political community. Perhaps many doubted his assurances that no whites would lose the vote due to new "intellectual and moral" tests.

Reagan seemed to believe that some whites were inferior intellectually to certain blacks, an ideological break from the entirely race-based biologic republic Texans sought during the Civil War. Dallas' antebellum black-white color spectrum was adding a new shade — the gray mass of conditional whites not thought competent or loyal enough to gain full admittance into the master race.

This chapter examines how discourse concerning inferior whites started in Dallas just after the Civil War and how elites used violence, laws and even theology to crush lower class mobilization. In antebellum Texas, black skin marked an individual for lifelong servitude and even the most humble whites occupied a higher rung on the social ladder. In return for poor whites' support of slavery, elites paid lip service to white equality. Elites warned that without black slavery, poor whites might be required to perform the hardest, lowest-status physical labor. This threat, elites hoped, would guarantee lower class white assent to both slavery and the political dominance of slaveowners.

After the Civil War, elites could no longer unite whites around the defense of slavery. Starting during Reconstruction, a new ruling bloc formed which included wealthy white Southerners, their Northern counterparts and a growing Dallas middle class that disliked the social disorder characterizing the city's politics since the 1850s. This clique maintained power through the early 1900s, assaulting the idea of democracy and suggesting that the white masses were as ill-equipped for citizenship as politically empowered black men.

Immediately after the war, men like Reagan fantasized about the eventual disappearance of African Americans and their replacement by a permanent white underclass. "The negroes will, it is hoped, gradually diffuse themselves . . . many of them will probably go to Mexico, and other countries, in search of social equality, and few or none of their race will be added to their numbers by accessions from other countries," Reagan wrote. Those migrating blacks, Reagan suggested, would be replaced by "the steady and rapid influx of great numbers of the white races, from other countries . . ."

The new white immigrants replacing black slaves were often seen as drudges filling a labor void. The Dallas Herald protested against a proposal by some political leaders to replace emancipated slaves with Chinese laborers. "We want neither niggers nor Mongolians — we want white men," the Herald declared. The new immigrants, city leaders conceded, would include inferior whites.

"The social caldron keeps boiling, however," the Dallas Herald said, "and the refuse in the way of the floating population is skimmed off by time, and the congenial elements naturally begin to assimilate." Even as the Herald predicted the disappearance of inferior whites, it still conceded an inevitable division in the ruling racial community. " . . . [I]t will not be long before the lines are drawn here, as they are elsewhere, between the educated, refined, well-bred people, and the course, vulgar, illiterate, [and] under-bred, whether either be rich or poor." Just a decade after the Civil War, elites divided the white population into the well-bred and the under-bred, a demarcation with increasingly racial overtones.

The racial desirability of some whites became a central issue in post-Civil War Texas politics. Whatever Reagan told his audience, the former congressman would have been happy if his plans disenfranchised some whites. Reagan complained that "our system of popular government" had been carried to "a vicious extreme" and that "the frequency . . . of popular elections" and "the great number of offices filled by the popular vote" had stirred "an unnatural and injurious public excitement . . . [with] no compensating benefit."

Reagan wanted to limit the political influence of lesser white voters. In fact, some former slaves might be worthier of the franchise he suggested in a letter to Texas Governor J.W. Throckmorton in October 1866. Any intelligence test required of potential voters that "would only affect the negroes, and would allow whites of a less degree of intelligence . . . to vote, would do no good towards securing the great ends we desire to attain."

Reagan's post-war views won few adherents. Following his release from Fort Warren, he received "abuse and ridicule" across Texas. Under President Andrew Johnson's lenient 1865 plan of Reconstruction, former Confederate states could, after ratification of new state constitutions that abolished slavery, elect new governors and legislatures. Once the new governments approved the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting slavery, those states could re-enter the union. Texas' 1866 constitutional convention met the president's minimum requirements, but ignored Reagan’s advice and refused to grant freedmen even limited suffrage.

Even without Reagan's threatening ideas, the white working class sensed their social standing had declined because of emancipation. The race war Reagan feared became a reality, instigated by white status anxiety rather than black empowerment. After the Civil War, gangs of ex-Confederate soldiers and "other economically dispossessed elements" roamed North Central and East Texas, terrorizing just-freed slaves, Yankees and their Southern allies. The death rate for blacks during the years between 1865-1868 was 3.5 percent higher than modern-day Dallas, Houston and New York City. Whites between 1865-68 murdered about 1 percent of black males between the ages of 15-49, according to historian Barry Crouch.

Union General Joseph B. Kiddoo, in August 1866, observed that a "class of men who never owned slaves who have been their competitors in labor to some extent and consequently been their lifelong enemies" had been outraged by emancipation and committed the bulk of anti-black violence. J.W. Swindells, editor of the Dallas Herald, happily fanned the flames of racial tension. In 1868, the Herald warned that a race-based revolution was brewing, one in which white men, "the lovers of their race, the natural men of America," would raise a "loud roar of Democracy" that would reestablish prosperity and absolute power for the white majority.

Violence against Texas freedmen would be just one factor provoking the United States Congress to take over Reconstruction policy from President Johnson. Just as John H. Reagan predicted, Radical Republicans in Washington reacted unhappily to Texas' failure to grant black suffrage. The state's rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to African American men, pushed the Republican majority in Congress over the edge. Congress refused to seat the Texas delegation and passed its First Reconstruction Act in March 1867. The law placed Texas under army command, and declared that governments elected under Johnson's Reconstruction terms were provisional and subject to removal.

The Congress required Texas 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 "condition of previous servitude." The state of Texas, the Dallas Herald warned, was to be "Africanized." Swindells declared, "It has been a few brief months since the struggle first began in this State for black supremacy. Since then it has made fearful progress." To protest what they saw as an illegitimate electoral process, a large number of Confederate-sympathizing whites still on the voter rolls participated in a boycott, demanded by conservative newspapers like the Dallas Herald, of an election to determine whether Texas should write a new state constitution.

This strategy unintentionally gave African Americans and dissident, pro-Union whites a magnified voice at the ballot box. Dallas County approved holding a convention to write a new state charter by a margin of 521- 243. Texas approved a new state constitution granting black male suffrage in December 1869, with Dallas approving the new constitution by an 826-47 vote. Unrepentant Confederates then organized to "defeat the negro supremacy sought to be imposed upon them by the new constitution."

The federal government sent military agents to Texas in part to protect the new civil liberties of freedmen and their dissident white allies. Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in March 1865. The agency's duties eventually included administering justice in criminal cases involving recently emancipated slaves, regulating freedmen's work contracts, and providing for the former slaves' education. Bureau agents often became the thin blue line shielding freedmen from violent death.

One agent, a Chicago native and Union Army veteran, William H. Horton, found the cruelty of some Dallas residents beyond comprehension. On May 10, 1867, Horton arrived to assume his new post as Sub-Assistant Commissioner for the Dallas Bureau. Horton discovered that the town's best and the brightest embraced common hooligans in order to reassert white supremacy.

On August 14, 1867, Corporal Williams, executing an arrest warrant, shot W.R.A. Vivion, an English immigrant who "tho only 22 years of age & quite intelligent had become a fearful terror to the people living near him." Before the shooting, Vivion acquired a reputation for extraordinary brutality in a town already famed for its violence. "One day feeling especially bloodthirsty he swore he would kill a nigger," Horton wrote his superior, Lt. J.T. Kirkman. "The first man or person he met was a Freedman. He shot him through the top of the head . . . He made a white boy 12 years of age dance until exhaustion brought him to the ground. Meeting three Freedwomen one day he made them pray get down on their knees & pull grass and eat it." Vivion obviously bullied whites as well as blacks. His harassment of former slaves, however, plus his arrest warrant from the Freedmen's Bureau, made him a hero to unrepentant Confederates.

Dallas residents hid Vivion and warned Army officers that they would "resist them to the death" if the bluecoats attempted an arrest. The bloody end to Vivion's short, ugly life failed to stop white harassment and intimidation. That Sunday, "the freedpeople were fired into several times while holding [church] services. No one [was] injured . . . [but] all [were] badly frightened and scattered in many directions," Horton wrote. In 1868, Horton predicted that if army occupation of Dallas ended, freed slaves "would be slaughtered like dogs & robbed when the troops withdraw."

Unreconstructed Confederates such as John J. Good campaigned to remove Horton from the Freedmen's Bureau in Dallas, alleging that Horton demanded a bribe from Daniel Murry, the heir of a former slaveholding family accused of murdering freedwoman Ann Bell. Horton, fearing assassination, had already requested a transfer from Dallas and was re-assigned to Bastrop, near Austin, in central Texas. The army may have been eager to placate hostile locals. After receiving numerous affidavits charging Horton with corruption, the Freedmen's Bureau dispatched Lt. Charles A Vernon to Dallas to investigate the allegations. Following the inquiry, Texas army commander General Joseph J. Reynolds, removed Horton from his duties for accepting bribes. Horton responded with outrage and despair, threatening to "blow my brains out . . . The humiliation is too great to bear."

Horton's departure marked the effective end of the Freedmen's Bureau in Dallas and a low point for white dissidents. Later city historians tried to these dissidents as recently arrived "carpetbaggers," outsiders who exploited political and economic chaos to win public office and make a quick buck. Carpetbagger Unionists, according to the myth, won office either by buying votes outright from easily corrupted blacks or by promising land in compensation for former slaves’ unpaid years of labor. In truth, Reconstruction Dallas was dominated by men who had immigrated to the city before the Civil War and therefore could not have anticipated the post-war chaos or expected black enfranchisement.

Unlike mythical carpetbaggers, these Reconstruction leaders had established deep roots in the city. A. Bledsoe, an immigrant from Kentucky, had been an outspoken Unionist in Dallas County before the Civil War. The Reconstruction-era mayor, Ben Long, arrived in 1855 as a Swiss immigrant, part of the anti-slavery, utopian socialist La Reunion colony near Dallas. Appointed as mayor by Horton during Reconstruction, Long would win the office once again, after the withdrawal of federal troops, in an 1872 popular election. A.J. Gouffe, a French immigrant, arrived in Dallas in the 1850s, and held stock in the Dallas Iron Bridge Company. Rather than exploitative drifters with little long-term interest in the city's success, these prosperous middle class men remained entwined in the city's power structure after Reconstruction ended, though perhaps as a contrary minority.

Many Unionists, however, found themselves in danger at the end of Reconstruction. Thirty-one signed a petition in June 1867 begging the federal government to post a full Army company in Dallas for their protection. "There is still a disposition to oppress and intimidate & many a good Union man is afraid to come out openly even at this late date publicly to avow his opinions," the petition said. Horton's successor, George F. Eben, was murdered April 8, 1868, in nearby Kaufman County before he reached the Dallas town limits. A suspect was arrested, but more than three years later he still had not been tried. The army appointed William A. Bledsoe, son of A. Bledsoe, as the chief agent for the Bureau, but he was so frightened that he rarely visited Dallas. Lt. Henry Norton followed Bledsoe's brief tenure, serving from July until late October. Afterward, freedmen and Unionists lacked any protection.

Dallas elites happily tolerated violence as long as the post-war economy expanded. Before the war, elites predicted that abolition and black suffrage would destroy civilization. Instead, the period after the South's defeat marked the village's most dramatic economic growth to date, with taxable property increasing in value 324 percent between 1865 and 1876. Reconstruction proved less than revolutionary. Of the wealthiest 5 percent of Dallasites at the end of the Civil War in 1865, half remained in that class 15 years later, with one-quarter having moved from the area. Southern-born families wealthy before the war, such as the Caruths, the Cockrells, and the W.B. Miller clan, remained economic elites.

The Reconstruction era marked not an expansion of black civil rights but the wildest fulfillment of white capitalist dreams. As pointed out in the Prologue, the Dallas leadership class in the late nineteenth century consisted of unstable coalitions of small business owners, bankers, industrial leaders and newspaper publishers. Before the war, these ruling elites' fondest hope had been the construction of a railroad line connecting Dallas to major trade centers. In 1870, Houston and Texas Central Railroad surveyors proposed a transcontinental line terminating in California that would miss Dallas by eight miles.

A five-member committee secured a route through Dallas by promising the H&TC board 115 acres of county land, a free right-of-way through the city, and $5,000 in cash. With the railroad came the construction of telegraph lines that connected Dallas to the rest of the world. The railroad, the telegraphs, and a new iron Trinity River Toll Bridge dramatically altered the Dallas landscape. In fewer than two years after the railroad's arrival, more than 1,600 new structures were erected in Dallas, including 33 boarding houses for itinerant single men eager to find work in a boomtown.

The railroad brought more than prosperity to Dallas elites. The 1870s economic boom forever changed the town's racial, ethnic and political landscape. Population expansion accounted for much of the economic growth of the 1860s and 1870s, most of the new population arriving with the new rail lines in 1872-73. By 1870, 13,314 called Dallas County home, a jump of 54 percent from the previous decade. By 1880, the county's population exploded to 33,448. At the end of the nineteenth century, the town had transformed from a trading outpost to the second largest city in the state. Demographic growth generated enough economic activity to offset the effects of an 1873 depression that devastated much of the country.

Immediately after the war, immigrants fled the economic havoc of other defeated Southern states. The percentage of white adult Dallas County residents born in states remaining in the Union during the Civil War dropped from 52 percent before the war to 42 percent in the immediate postbellum period. The population arriving after the railroad’s construction, however, had a decidedly more Northern identity. Phil Lindsley, in his 1909 history of Dallas County, noted that of the more than 1.2 million people
immigrating to Texas from 1872 to 1876, "[f]ully one-half of these came from what is generally termed 'the North’ . . . "

Demographics changed so dramatically, Lindsley observed, that by 1880 five of the Dallas' eight aldermen were Northerners.
These immigrants added an unprecedented ethnic and religious diversity to Dallas. Shortly after the Civil War, a visitor noted that "[i]n Dallas all along Main Street, the shops are closed for Rosh Hashanah. A stranger going by and seeing the shop door closed, remarked that if the Jews ever left the city, nothing would any longer deserve the observer's notice."

Jewish merchants like E.M. Kahn and Alexander and Philip Sanger joined the immigrant rush of the 1870s. The Sangers were part of a much larger German colony in Dallas that appeared with the railroad and dotted the city with beer halls, breweries and bakeries. The Germans published their own newspapers, held "Saengerfests," or musical festivals and established separate Lutheran and Methodist Episcopal churches. By the 1890s, a once almost entirely Protestant village now counted more than 5,000 Catholics in its total population of 38,0000, and the city's first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, claimed 125 members.

Increased immigration became a key component of elite plans for Dallas' future, a dream threatened by a continued atmosphere of violence. The perception of Dallas as dangerous threatened the spectacular economic growth. The Herald, which once applauded "Southern lawlessness" (meaning lynching) as an effective tool of racial control, in an 1878 editorial called for harsh penalties against mob action. Texas had become, the Herald said, "the refuge of a horde of escaped villains from the older states . . ." Continued anarchy would end economic and cultural progress, the Herald warned. Specifically, the Herald demanded an end to "[l]awlessness under the cloak of conservation of the peace" such as "’vigilance committees’ and lynch law . . ." The Herald, once almost completely silent during the racial violence of the 1860s and 1870s, now described lynch law as "one of the most despicable of crimes" and condemned politicians who embraced it.

The Herald celebrated the intensified pace of court-sanctioned capital punishment in the late 1870s and hoped it would be applied to those guilty of mob violence. Writing of upcoming hangings in Gonzales and Denton, Texas, the paper cheered. "This looks as if we are to have law and order again. The next important step is to hang the lynchers as fast as possible." A newspaper long devoted to rabid sectionalism became a mouthpiece for regional reconciliation, recoiling at attempts by some state politicians to inject North-South antagonism into the 1878 gubernatorial race. The paper insisted there was a deep harmony between residents of "northern, southern [and] . . . foreign origin" that politics could not tear asunder. "The people of northern Texas are too thoroughly united, know and respect each other too well to be set together by the ears by any such campaign trick as this," a Herald editorial said.

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."

No comments: