Saturday, July 09, 2011

"Water Force": Resisting White Supremacy Under Jim Crow

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, 'White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." To mark that work's fifth anniversary, I am serializing "White Metropolis" at this blog site. Here, I describe how African Americans created an ethic of unity and self respect in Dallas in spite of the harsh pressures of Jim Crow racism.

One tree native to North Texas, the bois d'arc, seems impervious. Finely grained with a yellowish interior that grays as it ages, the stump of a bois d'arc twists in such a way that one sees flow and motion in the wood fiber. When Dallas residents started using the bois d'arc as a building material, they found it was almost impossible to cut or shape with hand tools, but this durability was the tree's chief attraction. Use bois d'arc to build a fence and one hundred years later the wire will have rotted away from rust and age but the wood remains, rock sold and resistant to weather, insects and the ravages of time. So hard was bois d'arc wood that it became the favored material to pave Dallas streets in the late nineteenth century.

The endurance of the bois d'arc inspired admiration. A similar perseverance in Dallas' African American community drew rage. Under slavery, white masters attempted to strip blacks of their African culture and religion and replace it with a white supremacist theology that valued subservience more than mercy. A combination of mob violence and the federal government's indifference made a mockery of the political rights embodied in post-Civil War amendments to the United States Constitution. After Emancipation, the white city leadership still considered African Americans near-animals. The white working class felt a patronizing envy of blacks' "childlike" simplicity. Yet, at best, they saw African Americans as job competitors and, at worst, as dangerous sexual predators. Meanwhile, Jim Crow laws made economic comfort, much less power, for blacks an energy-sapping and often futile struggle.

Still, the African American community did not merely survive.It thrived. In the face of persistent hostility, African Americans created a counterculture that valued blackness. Dallas' black leaders held a realistic view of human corruption and violence, but they also believed in the redemptive power of their Christian faith to change hearts.

Later white writers like Jim Schutze portrayed Dallas blacks as accommodationists. Schutze saw the civil rights campaign there as timid compared to the epic battles in places like Birmingham. To understand the Dallas civil rights struggle, however, one must look beyond movement politics. One must appreciate the degree to which twentieth century black Dallas society was shaped by its African and slave heritage and how this influenced its view of race, activism and spiritual destiny. African Americans built institutions designed to resist the ideology of whiteness.

This chapter will explore the development of those institutions — schools, churches, newspapers and political organizations — and analyze how they contradicted and how they obliged the objectives of the white ruling class. This chapter argues that Dallas’ black leadership believed that institutional reform and participation in America's electoral democracy, rather than directly challenging the economic system, provided the most reasonable path to social justice. African American leaders did not expect white leaders to be empathetic but they did expect the smartest of the ruling set to be reasonable.

Ironically, by insisting that any person with "one drop" of black blood was a "nigger" and thus forever incapable of acceptance as white, the ruling Anglos created a more cohesive, more unified black community than might have existed otherwise. To discourage miscegenation, ruling Anglos had long insisted that the mixed-raced offspring of black and white couples represented degeneration, the poorly amalgamated hash of both races' worst traits. Centuries of rape and exploitation under slavery, however, left African Americans in a more complex, multi-racial world. The term "black" concealed the universe of color that existed among African Americans.

Potentially a source of ethnic strife within black Dallas, this spectrum of pigment instead stood as mute testament to white oppression and a shared alienation from mainstream culture. John Mason Brewer, a black teacher in Dallas, expressed this unity in "Apostolic," a 1936 poem in which he gazed at an African American congregation displaying all the hues produced by white supremacy:

"[A] seething mass of black, brown and yellow beings
Shouting tunes, mysterious mixtures of Jazz, Religious and Jungle melodies
Swaying of bodies, clapping of hands
Moaning of voices, unknown-tongue commands."

Perhaps the polyphonous voice of this chorus betrayed future inner black strife. Tensions developed between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks as the African American community at times mirrored white concerns about the corrupting influence of miscegenation. Yet, though whiteness divided rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, and Northern and Southern European, it became the impenetrable fortification that intimately bound together the black mass outside its ramparts.

Dallas' black population ultimately proved too diverse and too subject to ordinary human frailty to completely withstand the pressures of white supremacy, but the vague outlines emerged of a shared identity that rejected the dehumanization of white culture. If whiteness demanded the corrosive rotting away of individual identity, it left in its wake a weathered but resistant black sense of self.

Life for African Americans in Texas might have been expected to inspire surrender rather than activism. Crime, pressure from the police and the courts, and spontaneous mass violence bore down mercilessly on all of black Dallas. By the mid-1920s, black leadership in Dallas and across Texas had fallen into disarray. A July 1919 riot in Longview, Texas, 124 miles east of Dallas, stemmed from the lynching of a black man who supposedly raped a white woman. A story in the Chicago Defender suggested that the lynching victim had actually been involved in a consensual romance with the woman. Longview whites suspected a local black teacher, Samuel Jones, of authoring the article. A mob beat Jones, then went on an arson spree and killed a black man just west of town.

After the Longview Riot, the state attorney general's office subpoenaed the records of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Austin office, allegedly to investigate whether the organization was subversive and properly licensed to conduct business in Texas. NAACP national secretary John Shillady traveled to Austin to defend the organization and was beaten by local officials, resulting in permanent impairment. Government officials dumped the bloodied Shillady on a train and warned him to not return.

Founded in 1918, the Dallas NAACP chapter suffered under an edict by the Klan-dominated police department in the 1920s that an officer be present at all meetings. A member of the city's NAACP chapter recalled that the branch president was "afraid to death" to hold meetings, with another member suggesting that the local group was "run by cowards." The NAACP national office was forced to reorganize the Dallas branch and install new officers not intimidated by the Klan. By 1926, the most visible lobbying organization for African Americans in Dallas, Booker T. Washington's National Negro Business League, was " . . . drawing, from even its most ardent supporters, criticism for its lack of any directed programs."

In November 1926, the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce formed to address this problem, but suffered from a lack of strong leadership, paltry financing and then, in the 1930s, the ravages of the Depression. Poor, harassed and disenfranchised, African Americans might well have submitted to the message of black disability pervading the dominant culture. Instead, black churches, schools and media provided a foundation for later resistance, battling whiteness head-on, though on cultural rather than political terrain.

By the 1930s, some older Afro-Texans worried that their community had lost its spiritual center through exposure to a vacuous white society. William M. Adams, a former slave born in San Jacinto County, about 57 miles north of Houston in Southeast Texas, mourned the loss of such ancient spiritual values in modern black Texas. Adams moved to Fort Worth in 1902 and still called the city home when interviewed by the WPA in the 1930s. Adams claimed healing and prophetic powers. "

There are some born under the power of the devil who have the power to put injury and misery on people, and some born under the power of the Lord to do good and overcome the evil power," Adams said. "Now, that produces two forces, like fire and water. The evil forces start the fire, and I have the water force to put the fire out." Adams saw his water force as part of an ancient craft that came directly from God via African culture. "The old folks in them days knew more about the signs that the Lord uses to reveal His laws than the folks of today," Adams said. "It is also true of the colored folks in Africa, their native land. Some of the folks laugh at their beliefs and say its superstition, but I know how the Lord reveals His laws."

Adams believed that the prolonged contact with white society corrupted blacks, the adoption of Western secularism leaving African Americans diminished. To him, the mixing of white and black represented a surrender of the heavenly for the corporeal, the ascendant for the vulgar. Dallas' black community rejected the notion that white meant right. For many African Americans the personal was political. Creating a positive black identity became the most durable form of defiance. This sensibility shaped twentieth century Afro-Texan Christianity. Secular political concerns were pursued in the context of an African cosmology. Blending African traditions with Christianity,

Dallas' black leaders created a universe that was morally self-correcting, one in which justice would be restored and imbalances of power reversed over vast stretches of time. Such a worldview was sufficiently ambiguous to accommodate both activism and strategic political withdrawal. Black leaders recognized the vast array of police power, economic might and social pressure arrayed against their community. They responded accordingly, seeking the most opportune moment for reform while deeply believing that time, inevitably, was on the black community's side. Rather than accommodation, this approach represented quiet resistance.

African patterns of worship reinforced the notion of Afro-Texans as part of a global family of color. William Moore, a former slave living in Dallas, described prayer in the slave cabins of Mexia, 82 miles south of Dallas, to a WPA interviewer. When praying, Moore said, slaves "circled themselves on the floor in the cabin and prayed. They go moaning low and gentle. 'Some day, some day, some day, this yoke is going to be lifted off of our shoulders."

The prayer circle Moore described reflected religious practices with origins in ancient Central and Western Africa. A form of praying, singing, and dancing called the ring shout was performed in a circle during weddings, funerals and other religious rituals throughout West and Central Africa, the ancestral homeland of most African Americans. These circle ceremonies served as a "a means of achieving union with God." To the Texas descendants of these Africans, participating in a prayer circle or ring shout reminded Afro-Texans of a black culture that spanned millennia, a worldview more durable than a bois d'arc and capable of withstanding temporal white institutions.

Lewis Jones, who was 86 at the time his stories were collected by the WPA, recalled to interviewers at his Fort Worth home the ring shouts led by a black preacher. "Sometimes they had a jig contest; that when they put the glass of water on the head and saw who could jig the hardest without spilling the water," Jones said. " . . . Preacher Tom set all of us niggers in the circle and sang old songs . . . such as: 'I'm in the new Jerusalem, In the year of Jubilee.' Undoubtedly, these celebrations provided an escape from daily cares and woes.

The ring shout and dance also represented continued union with a larger pan-African community and symbolized endurance in the face of current hardships. Those who survived such tests of perseverance, "jigging hard" without spilling a drop of water, would also survive slavery, lynching, poverty or segregation to experience paradise in the "new Jerusalem." Afro-Texan culture taught the community to view the struggle for justice as a battle over the longue durée. Such a worldview built an inner defense against nihilism in the face of repeated, cruel disappointment.

Such were the sermons taught by the city's pre-World War II civil rights leaders, many of whom, such as the Rev. Maynard H. Jackson, arose from the pulpits of approximately 130 black churches in Dallas. Yet, the black church was not always a source of strength. Many black ministers depended on white patronage to maintain their status and were condemned as collaborators. "The Negro clergy had enormous power over the African American population of Dallas," African American author Robert Prince observed. " . . . The city leaders and politicians believed that if they controlled the ministers then they controlled the community. This was often the case. Several preachers were accused of selling out."

Whatever the deficiencies of some black ministers, however, the black church was more than the aggregate talents and character of its clergy. The black church served as the chief medium of a culture that strengthened generations of children. The world, black children learned, was a dangerous place that could only be coped with through humor and self-respect. Folktales first disseminated in slave times continued to impart these lessons well into the twentieth century thanks to the work of John Brewer. Born in Goliad, Texas (north of Corpus Christi) March 24, 1896, Brewer won appointment as a professor at Samuel Huston (now Huston-Tillotson) College in Austin before making his mark as a Spanish teacher at the all-black Booker T. Washington High School in 1930s Dallas. Brewer published extensive collections of black Texas folktales, customs, slave narratives, spirituals, blues lyrics and poetry.

A theme of intelligence winning over brute force, and of loyalty prevailing over greed pervades Brewer's folktale collections. His heroes do not triumph in the traditional sense; the powerful remain powerful. The tone is not one of resignation, however, but smart realism. Put-upon protagonists stand in disapproving judgement of a materialistic, racist society. In Brewer's tales, sarcasm was often the only dignified weapon left the politically disenfranchised.

An example of the sharp-tongued hero is "Unkah Sug Miller," a janitor at the Hays County Courthouse in the Central Texas town of San Marcos. One day, according to a Brewer-collected tale, a county judge who hates Miller tells the janitor he will lose his job, even though he has never missed a day of work in 25 years, if he can't satisfy a new rule requiring all employees to read and write. Sug is fired. Four years elapse before the judge passes Miller on a San Marcos street. Miller, the judge discovers, now owns a successful forty-acre farm. The judge is amazed at Miller's prosperity and praises Sug who has, "come up in de worl' fas’ — 'taint no tellin' what you'd of been sho 'nuff, if'n you'd of knowed how to read an' write.'" Sug is unimpressed with the Judge's reaction. "Ah knows zackly what Ah'd of been," Sug says. "Ah'd of still been de janitor at the Hays County Coa'thouse."

Sug knows that white society has set a low upper limit on black prestige — a literate janitor will still only be a janitor to the white world. Blacks like Brewer saw education as a value in itself, but did not delude themselves that schooling alone would blunt white racism. Once Miller exits the white world, however, his genius realizes its potential and he becomes a prosperous farmer. Brewer does not defend segregation but informs his black audience that black poverty is the direct result of white oppression.

Dallas' Jim Crow schools gave Brewer a chance to bring the lessons of black folklore directly to the city's African American children. Ironically, segregated schools became bedrock of community building. While teaching at Booker T. Washington High School, Brewer and his principal, John Leslie Patton, gave history back to their students, exposing them to the achievements of Africans and of African Americans. If the existence of crowded, under-funded and under-supplied Jim Crow schools were designed to send a message of black inferiority, Brewer and Patton exploited the opportunity provided by segregation to inspire black self-awareness unmediated by a racist white power structure.

The city's first public school opened its doors in 1883, with Colored School No. 1 following suit the next year. By 1890, black students attended seven elementary schools. The Dallas Colored High School opened in 1892 (and was renamed Booker T. Washington High in 1922). In the early twentieth century, the black school year lasted only 60 days a year, compared to 100 a year for white students. Black schools had no libraries, with the school district spending $51 annually per white student on facilities compared to only $22 per black student. By the 1930s, Booker T. Washington High School held 1,664 students on a campus meant to hold only 600. In spite of Jim Crow-imposed limitations, men like Brewer and Patton saw black schools as political incubators that would prepare young blacks to battle the assumptions of whiteness.

John Leslie Patton taught and served as principal at Booker T. Washington High for 39 years, developing a course in "Negro History" that influenced "the development of race pride in the students and his co-workers." Patton attended Dallas' segregated schools as a child before earning a degree at Prairie View College, northwest of Houston and pursuing post-graduate education at New York University. Patton returned to Dallas to teach at J.P. Starks Elementary for $72.50 a month. Patton quit after a year because he could earn more as a Pullman porter, but his parents insisted he resume his classroom role because he had a duty to his people — "the kind of duty St. Paul felt," as Patton put it. Black students could shape the future, he believed, if they were conscious of their past. "It's difficult for a people to tell where they're going unless they know where they've been," he once explained.

Rising to the position of principal, Patton proclaimed in his Negro History classes that "the Negro has formed an integral part of American civilization . . ." As opposed to white schools, at Booker T. Washington High the history of Egypt, "the cradle of civilization" was taught as part of "Negro" history. "Africa, the Mother country . . . is often called the Dark Continent; but this is a misnomer, for Africa gave to civilization the smelting of iron, stringed instruments, trial by jury, etc.," Patton's curriculum guide for the course declared. Patton saw his goal as a teacher to "awaken a proper social consciousness and pride in the developments and achievements which the Negro has made . . ."

He taught his students that every life choice, including picking a career, carried responsibilities to the greater black community. "The Negro today stands in need of an economic emancipation," Patton told his students, "but this cannot be accomplished through laws . . . but through the wise occupational choice of every Negro boy and girl."

Dallas' black press carried these messages to an even broader audience. The Dallas Express, a black-owned newspaper, played an unusually influential role in a city where, by the 1930s, African Americans enjoyed a 93 percent literacy rate. (The African American literacy rate was 50 percent higher in Dallas than in the rest of Texas.) The paper emphasized great blacks of the past, recorded contemporary African American achievement and encouraged political activism. The tone was often angry, but ultimately optimistic, conveying the belief that the passage of time would bring progress if blacks insisted on fairness. The Express protested against voting restrictions and segregation. This political activism, however, was seasoned with Dallas-style pragmatism. The newspaper did not criticize, for instance, the state's oppression of the NAACP or the savage beating of John Shillady in Austin. While not timid, the Dallas Express chose its battles carefully and avoided what it saw as lost causes.

Patton, Brewer and the staff of the Dallas Express knew that young African Americans faced a brutal world. By 1924, African Americans accounted for 15 percent of the city's population and, according to a 1927 report by the Civic Federation of Dallas' Interracial Committee, approximately one-fourth lived in rental housing "unfit for human habitation," with about 66 percent of these units lacking baths, toilets or water. Nevertheless, Patton and his allies had erected mental defenses for their young charges. "The years of public school taught me well," recalled Robert Prince in his memoir A History of Dallas from a Different Perspective. "I became street wise . . . I learned that my black teachers cared for all of us. They taught us survival tactics for black people . . . We were taught that the white man would never give us our rights without a fight . . . This was a good education. Education should teach one to survive in one's own environment. Our environment was hostile."

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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