African Americans and Politics

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, blacks made up 30 percent of the Texas population. Most were slaves, and even the few who were free could not vote. Emancipation was announced in Texas on June 19, 1865, but the newly formed government withheld black political rights. An all-white constitutional convention in 1866 refused to grant suffrage even to literate blacks. The all-white legislature then refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbid states from depriving citizens of equal protection of the laws. Seeking to restore plantation discipline, it passed Black Codes that prohibited voting, officeholding, jury service, and racial intermarriage by freedmen.

The Republican-dominated U.S. Congress responded with a series of statutes known as Congressional Reconstruction. One of these statutes dealt with black males’ right to vote.

In July 1867, 20 whites and 150 blacks attended a Republican convention in Houston, where they endorsed free common schools and free homesteads from public lands for blacks and whites alike. This began a decades-long tradition of black Republicanism in Texas. Despite widespread violence and intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan and Democrats, many black men registered for the first election in which they could participate—the 1868 referendum on whether to hold another constitutional convention and elect delegates. More blacks than whites cast ballots, and they voted to hold another convention. The Convention of 1868–69, dominated by Republicans, included ten African-American delegates out of ninety. Among them was George T. Ruby of Galveston, a Northern journalist and teacher who had moved to Texas to work in freedmen's schools. Though frustrated in attempts to secure certain constitutional safeguards for their people, the African-American delegates contributed to the accomplishments of the convention, which paved the way for the readmission of Texas to the Union in March 1870.

The election of Edmund J. Davis, a white radical, as governor in 1869 gave blacks additional influence, as did the election of two black state senators—Ruby and Matthew Gaines, a minister and former slave—and twelve representatives to the Twelfth Legislature. This legislature ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and passed several important though controversial laws, including ones establishing a militia and the Texas State Police, both open to blacks. The legislature also passed a measure protecting homesteads from forced sale and a law establishing public schools.

Reconstruction ended and Governor Davis was defeated in 1873, an event hailed by a former governor as “the restoration of white supremacy and Democratic rule.” The number of blacks in the Texas legislature dropped, and white Democrats began reestablishing control of Texas politics. Blacks’ legal status worsened as their percent of the population declined from 31 to 20 percent between 1870 and 1900.)

By attracting like-minded whites, black conservative Republicans hoped to compete effectively with the Democrats. Norris Wright Cuney of Galveston was a key leader of the black Republicans until his own death in 1897.

Source: African Americans and Politics
Copyright © Texas State Historical Association

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