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Fort Worth’s ‘Red’ Scare

by Published on
courtesy The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Front page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Labor Day 1933

ON MONDAY Sept. 4, 1933, for the first time in 10 years, Fort Worth celebrated Labor Day with a grand parade. The event was not marred, as its planners had feared it would be, by the unemployed rabble. Their leader, a Communist, had been jailed—and was dead before the festive procession began. A police band led a group of 2,000 down Main and Houston streets to the Tarrant County courthouse, followed by elected officials, including Texas Attorney General James Allred, soon to be governor.

Trundling behind the cops and the pols, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, came the Union Band and groups of workers, from barbers and bricklayers to pressmen and painters. 

Behind them came 250 to 300 uniformed members of the National Guard, the military force most frequently used to suppress strikers. The South Fort Worth Civic League and the Riverside Civic League led the fourth phalanx, which included delegations from luncheon clubs.

A “negro section”—two fraternal-organization bands and a bathing beauty float—brought up the rear. That afternoon, the whites held their own beauty pageant, crowning a “Queen of Labor” at a barbecue at Lake Worth.

News of this happy celebration ran on the front page of the Star-Telegram, just above a story with a smaller headline, “‘Reds’ Watched By Police Here.” The lead sentence read: “A squad of police patrolled city streets Monday to prevent any possible Communistic outbreak feared as the result of the death Saturday night of T.E. Barlow, 40, Communist leader.” 

Barlow had died at the City-Council Hospital a mere half-hour after his discharge from the Tarrant County Jail, unconscious and in the arms of deputies and a doctor.

Born in Ohio and raised in western Kentucky, Terrence Earl Barlow had learned the carpenter’s trade from his socialist father and headed west at an early age. At 17, when he registered for the draft, he was employed as a carpenter at New Mexico’s Chino copper mine, a mammoth enterprise that continues today. Only a black-and-white picture survives of him, but annotations on draft registration documents describe Barlow as of medium build with blue eyes and brown hair.

He was soon drafted, or perhaps joined the Army voluntarily; nobody knows which. In a commemorative piece written four years after Barlow’s death for the Labor Defender magazine, Robert Warren, a truck driver and associate of the labor agitator, recalled Barlow’s explanation for his time in uniform: “I was fooled, like every other man who fought.”

After World War I, Barlow drifted into Texas. Jobless in 1932, he was earning his keep doing chores at Houston’s Salvation Army barracks when he met members of the National Unemployed Council, an organization led by the Communist Party. The council was notorious for staging sometimes-rowdy demonstrations demanding cash relief and the enactment of unemployment insurance bills. Barlow’s newfound associates sent him to the party’s 1932 nominating convention in Chicago. When he returned he joined its ranks, even accepting a position as the Communist write-in candidate for lieutenant governor in Texas.

In early 1933, the party dispatched him to organize an Unemployed Council in Fort Worth, where, by official estimates, some 6,000 workers were idle. The local council, whose membership soon reached 800, held mass meetings and demonstrations at East Bluff Park, just north of the Tarrant County courthouse.

Barlow and the council first came to public attention in mid-June as a result of a classic act of Depression-era resistance—“an attempt to restore furniture to the home of an evicted worker,” as a Communist newspaper, the Southern Worker, put it. Such actions bought time for tenants because “restoring” their furniture forced landlords to seek new eviction orders, a process that took days, weeks, or months.

Twice that month, Jack Daniel, 36, an unemployed refinery worker, and his wife and three children, had been evicted from their lodgings on Lagonda Avenue for non-payment of rent. Crowds from the council had restored their furniture, and in an effort to prevent a lockout, Daniel had removed and hidden the four-room home’s front door.

On Monday, June 19, the Daniel family was evicted for the third time. Landlord Mary L. Holloman posted four shotgun-wielding guards on the home’s front porch. That night, Daniel and a council member stood watch over his family’s belongings on a parkway in front of the house, awaiting the arrival of picketers. A crowd, which fluctuated between 20 and 100, gathered outside Tuesday morning, and when it attempted to enter the house, a team of policemen, sheriff’s deputies and constables corralled 29 of its members, including Barlow.

Daniel wasn’t arrested because he was house hunting at the time. Perhaps as a result of publicity over the restorations, the welfare department had intervened, offering to subsidize a first month’s rent if the family would pick a new home.

Twenty-five of the council prisoners lingered in custody while bail was raised. “Some of us are better off in jail. We are at least getting food and a place to sleep,” Barlow told a Star-Telegram reporter.

“Personally, I’d rather be on the outside,” he added. “There might be another eviction somewhere, and I’d want to be there.”

While he and others were still behind bars, somebody torched the vacant Lagonda house. Surprisingly, the affair ended on a less-than-tragic note for its principals; the Daniel family found new lodgings and the Lagonda property had been insured. “If I had imagined that there would be this much trouble, I’d have let that man stay there,” Holloman said.

The council returned to public notice on the evening of Thursday, Aug. 31, when it rallied in Bluff Park to protest Gov. Miriam Ferguson’s recent suspension of relief for the unemployed. In accord with a decision made at the meeting, Barlow and two companions, H.N. Macomb, 40, a barber, and E.E. Hardy, 27, an electrician, walked to a nearby Western Union office, where they telegrammed Ferguson protesting the cut. As they left the telegraph office, police arrested them on charges of unlawful assembly.

 

ACCORDING TO NEWSPAPER accounts and records of the grand jury inquiry into Barlow’s death, any cash that prisoners brought into the city jail was held in the booking room. Once they had been assigned to cells, new inmates were subjected to a “trial” by an inmate-run kangaroo court, which usually “fined” them. At the sham court’s stipulation, turnkeys withdrew monies to buy incidental items for the prisoners. The “court” assessed Barlow a 25-cent penalty and its judge, a murder suspect, signed a requisition for the procurement of coffee. When it had not arrived some two hours later, Barlow protested his sentence and demanded that his money be returned.

Charley Morgan, a 19-year-old laborer who, according to the Star-Telegram, was an amateur boxer, was the court’s apparent bailiff. He threatened the unruly defendant and the two exchanged half a dozen blows. Barlow’s eyes were blackened and his face bruised and bloodied. He “didn’t seem to be hurt bad. I went into his cell and wiped the blood off his face with my handkerchief,” Hardy later told the newspaper.

The following morning, Barlow, Hardy, and Macomb were formally charged after policemen testified that several people at the rally had talked of raiding a food warehouse. The court set bond at $1,500 for Barlow, $500 each for his companions. About noon the three were transferred to the county jail. An officer who oversaw their move later testified that “Barlow appeared perfectly rational when he received his personal effects at the sergeant’s desk before the transfer to the county jail.”

Charley Morgan, Barlow’s assailant, was also discharged that day—to the streets. When officers went to serve him a grand jury summons, he could not be found. Three weeks later, in jail again, this time on an auto theft charge, he said, “As well as I remember, I hit only twice, in the left eye.”

The afternoon he was transferred to county jail, Barlow played poker with other inmates, who observed that he seemed dazed and complained of a headache. About 4:30 p.m. the men were locked into their cells for the night. Barlow was quartered alone. Shortly afterward, several inmates heard a thump; seeing that Barlow had fallen from his bunk, they shouted for turnkeys, who summoned Burke Brewster, the jail’s physician.

A four-page grand jury report on Barlow’s demise was destroyed in a subsequent Tarrant County purge of historical records, and contemporary news accounts do not indicate what occurred between Brewster’s arrival and Barlow’s transfer to the hospital, perhaps two hours later. After pronouncing him dead, Brewster and two other physicians performed an autopsy.

A press summary of the post-mortem exam stated that Barlow had died of a blood clot resulting from a one-inch fracture of his right temple—an injury, the grand jury speculated, that could have been caused by Morgan’s quick fists. The report also advanced the dubious finding that “Barlow’s skull was one-sixteenth of an inch thick, which is one-half the thickness of the average white person’s skull.”

Barlow’s followers never accepted the official account of his death.

Suspicious, the Unemployed Council and two of Barlow’s brothers—one of whom described himself as a Socialist—paid for a private examination of the body. Afterward, Hardy and other firebrands voiced accusations that were given full play in the Southern Worker.

“The left shoulder was bruised with a cut on the upper forearm, the shoulder appearing to have been dislocated or broken. The back of the skull was crushed in. There was a small hole in the center of the forehead, which might have been made with an ice pick or a bullet.

“The left ankle was swollen and bruised as if it had been broken. The insteps and soles of the feet were beaten black. The toes of both feet were welded together in a sold mass of blisters, apparently having been burned with electricity, and or fire. The pores in the skin of the left leg had begun to ooze blood, as if they had been broken or twisted.”

The Unemployed Council continued to rally over the weekend of Barlow’s death, but on Monday no demonstration was held. Instead, most of the council’s members stopped by the funeral home where Barlow’s body lay. A reporter for the Star-Telegram who, according to the custom of the day, was not given a byline, wrote a story in a descriptive style that, sadly, is rare in today’s press:

“It was Labor Day. A parade swept through the downtown streets as thousands of laborers formed a line of march to celebrate the re-employment of men long without work.

“In a building a few blocks away another long, almost unbroken line filed past a casket. This line, too, was composed principally of laborers.

“In the casket lay the body of a man who had championed the cause of the laborers, who milled about the building where his body reposed. Indirectly he had paid with his life for the work he did in their behalf.

“… Attendants at the Shannon’s mortuary, where the body is awaiting burial, estimated that well over 1,000 persons passed during the day before the casket …

“Laborers, many of them in patched work clothes, removed frayed hats as they went to stand before Barlow’s casket. Women, some carrying babies in their arms, came to pay tribute to the man whom they believed had tried to help them when their children were hungry and in want.

“Among the followers, sympathizers and the curious who came to view the body, there appeared time and again a woman, alone and dressed in white. Joining the line passing before the casket, she left the building only to return at intervals throughout the day and pass again before the body.”

 

DURING A LIGHT RAIN, about 100 of Barlow’s comrades buried him at Mount Olivet cemetery, his casket draped in a red flag with a blue hammer and sickle. Several well-wishers tossed work gloves onto the casket as it was lowered in the ground, and Hy Gordon of Houston, the Texas chairman of the Communist Party, delivered what the Star-Telegram called a benediction: “In the name of the party, fight for the creation of a workers government, where all will have plenty.”

Mourners raised money to place a red granite tombstone at Barlow’s gravesite with the inscription, “Gone But Not Forgotten.”

That was true in 1933. Today, nobody knows his name. 

 

Dick J. Reavis, a former senior editor at Texas Monthly, is an associate professor in the English Department at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. His latest book is Catching Out.