Relearning Black History
This is what I learned about black history attending segregated Houston schools in the 1960s: There was slavery. Lincoln freed the slaves.
This is what I learned about black history in Texas: even less. There was bondage and then a compartmentalized freedom that saw my ancestors one day walk out of the cotton fields and into the Civil Rights Movement.
In retrospect, it’s easy to understand the absence of black history lessons in the curriculum. Houston in the 1960s, like much of the South, was cringing as it came to grips with the realities of integration while clinging to segregation’s status quo.
Few school districts, if any, were teaching the pre-emancipation history of black people in this country. I got my first serious dose of black history as an eighth-grader in south Houston, though the lesson wasn’t part of any structured class. I learned about Crispus Attucks when our overcrowded school, Evan E. Worthing, was split and the junior high school took Attucks’ name. In the process, we were told how the mulatto sailor of mixed black and American-Indian heritage had become the first casualty of the American Revolution in 1770. He was shot by British soldiers as a provocateur in the Boston Massacre, and I remember thinking that was a pretty big deal, and that Crispus Attucks was a pretty cool fellow.
But I had no formal lessons about black history. I had to initiate that on my own, picking up bits and pieces here and there, mostly through the black media, like Jet and Ebony magazines, and Houston’s black newspapers: the Forward Times, the Houston Defender, and the Houston Informer. The burgeoning Black Power movement was shifting into high gear and bringing with it much more than raised fists, outsized afros, and dashikis. It also embodied a theme of black awareness, our need to know who we were as a people as a basis for fostering pride, confidence, and empowerment.
Twenty years later, in the 1980s, I began researching a book on the history of football at historically black colleges, and I was surprised to discover that the schools were still relatively unknown. I found myself constantly having to explain-even to some black folks!-that there really were colleges whose students, founders, and administrators were black, as were their thousands of distinguished alumni, including Booker T. Washington, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Barbara Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, James Farmer, and the Great Debaters of Wiley College. Coach Eddie Robinson, running back Walter Payton, wide receiver Jerry Rice, and recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Emmitt Thomas are among the illustrious products of black college football programs.
I started out researching black college football, but along the way I made a hard turn into the study of black history in general, where I continued to encounter far too many I-didn’t-know-that moments.
The journey led me to a lunch conversation in December 2006 with my good friend and longtime journalism colleague Roxanne Evans. While discussing our writing projects, both related to black history in Texas, we started wondering if anyone had ever written a history of African-Americans in the state. Neither of us had seen anything like that.
A project was born. We call it the Texas Black History Preservation Project.
Our suspicions about the dearth of literature on black history in Texas were confirmed when we searched the Internet and public library catalogs around the state for Texas black history titles.
In Austin, of 1,863 volumes of Texas history, only 37 were related to black history in Texas. In Dallas, black history accounted for just 0.7 percent of 3,845 Texas history volumes. In Houston, the number is 4 percent. In San Antonio, 1 percent.
Those are telling numbers, and they fuel our desire to fill in the gaps, telling the stories of individuals and communities, small towns, big cities, businesses, religion, education, and sports, whatever and wherever we find the lore of black history in the Lone Star State. We intend to complete the state’s historical narrative by telling these stories and more:
“Afromestizos”-Black Texans and Mexicans have a shared heritage. While there is evidence of an African presence in Mesoamerica during the Olmec civilization (c. 800), Spaniards brought Africans to Mexico (“New Spain”) as slaves to work in the sugar fields and silver mines in the 16th century. New Spain, which extended into what is now Texas, probably had more enslaved Africans than any other colony in the Western Hemisphere. Mexican-born blacks followed their parents into slavery, which was abolished in Mexico in 1829. Bessie Coleman-The pioneering aviatrix from Atlanta, Texas, was the first licensed black pilot in the world, and the first black woman to fly in the U.S. Norris Wright Cuney-The child of a white planter, Cuney was born in 1846 on a plantation near Hempstead and became a powerful figure in Texas’ Republican circles as president of the Galveston chapter of the Union League, secretary of the Republican State Executive Committee, and the Republican Party’s national committeeman from Texas. Esteban-Also known as Estevanico and Stephen the Moor, Esteban was a native of Azamor, on the Atlantic shore of Morocco, and a member of the exploration party that included Cabeza de Vaca that ship-wrecked on the Gulf Coast near western Galveston Island in 1528. Once ashore, Esteban became the first African-born person to set foot in Texas. The Houston Riots of 1917-On August 23, 1917, members of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry took part in what the U.S. Army calls the Houston Mutiny, the first race riot in American history in which more whites than blacks died. More than 100 black soldiers marched through downtown Houston seeking revenge on Houston police for their brutal and racist treatment of the soldiers. The violence left 16 whites and four black soldiers dead; 118 soldiers were tried in a hastily convened court-martial, the largest ever in the U.S.; 13 of those were hung near Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio. Numerous others received long jail sentences. Lincolnville at Moccasin Bend-In 1865, upon first hearing of their emancipation, many Coryell County blacks chose to stay where they were. The liberated slaves purchased land along the west side of the Leon River, near a turn called Moccasin Bend. Adopting the name of their liberator, they called their new home Lincolnville. Samuel McCulloch, Jr.-In October 1835, McCulloch became the first casualty of the Texas revolution when he received a shoulder wound as Texans captured the Mexican fort at Goliad.
The Texas Black History Preservation Project is an educational project, and we’re eager students, learning much of the history as we go. But first and foremost, the project should benefit Texas teachers, students, and historians particularly, and the general public as well, across racial lines, in Texas and beyond. We hope to give African-American children an increased understanding of self and sense of pride through an understanding of what generations before them have contributed to Texas.
We’ve taken as our model Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates’ massive Africana, which covers all things African and African-American. A scant three months after submitting a proposal, we had a contract with University of Texas Press for a five-volume series of books, for which we’ll also produce interactive companion DVDs. Nine months later, the IRS approved our non-profit status.
The series will span from Esteban to football coach Lovie Smith, who led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, becoming the first African-American coach to do so (nudging out the second, the Indianapolis Colts’ Tony Dungy, by just a few hours). Smith grew up in Big Sandy, Texas, and his will be one among hundreds of profiles, bios, interpretive essays, and other entries assembled by our diverse statewide team of scholars, writers, and editors, addressing centuries of seminal events involving black Texans.
We’ve already set up a Web site (www.tbhpp.org) and begun outlining the first volume, which will cover the years 1528 (Esteban’s arrival) to 1700.
Four decades out of high school, this is what I know about black history in Texas: There are thousands of stories still waiting to be told, stories that can help us learn about ourselves, and about each other.
Class is now in session.
Michael Hurd is a veteran journalist who has written for the Austin American-Statesman, USA Today, and other publications. He is the author of Black College Football, 1892-1992, and Collie J., Grambling’s Man with the Golden Pen.