Thursday, February 12, 2009

"A most obnoxious and dangerous population"

Black Texas Women
150 Years of Trial and Triumph

By Ruthe Winegarten
Janet G. Humphrey & Frieda Werden, consulting editors

Mary Madison's Galveston neighbors considered her "a very valuable citizen, in a variety of ways: especially in the capacity of a nurse." Eighty-two of them, many of whom had probably "experienced her kindness, her attention and watchfulness," signed a petition in 1850 for her to remain in the state and enjoy the "little property" which she had accumulated. Her request was one of the few granted by the Texas legislature.

Mary Madison's petition is a sample of the rare documents that preserve scraps of information about the lives of free women of color in Texas before the Civil War. She was one of many courageous women who resisted the law and struggled to protect themselves and their families. They used a variety of strategies, including the right of petition and the judicial process, to avoid being sold into slavery or banished from their homes. Many defied the law; when their petitions were denied, they remained anyway. Some women purchased their own freedom; some were purchased by their black husbands. Others married or became the concubines of white men or served so loyally that they were emancipated by their owners. This theme of resistance by black women would resonate through the history of the state.

Although the numbers of free blacks were much more significant in the Old South, Texas had enough to count. At the time of the Texas Declaration of Independence, an estimated 150 free blacks lived in the new republic. (Most antebellum African-Americans were, of course, slaves.) The 1850 census reported 394; ten years later, the figure was 355, including 174 women living in forty counties. Historian Randolph Campbell believes that the actual number of free people of color was probably double that counted by the census.

The rights of free women of color in Texas varied with the flag. Some free people of color were drawn to colonial Texas by the antislavery position of Mexico, the lure of the land, and the greater freedom of the frontier. The women employed their domestic skills as nurses, laundresses, cooks, house servants, seamstresses, boardinghouse keepers, stock farmers, and milk women. Some used their earnings to become prosperous business women, property owners, and even slaveholders. Since children took their legal status from their mothers, the children of free women were also free.

Despite their contributions as pioneers, free people of color were legally unwelcome from the days of the Republic of Texas. Slaveholders were apprehensive because free people of color constituted a threat to some of their most cherished assumptions—that whites were racially superior and that blacks were incapable of self-government. The Marshall Texas Republican editorialized that "free Negroes are certainly a most obnoxious and dangerous population ."4 Whites feared that free people of color might entice slaves to run away or rebel, but scholars have found no evidence of this.

Under Spanish and Mexican Rule

Among the first Africans in Mexico were men who arrived with the Spaniards in the mid-1500, like the famed Esteban, a slave who was the translator for an early expedition which included Cabeza de Vaca. They often married or took as mates Native American and Spanish women. As sovereignty over Texas passed from Spain and Mexico to the Anglos, some slave and free black Spaniards and mulattoes and their descendants lost their identity in the census records and were absorbed into history as persons with Spanish surnames. Among the earliest colonists were free women of color. An official Spanish census of Texas in 1792 counted 167 female mulattoes and nineteen female Negroes, a mixture of slaves and free citizens.

Since Spain recognized free people of color, Mexican Texas became a haven for runaway and freed slaves from the nearby United States South. This kind of immigration was fueled by word of mouth and continued even after Texas independence. Felipe Elua, a Louisiana creole and slave, purchased himself and his wife, Mary Ortero, a mulatto, and their children. In 1807, they settled in San Antonio to become landowners and farmers, educating their children in Spanish and French. Another fifteen male and female Negroes were recorded in Nacogdoches in 1808, where they had fled from North American masters.

Antislavery sentiment and equality for all people surfaced as major issues when the multiracial Mexican populace rebelled against Spain. In 1821, Mexico negotiated a treaty of independence that promised citizenship along with equal rights and opportunities for all Mexican people, even though it also made Catholicism the official and only tolerated religion. For the next fifteen years, Mexico (including the state of Coahuila and Texas) passed a number of ambiguous and contradictory measures relating to the legal status of slaves. Nevertheless, opportunity for free black immigrants from the United States in Texas reached its peak during Mexican sovereignty.

The main attraction of Texas—cheap and good land—convinced many Anglo colonists to brave a few legal problems with regard to slaves. The new colonists were skillful in negotiating the everchanging legal system. In 1823, Stephen F. Austin received approval from the newly independent Mexican government to bring settlers and their slaves from the United States. The "Old 300" colonists included slaveholders and slaves, but also a few free people of color: Lewis B. and Sarah Jones, Samuel H. Hardin, and Greenbury Logan. Lewis and Sarah Jones emigrated to Texas in 1826 from Mississippi, along with their two daughters. The barber Samuel H. Hardin married Tamar Morgan in 1838. She came to Texas as a slave in 1832, but purchased her own freedom with the proceeds of her labor. By 1840, this industrious Brazoria County woman had accumulated four town lots, one hundred acres, and four slaves. Greenbury and Carolyn Logan were another Brazoria County couple. He came to Texas in 1831 and purchased Carolyn's freedom with earnings from his blacksmith shop. He was granted legal title to land in Brazoria County. After he was wounded fighting for Texas independence, the couple operated a tavern, boardinghouse, and retail store in Columbia, the first capital of the Republic.

Some free women of color were married to whites. In 1828, David Towns moved from Louisiana to Nacogdoches with his wife, Sophia, and his family, who were also his slaves. He manumitted them, and they lived together in harmony, alongside their Mexican neighbors. Other white husbands manumitted their slave wives (or concubines) in their wills.

Celia Allen sought the legal assistance of William B. Travis, later a hero of the Alamo, to help protect her status as a free woman in 1833. Her owner had emancipated her along with her four children, but a prominent pioneer, William H. Jack, claimed her as a slave. With Travis's help, she won the case and lived free until her death in 1841. Her estate at that time was valued at $214.65 and included two horses, seven head of cattle, several pigs, two feather beds, and kitchen utensils.

Some single women came to Texas already free. The most famous, Emily D. West, is better known as Emily Morgan, "The Yellow Rose of Texas". A native of New York, she came to Texas with Mrs. Lorenzo de Zavala in 1835. When General Santa Anna was on his way to fight Sam Houston's forces in 1836, Emily took refuge with the de Zavalas at James Morgan's home. There the general captured her. Texas myth credits her with ensuring Houston's victory during the Battle of San Jacinto by sending word of Santa Anna's whereabouts and "distracting" him while his enemies approached. Her passport application to return home stated that she had lost her freedom papers on the San Jacinto battlefield. She is said to have returned to New York in 1837. Few academic historians credit the myth, although there was an Emily D. West who applied for a passport back to New York.

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Keyboard Jockey said...

The Yellow Rose of Texas

Palinesque }*~*{ said...

May God Bless you for this series, I know that conservatives are a bit distracted right now, but the total glossing over of this facet of American History may prove damaging to all efforts to (rebuild, unite, etc) the conservatives.