Before the Civil War most Southerners and Democrats had been opposed to the idea of using the proceeds of the sales of federal land for establishing colleges for the teaching of what was commonly referred to as "agricultural and mechanical arts." Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi spoke for most Southerners when he denounced the land-grant proposals as potentially dangerous invasions by the federal government into the domestic rights of the states. Most of the Texas congressional delegation agreed. The logic of Southern opposition becomes clear when we recall that the most sacred domestic right of the antebellum Southern states was the right to enslave large segments of their own populations. If the federal government were given the power to intercede into the relationship between schools and their students, might not the relationship between masters and their slaves be the next target of federal intervention?
During the Civil War many modernizing and egalitarian Northern ideas were freed from the Southern ideology of states' rights and limited government. The consequences of this liberation became evident as early as 1862 when, during the war with the Southern states out of the Union, Congress passed three significant nonmilitary laws: (1) The Homestead Act, which granted ownership of 160 acres of public land to genuine settlers; (2) The Pacific Railroad Act, which provided federal support for the building of a transcontinental railroad; and (3) the Land Grant College Act (generally known as the Morrill Act after its sponsor, Republican congressman Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont). In the 1850s Northern educational reformers like Morrill had urged setting aside several million acres of federal land for the support of agricultural and industrial higher education. Their goal was to make higher education more relevant to the economic pursuits of most Americans, but Southerners and Democrats in Congress blocked their reforms.
After the Civil War, when the Republican-dominated 12th Legislature debated the bill that would allow Texas to take advantage of the Morrill Act, there was an additional reason for objections on the part of white Conservatives and Democrats. The 1871 bill to establish the A. and M. College of Texas obligated the State of Texas to establish, if state officials chose to segregate white from black students, another federally supported land-grant school for blacks, which subsequently became Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College. On no other condition could Texas have received the grant. As a consequence, most Democrats denounced the "Yankee-inspired" A. and M. College bill, claiming that it would be a waste of taxpayers money to educate blacks because the result would only destroy good field hands. Because at this time Texas Democrats were essentially defined by their opposition to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution, equal educational opportunities for blacks were considered by most white Texans as just another "evil" of Reconstruction.
On the Texas A&M University campus and in the city of College Station there are no statues, buildings, or streets named after the men who had more to do than any others with the successful establishment in 1871 of A. and M. College. How does one account for this historical amnesia? The oversight stems from popular Texas history which remains imbued with the thoroughly discredited "carpetbagger" myth--the myth that a Republican party coalition of ex-slaves, "scalawags," and Northern adventurers ran Texas in a despotic fashion after the Civil War and fortunately for the white race the Ku Klux Klan and Democratic party "redeemers" put an end by 1874, at least at the state level, to what they believed was an artificial and illegitimate experiment in granting full civic and political rights to former slaves.
There are reasons for the durability of this carpetbagger myth. There is a usefulness in blaming Yankees or Northerners for the many perceived evils of Reconstruction. In part, the blame helps to reduce the collective guilt in white Southern culture over slavery. No generation of Texans caused more death, misery, and destruction than the secessionists who took their state out of the American Union in 1861 and started a civil war for the most pitiful cause imaginable: the defense of slavery. The notion of carpetbagger persecution after the war not only reduces guilt about the cause of the war, but because the myth implies that unscrupulous Yankees came into Texas after the war and injected alien and disastrous ideas into the heads of childlike freedmen, it also helps to minimize the accomplishments of African Texans during the Reconstruction era.
Former slaves were not passive participants in the Reconstruction process. Soon after Major General Gordon Granger's June 19th proclamation blacks made known their aspirations: they wanted to learn how to read and write, dreamed of owning property and land, and hoped that in the new order of things they would have basic civic and political rights. Nowhere did Reconstruction have more radical consequences than in this area of the state--all the counties along the rich fertile soils of the lower Colorado, Brazos, and Trinity Rivers. Here, the freedmen quickly asserted their independence of whites. They began to create autonomous community institutions. They built churches that were often very simple buildings, but the churches not only served the spiritual needs of the ex-slaves, they were also centers of community life and training grounds for future black leaders.
Whites were alarmed by this assertiveness and determined to preserve old ways. Planters often resorted to violence to maintain control over their workforce. Whites also directed their wrath at blacks' emerging community institutions, on occasion breaking up worship at the new, independent black churches. In the two years following the Civil War, whites firmly controlled local government and used it to restrict black freedom. Local officials apprenticed black children to labor-starved planters, confiscated blacks' weapons, and used harsh discriminatory vagrancy laws (known as the "Black Codes") to compel blacks to contract with white landowners. Yet far from being intimidated, blacks continued to challenge white authority. They repeatedly filed complaints with the Freedmen's Bureau against those who abused them. They frustrated planters' efforts to establish a pace of labor reminiscent of slavery by collectively refusing to obey their employers' directives and by using the chronic shortage of labor to force planters to accept sharecropping arrangements that afforded greater freedom from white supervision.
White men, with their world already seriously disturbed, found it totally turned upside down when in the Spring of 1867 the United States Congress took over the entire process of Reconstruction. In response to the pervasive violence against ex-slaves throughout the South, Northern Republicans in Congress declared blacks citizens of the United States, drafted the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution (which provided all citizens, and thus blacks, with equal protection of all laws), and required the former Confederate states to give the ex-slaves the right to vote.
These congressional acts altered public life and private relationships in profound ways, creating a dynamic bi-racial democracy, transforming the legal system, and nurturing an assertiveness on the part of African Texans that was essential to freedom. These changes, of course, did not happen simply because they were mandated by Congress. Rather, they occurred because bold, courageous, and ambitious individuals took advantage of the opportunities opened by congressional policy. African Americans played the crucial role in this process. Their activism and assertiveness made Reconstruction at the grass roots level something more profound than one set of white elites replacing another.
When voter registration began in the summer of 1867 blacks registered with alacrity, despite the efforts of whites to deter them. Local black leaders, mostly self-taught former slaves, were always the first to register. They invariably served as federal voter registrars and helped organize Republican party Union Leagues. Blacks formed a majority of the delegates at the first Republican state convention held in Houston in the summer of 1867. Fear alone of potential black political power caused the Ku Klux Klan and other paramilitary organizations of the Texas Democratic party to mark these black leaders for death. Here in Brazos County, George E. Brooks, a Methodist minister, schoolteacher, federal voter registrar, leader of the local Republican party Union League, and head of the Millican black community, was lynched by the Klan. White terrorism in this region of the state where blacks outnumbered whites did not initially achieve its goal. Black political involvement increased.
Black leaders elected from this area of Texas as delegates to the state constitutional convention which assembled in the summer of 1868 included Charles Bryant, an A.M.E. minister from Houston, Benjamin F. Williams, a barber and mechanic from Colorado County, Stephen Curtis, a carpenter from Brazos County, James McWashington, a farmer from Montgomery County, Benjamin Watrous, the president of the Brenham Union League, and George T. Ruby, a free-born mulatto who came to Galveston after the war and who was one of the few blacks to serve as a Freedmen's Bureau agent. These men helped to draft the finest state constitution that Texas has ever had--the most controversial feature of the 1869 Texas Constitution guaranteed that one's political status could not be determined by race or color.
Of the black delegates from this region, George Ruby was subsequently elected in 1869 to the Texas State Senate. Joining him in the Senate was Matthew Gaines, a farm laborer and preacher from Washington County. Gaines proved to be the most forceful, charismatic, and militant black leader in Texas politics during Reconstruction. Ruby and Gaines along with tens of thousands of African Texans were responsible for electing to the governorship Edmund J. Davis, a prewar unionist from Corpus Christi. During the war Davis had narrowly escaped being hanged by Confederates in Mexico, where he organized a loyal Texas regiment.
Contrary to the old carpetbagger myth, the Texas Republicans were not vindictive individuals trying to humiliate ex-Confederates. There were never any treason trials, mass arrests, confiscation of rebel property, or nullification of Confederate legal transactions. And again, contrary to the carpetbagger myth, the Davis administration which black votes brought to power was incredibly effective and reasonably honest. Moreover, for a brief moment in Texas history blacks received some semblance of justice and equal treatment under the law. By any fair and objective standard, the achievements of the Davis administration and the Republicans were remarkable.
The Republicans dealt effectively with the problem of lawlessness and disorder by organizing a state militia, establishing a state police force, expanding a district court system, and restricting the carrying of firearms in cities and towns. One of the most significant accomplishments of the Davis administration was the inauguration of the financing of a state-wide public school system. Genuinely free tax-supported public schools had been previously unknown in Texas. Indeed, before or during the Civil War no Southern slave state had ever possessed a practical system of public instruction.
The entire fourteen-member black delegation in the 12th Legislature believed passionately in the new school system, trusting that the public schools would not only insure the success of representational institutions and universal suffrage, but also would allow blacks to have a chance to compete economically with whites. The school law, modeled on reforms that had first been implemented in Massachusetts, required compulsory attendance for four months out of the year for all children, without distinction of race and color, between six and eighteen years of age. The schools were segregated, although Senator Gaines courageously fought in vain for the integration of the public schools. Even when it became clear that the schools would not be integrated, most whites criticized the public schools, fearing that their children would be taught that they were no better than the ex-slaves or that the federal government someday in the future would require the public schools to be integrated.
Black delegates in the 12th Legislature unanimously backed the very first venture by their state into the field of higher education. They helped to rush through the legislative process a bill that would allow Texas to meet a November 1, 1871, deadline for reconstructed states to capitalize on the benefits of the Morrill Act. Senate Bill 276 for the establishment of an agricultural and mechanical land-grant college had its first reading on March 23rd. To accept the Morrill Act and become a beneficiary of the annual interest earned on the endowment fund established by the sale of land script, the state had to provide at its expense the grounds, buildings, and equipment needed for a college. After passage by both the senate and the house, the bill was signed into law by Governor Davis on April 17th. It was understood at the time that passage of the bill entailed the obligation for the state, if the agricultural and mechanical college were racially segregated, to build a separate branch for black Texans. Nor was it an accident that the white and black land-grant schools were located in the lower Brazos River Valley region where black political power was stronger than anywhere else in the state.
The Aggie Republicans and the Association of Black Former Students, two groups that are not always in agreement, have stated that recognition of the accomplishments of the Republican-dominated 12th Legislature is long over due and that a statue should be erected on the A&M campus to Matthew Gaines, the first African American state senator from Washington County, in commemoration of his support for the 1871 bill that established the A. and M. College of Texas. The Aggie Democrats, along with many other campus groups, have also endorsed this worthy goal. And what possibly could make a better class gift? That an organized movement should begin on the A&M campus to commemorate Matthew Gaines, as well as others who laid the essential foundations for the A. and M. College of Texas, is more than proper and fitting, it is also just and right--and long, long overdue.
Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M are today the only two tangible achievements of the bi-racial democracy which was briefly brought to power in Texas by black political activism in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Subsequently, essentially what happened was that Texas Democrats chose brute force and expediency over statesmanship and fair play by appealing to the baser instincts of the white electorate and condoning violence against black voters to acquire control of the state government. Every year after Davis was elected, Democratic party threats, intimidation, and violence exacted their toll on the Republican coalition. Ultimately and sadly, the problem of violence in Texas was resolved under Democratic leadership by letting the violent have their way.
Once in power the Democrats destroyed most of the Republican achievements, dismantling the state police, the state militia, and the entire public school system. (It was not until 1943 that public schools were resurrected.) The Democrats replaced the 1869 constitution with a "horse and buggy" constitution which has hampered sound and progressive changes down to this very day--amendments are still are required to permit even the most trivial government action. All in all, the 1876 constitution was written and adopted by men who exulted in their Confederate past, advocated principles discredited by the carnage of the Civil War, and were convinced of their racial superiority over the freedman. They made the A. and M. College of Texas part of the nonexistent University of Texas, subsequently cut state funding for the College at times down to absolutely nothing, and contemplated putting off opening the branch at Prairie View--a course of action that not only would have violated federal requirements but also would have risked the forfeiture of the land grants. Sufficient state appropriations to put Texas A&M on a sufficient working basis were not provided until the early 20th century. As late as 1914 the Texas legislature came within a handful of votes from relocating the A. and M. College of Texas, along with its land grant, to San Antonio and converting every single building located on the A&M campus in that year into "an asylum for the Negro insane."
The Democrats also rewrote Texas history: Governor Davis and the admittedly idealistic Republicans were condemned as "fanatics" who had tried to "mongrelize" the Lone Star State by sinking it to the infernal depths of so-called "Negro Equality." Even some of the deceased Democratic redeemers who helped restore white supremacy to Texas--including men who ironically back in 1871 had been opposed to establishment of Texas land-grant colleges--would be commemorated on the A&M campus as late as the 1950s. However, the commemorations to these men on the A&M campus must never be desecrated or, for that matter, even refashioned in line with contemporary propaganda, for the buildings and streets named after them are living memorials to how democratic revolutions can be betrayed and go backwards, and this itself is a valuable historical lesson to learn. On the other hand, all Aggies should hope that the day has long past when the Board of Regents can seriously contemplate re-dedicating an new administrative building to Richard Coke, the Democratic redeemer governor who during his administration openly advocated and praised the lynching of blacks.
It was a terrible tragedy for African Americans as well as for Texas, that the first effort to reconstruct Texas ultimately failed, but the real tragedy would be if freedom's first generation, especially men like Matthew Gaines, would be forgotten, particularly on the Texas A&M University campus where all Aggies are directly indebted to the record of black accomplishment during Reconstruction.
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