African American Schools During Jim Crow

African American children in the South attended segregated schools that were dilapidated. They used castoff books from white schools. At times they attended classes in churches and lodge halls because the local school board did not provide buildings for black

Booker T. Washington

students. Two men worked to change all that. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist instituted a program that eventually built 527 schools in Texas and almost 5,000 across the South.

Julius Rosenwald, son of German-Jewish immigrants, became part owner in Sears, Roebuck & Company in 1895, and from 1908 until 1925 he served as president. As he wealth grew he increased his giving, especially to educational and religious institutions. His

Julius Rosenwald

friendship and work with other philanthropists such as Paul J. Sachs of Goldman Sachs led to Rosenwald meeting Booker T. Washington.

Construction Map, July 1, 1932, 5,357 Buildings,
Fisk Univ., John Hope & Aurelia E. Franklin Library Special Collection, Julius Rosenwald Fund Archives.

In 1911, Rosenwald wrote: “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which we have suffered and still suffer.” After Rosenwald gave Tuskegee Institute $25,000 for a black teacher-training program in 1912, Booker T. Washington convinced Rosenwald to allow part of the money to be used for a pilot program to build six schools in rural Alabama. Impressed with the results, Rosenwald donated $30,000 for construction of 100 rural schools and then he gave additional money for building another 200 schools. By 1920 the Julius Rosenwald Fund began a rural school building program for African American children that continued for the next twelve years in fifteen states, including Texas.

To qualify for the grants, which ranged from $500 for a one-teacher facility to $2,100 for a school large enough for ten teachers, the local African American community had to raise matching money in the form of cash, in-kind donations of materials, and labor. Many of the schools were built in freedmen communities where the residents were eager to offer education for their children. African American men often cut the lumber, hauled the material, and served as carpenters. The land and building had to be deeded to local authorities, and the school district had to maintain the property. The district was required to furnish new desks and blackboards for all classrooms as well as two hygienic privies for each building. Classes had to be held for more than five months of the year.

Floor plans were specific as well. The design included large windows on the east side of the building to allow for maximum natural lighting and small high windows on the west side to ensure cross ventilation while keeping out the hot afternoon sun. Many white schools adopted the Rosenwald designs because they were found to be so efficient.

During the twelve-year program in Texas over 57,000 African American students were served by almost 1,300 teachers. Black citizens contributed $392,000; white citizens gave $60,000; tax funds totaled $1.6 million; and the Rosenwald Fund contributed $420,000.

Julius Rosenwald, who died in 1932, said it was easier to make a million dollars honestly than to give it away wisely. With that in mind and in light of changing social and economic conditions, he directed that all the Rosenwald Fund be spent within twenty-five years of his death. By 1948 when the program ended, Rosenwald and his fund had given over $70 million to schools, colleges, museums, Jewish charities, and African American institutions.

Ten to fifteen Rosenwald schools survive in Texas, and some are being restored as museums and community centers. In keeping with the original fundraising efforts, citizens are raising the money to bring back these historic buildings. Women in the Pleasant Hill area are selling quilts to restore the Rosenwald School. A Baptist Church near Seguin is using the Sweet Home Vocational and Agricultural High School as their fellowship hall and nutritional center. A U-Tube video tells the story of the West Columbia Rosenwald School, which was being used as hay barn before it was restored in 2001 as a museum. The Texas Historical Commission began in the mid-1990s to inventory the Rosenwald School Building Project and to apply for listing as National Register of Historic Places.

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Power of Black Women

Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I found Rachel’s story in Women in Early Texas, an account written by her granddaughter, Lela Jackson.

In 1852, Rachel and Jim Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri. Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again. Rachel, age thirty-eight, and the children were put together on the auction block and purchased by Washington McLaughlin. He took them on a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and other times in an oxcart. They eventually settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.

The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting. Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and, at times, whipped the slaves.” At other times he gave them passes, which the law required for a slave to leave an owners’ land. If they were caught without a pass, they could be whipped for being away from their owner’s property.

Just before the Civil War soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and before they headed south, one of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom.” McLaughlin waited for several days until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people. You are free as I am. You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you.  I can do without you.”

They stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant. Finally, the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family. After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.

They slipped along the river, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise. Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek. They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts, and got permission to milk a stray cow in exchange for raising its calf for the owner. The milk, butter, and cream stayed fresh in a bucket they lowered into a well. They moved about as the seasons changed, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners. They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums.

They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons that they heated on a log fire in the yard. Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached and used to line her quilts.

The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services. People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They also enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances. When someone died, Rachel and her daughter, Demmie, prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.  Rachel, who lived to ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.

Black Women in Texas History chronicles the lives of amazing black females from the days when they first arrived in Texas as both free and slave—during the Spanish Colonial Period—up to their present influence on Texas’ politics and education. One of those women was Lulu Belle Madison White who graduated in 1928 from Prairie View College (present Prairie View A&M University) with a degree in English. Before beginning a ten-year teaching career in Houston, White joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in which her husband had been active for several years. She resigned from teaching after nine years and devoted the rest of her life to bringing justice to the black community. She was an amazing fund-raiser and organized new chapters of the NAACP throughout Texas. Even before the Supreme Court in 1944 found that the white primary was unconstitutional, White had started organizing a “pay your poll tax and go out to vote” campaign. She was a strong advocate for using the black vote to force social change. She argued: “we cannot sit idly by and expect things to come to us. We must go out and get them.”

She sought to educate the black community by leading voter registration seminars, and she urged black churches to speak up about public issues without endorsing specific candidates. She pressed white businesses to hire blacks, using boycotts, protest demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns to influence the change.

In 1946 when the NAACP began its push for integrating the University of Texas, there was only one state-supported black college in Texas—Prairie View A&M—and it did not offer training for professional degrees. White not only persuaded Herman Marion Sweatt, a black

Herman Sweatt in line to register at the University of Texas
The Daily Texan

mail carrier, to act as the plaintiff against the university, she raised money to pay his legal expenses. Years later Sweatt claimed that it was White’s encouragement that helped him maintain his resolve. When the state offered to open a separate black university with its own law school in Houston instead of integrating the University of Texas, White supported Sweatt’s rejection of the proposal on the basis that separate was not equal and only continued the status of Jim Crow.

The victory of Sweatt v. Painter before the Supreme Court in June 1951 opened the door for Brown v. Board of Education and the march toward dissolving the color line in education. A week before Lulu White’s unexpected death in 1957, the national NAACP established the Lulu White Freedom Fund in her honor.

Black Seminole Scouts of Texas

The history is long and cruel for the Black Seminole Scouts of Texas. Their ancestors––slaves on English plantations in the Carolinas and Georgia––began fleeing in the 1600s to the protection of the Spanish crown in northern Florida. The runaways, known as maroons, joined

Seminoles, a confederation of several Indian tribes to whom the Spanish had given land as a bulwark again British incursion. Life for the Maroons improved, but freedom was not part of the deal. They were allowed to form their own communities, elect their leaders, farm their land, and use firearms, but they had to pay an annual tribute to the Seminole Indians, which was usually a percentage of their crop.

Over the years, the two cultures lived alongside each other––each race calling itself Seminoles. They rarely intermarried because the Blacks were monogamous, but the Seminoles relied on them as English interpreters during negotiations with the whites. The United States’ effort to relocate all the Seminoles to the West, triggered the Seminole Wars in which the Black Seminoles proved to be excellent guides, spies, and fierce fighters. The U.S. Army began a program to separate the two groups, by offering the Black Seminoles their freedom if they agreed to be removed to Indian Territory (present Oklahoma). The Seminoles resented U.S. interference because they felt betrayed by the Blacks and cheated them out of their property by the U.S.

When 500 from both groups reached Indian Territory in 1838, the Black Seminoles discovered they had been placed under the jurisdiction of Creek Indians who considered them slaves and did not allow them to own property or weapons. The U.S. Army refused to keep its bargain to free the Black Seminoles, which led members of both races to head to Mexico where slavery had been outlawed for years.

Mexico offered the Seminoles a large land grant near the Texas-Coahuila border in exchange for the newcomers serving as a buffer against raiding Apaches and Comanches. In Mexico, the Maroons were called Mascogos, and they settled into farming in El Moral, a village that became a haven for runaway slaves. Pressure from slaveowners and the U.S. to return the escaped slaves finally led to officials moving the Black Seminoles to Nacimiento in the Mexican interior.

In 1870 the U.S. Army needed scouts for the Texas Indian Wars and made a deal with the Black Seminoles to relocate to Fort Duncan near Eagle Pass and Fort Clark near Brackettville in exchange for land. The Black Seminole Scouts proved their value to the army as fierce fighters and for their knowledge of English, Spanish, and several Indian dialects. Four of the scouts were awarded Medals of Honor.

Despite their valiant service, controversy arose over their ethnicity. The army classified the Seminoles as Indians and planned to relocate them on Indian lands. Indian agents argued that they were Blacks. During the back and forth, conditions worsened. The Black Seminole Scouts had trouble raising crops on military reservations and they were often denied sufficient rations. In 1876, they were told to leave Fort Duncan and Fort Clark. Finally, some returned to Nacimiento in Mexico, some traveled to the Seminole Nation in Indian Territory, and others remained at Fort Clark.

By 1912, when the scouts were disbanded, about 200 to 300 Black Seminoles moved from the fort into Brackettville where they continued to maintain their cemetery. Each year in September, descendants of the Black Seminole Scouts from all over the country gather in

Last of the Seminole Scouts about 1913.

for an Annual Celebration

Black Seminole Scout Cemetery, Brackettville

A Love Story

Jim Shankle was born in 1811 on a Mississippi plantation. When he married Winnie, she already had three children fathered by the plantation owner. Soon after the marriage, Jim overheard the business deal their master made with a planter to sell Winnie and her children. He knew they were taken to a plantation in East Texas. He grieved for several days and then made up his mind to find his family. With a price on his head as a runaway slave, he headed west, always moving at night, foraging in fields for his food, and hiding in the fields when he heard others on the road. Not daring to use a ferry, he swam both the Mississippi and Sabine rivers.

After a 400-mile journey, he reached East Texas and moved at night from plantation to plantation asking about Winnie. Finally, Jim found her as she collected water at a spring. For several days, Winnie hid Jim and brought food to him at night.  Some accounts say Winnie’s master found Jim, other stories say she told her master about her husband. Whatever the truth, the plantation owner agreed to buy Jim.

In addition to Winnie’s three children, they raised six of their own. When emancipation came following the Civil War they became farmers and began buying land with their partner Steve McBride. Eventually, they held 4,000 acres, and as other black families began settling in the area, they formed the community of Shankleville. The Shankles and McBride oversaw the building of a school, church, a cotton gin, sawmill, and gristmill.

Stephen McBride

Steve McBride, who could not read, married one of the Shankle daughters. He established McBride College (1883-1909), fulfilling his dream of helping others receive the education he had been denied.

Winnie Shankle died in 1883 and Jim died five years later, ending a love story that has become an East Texas legend.

Texas Historical Marker story of Shanklesville.
Courtesy Barclay Gibson

Musical Genius Finally Recognized

By the time he was seven, Scott Joplin was proficient on the banjo and had started experimenting with the piano at the house where his mother worked as a cleaner. Born about 1867 into a musical family—Joplin’s father, a former slave, played the violin for plantation parties and his mother, a freeborn African-American, sang and played the banjo—Joplin grew up amidst music making. The family moved to Texarkana around 1875 where Joplin’s father worked as a laborer on the railroad and his mother cleaned houses.

Scott Joplin

Although several local teachers helped Joplin with piano lessons, his world opened when Julius Weiss, a well-educated German who had immigrated to the United States to teach music, heard the eleven-year-old boy play the piano. Weiss worked as the private tutor for children of a wealthy Texarkana lumberman. He offered Joplin free piano lessons, including sight-reading and skills to enhance his natural instinct for harmony.

Joplin’s father left his mother and six children over what some claim was his father’s belief that the piano playing kept Joplin from working to help with the family income. Whatever the cause, Weiss helped Joplin’s mother purchase a used piano and Joplin continued seriously studying music and practicing after school. Weiss introduced Joplin to folk and classical music, including opera, and instilled in him a desire for education.

After the death of his employer, Weiss left Texarkana in 1884, but Joplin stayed in touch with his mentor. In later years, he sent regular gifts of money, which continued until Weiss died.

For a time after Weiss left Texarkana, Joplin played piano for a vocal quartet and taught guitar and mandolin. Some accounts claim he taught at the local Negro school. In the late 1880s, Joplin became a traveling musician, playing piano where black musicians were accepted such as churches, brothels, and saloons. He returned to Texarkana in July 1891 to perform with the “Texarkana Minstrels” to raise money for a monument for Jefferson Davis, President of the Southern Confederacy. By this time Joplin’s music was called “jig-piano,” a pre-ragtime rhythm popular throughout the mid-South.

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair did not welcome black performers, but the 27 million visitors attending the fair also visited local saloons, cafés, and brothels where they heard ragtime for the first time. Many accounts credit the fair with introducing ragtime and by 1897 the St. Louis Dispatch described ragtime as “a veritable call of the wild, which mightily stirred the pulses of city bred people.”

Joplin played in black clubs, formed his own six-piece dance orchestra, and published his own compositions, Please Say You Will and A Picture of Her Face.

He was touring Texas in 1895 when the Katy Railroad staged a train crash as a public relations stunt at a site called Crush north of Waco. The following year Joplin published The Great Crush Collision March.

He taught piano to future ragtime notables, Arthur Marshall, Brun Campbell, and Scott Hayden. He also played the violin and cornet, working at times as a cornet player with traveling bands. Financial success eluded him. The contract for Maple Leaf Rag called for him to receive one percent royalty on all sheet music sales with a minimum sale of twenty-five cents. Some versions of the story claim Joplin was the first musician to sell one million copies of a piece of instrumental music; however, later research indicates that the first print run sold 400 copies over a year and garnered $4 for Joplin. Later sales earned a steady income of about $600 a year.

In the early 1900s, while living in St. Louis, Joplin produced some of his best-known pieces, including The Entertainer, March Majestic, and The Ragtime Dance.  After the death of his second wife, for whom he had written The Chrysanthemum, he wrote, Bethena, called by some admirers “among the greatest of ragtime waltzes.”

By 1907 Joplin made New York his base for touring along the East Coast and settled there permanently as he worked on Treemonisha, a black opera that appeared to parallel Joplin’s early life. Although it is now considered one of the most important of his compositions, it failed to be recognized for its worth until Joplin received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for the first grand opera by an African American.

Joplin contracted syphilis that by 1916 caused his health to deteriorate and his playing to become inconsistent. He was forty-nine when he died in a Manhattan mental hospital on April 1, 1917 and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

In 1974, the man whose works included a ballet, two operas, a manual for aspiring ragtime musicians, and forty-four original piano pieces including rags, marches, and waltzes, finally received a grave marker. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. The following year the New York Public Library published his collected works, and his music was featured in The Sting, the 1973 Academy Award-winning movie. The biographical film Scott Joplin was released in 1977; the United States Postal Service issued a Joplin commemorative stamp for its Black Heritage series in 1983; Joplin was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987—quite a record for the son of a former slave who earned the title “King of Ragtime.”

The Thing That Comes in the Night

A story, circulated since the 1830s in South Central Texas, contains enough truth to merit a Texas Historical Marker. Residents along the Navidad River bottom in Lavaca and Jackson counties began seeing strange footprints along the riverbank, and at the same time, they began missing small amounts of sweet potatoes and corn. On moonlit nights half the food in their cabins disappeared even though an intruder had to step over sleeping dogs. Tools vanished, only to be returned, brilliantly polished and sharpened. In fall around hog-killing time families stopped fattening hogs because a fat hog was invariably replaced with a scrawny substitute. Valuables such as gold or watches were never taken although they were plainly visible when the food disappeared.

Everyone speculated about “it.” Slaves believed it was a ghost and called it “The Thing That Comes.” Settlers, finding two sets of footprints, believed one of the intruders to be a man and the other a smaller companion, perhaps a woman or child.

Many people organized search parties trying to capture the “Wild Man of the Navidad.” Sometimes they found his camp among a thick growth of trees, but he never returned to the site while the pursuers waited.

Texas folk author J. Frank Dobie in his book Tales of Old-Time Texas concluded that the phantom figure had to be a woman because several well-documented sightings reported that “it” had long, flowing hair and facial features more similar to a woman. Dobie writes of a near capture in 1846 during an intense search when a rider heard rustling in the brush just before “it” ran in the light of the moon onto the open prairie.  “She ran directly across the prairie in the direction of the main forest. The man nearest her rode a fleet horse and it needed all the speed it had to keep up with the object in pursuit. As the figure neared the dark woods, the rider was able to throw his lasso. But, as the rope neared the woman, the horse shied away and the lasso felt short. The figure darted into the woods never to be seen again.”

Dobie said the rider claimed that the creature had long, flowing hair that trailed down almost to its feet and it wore no clothing. Her body seemed to be covered with short, brown hair.

“As she fled to the woods, she dropped a club to the ground that was about five feet long and polished to a wonder,” Dobie said.

Finally, in 1851, with the help of dogs trained to hunt down runaway slaves, local residents following their baying hounds found a black man in a tree. He wore no clothes and spoke no English. Some accounts say he was put in jail where he remained for about six months until a sailor wandered through who was familiar with the native dialect of the captive’s African tribe.

The captive said his father, a chief of their tribe, sold his son into slavery for the price of a knife and tobacco. The new slave and a companion escaped after their transport ship reached Texas. They settled in the Navidad River bottom because of the abundance of wildlife and fruit. His companion died from exposure.

The captured man, whom they called Jimbo, was sold back into slavery and lived in Victoria and Refugio counties. Freed after the Civil War, he reportedly died in 1884.

J. Frank Dobie writes, “Of course all of this happened many years ago and in the telling, you can always guarantee some build up in the information will take place.  If these things did happen, I cannot explain how.”

NORRIS WRIGHT CUNEY RISES TO POWER AFTER THE CIVIL WAR

Born into slavery in 1846, Norris Wright Cuney did not lead an ordinary slave’s life. His education and other opportunities led the way to his becoming one of Texas’ most powerful black political leaders of the nineteenth century. Cuney’s father, Colonel Philip Cuney, one of the largest landholders in Texas, owned 105 slaves and operated the 2,000-acre Sunnyside Plantation near Hempstead. Cuney’s mulatto mother Adeline Stuart was one of the colonel’s slaves, but she worked as the colonel’s chief housekeeper and bore eight of his children. Cuney’s mother made sure that he and his siblings never lived in the slave quarters or worked as plantation field hands. In fact, Cuney learned to play the bass violin and carried it with him when he traveled with his father on trading trips.

Norris Wright Cuney

During the time Cuney was growing up, his father also had a white family. About the time his father married his second wife in 1843, he also embarked on a political career as a member of the House of Representative of the Republic of Texas. He became a delegate to the Convention of 1845 that voted for Texas annexation to the United States, and he served as a brigadier general in the Texas Militia. After Texas joined the Union he became a member of the Texas State Legislature and the State Senate.

In 1853, not long after Colonel Cuney married his third wife, he left his plantation in the hands of an overseer and moved all his family to Houston, including Adeline Stuart and her children. That same year he began freeing his black children, starting with Cuney’s older brother Joseph went to the Wylie Street School for blacks in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Over the years Colonel Cuney continued freeing his children and their mother Adeline Stuart.

In 1859 Cuney and his sister Jennie were freed. Cuney went to school in Pittsburgh and Jennie sailed to Europe for her education. Jennie later passed as a member of the white community.

The Civil War disrupted Cuney’s studies, and he spent the wars years working on steamboats between Cincinnati and New Orleans where he met and became influenced by black leaders such as P.B.S. Pinchback, who became Louisiana’s first black governor after the Civil War.

After the war, Norris Wright Cuney settled in Galveston near the homes of his mother and brothers. He began studying law and took advantage of being a literate, educated mulatto son of a wealthy white man. He worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Union League during the Reconstruction-era to push former slaves to the voting booth, which resulted in more than 100,000 blacks voting annually into the 1890s. When the Reconstruction Legislature established a public school system, Cuney worked to ensure that tax money also went to black students within the segregated system.

Cuney married Adelina Dowdie, a schoolteacher, and daughter of a mulatto slave mother and a white planter father. The Cuney’s had two children, and since both parents were musical—Cuney played the violin and Adelina was a singer— art and music filled their home, and they emphasized education. Their son Lloyd Garrison Cuney, named for the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, became an official in the Congregation Church. Their daughter Maud Cuney Hare studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and became an accomplished pianist, folklorist, writer, and community organizer in Boston. She wrote Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People.

Maud Cuney-Hare

 

Over the years of Cuney negotiating with white elites and despite serious strikes, unionized blacks finally gained access as workers on Galveston’s docks.

After being elected the Texas national committeeman in the Republican Party in 1886, Cuney became Texas party chairman, the most powerful position of any African American in the South at that time. However, his position did not sit well with some Republicans in Texas and throughout the country, which led to some in the party trying to have black leaders expelled. Cuney coined the term “Lily-White Movement” to describe the Republican effort.

In 1889 Cuney was appointed U.S. Collector of Custom in Galveston, the highest-ranking position of any black man in the South in the late nineteenth century. However, Cuney’s death that year coincided with efforts across the South to disfranchise black and poor white voters. Legislatures passed laws that made voter registration difficult and Texas instituted the Poll Tax and White Primaries (only whites could vote in the primaries) that greatly reduced the number of black voters from the high of 100,000 in the 1890s to less than 5,000 by 1906. During the Great Depression, racial strife within the unions dissolved much of the labor cooperation that had been established between blacks and whites.

Despite Cuney’s legacy of inspiring other black leaders, and the designation by some historians of the period between 1884 and 1896 as the “Cuney Era,” it would take the passage in the 1960s of the Civil Rights laws before blacks across the South regained the right to vote.

Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People